Less than two weeks before their final showcase, members of Joel Jones’ Improv III class warms up by standing in a circle, eyes closed, counting to 20 as a group. Only one voice can speak at a time and if someone interrupts another, they have to start again. It’s a practice in awareness, a presence of mind that improvisation demands. But as the exercises become more complicated, the students construct whole worlds together on the fly, striving to match the tone and point of view of the other characters. Jones provides feedback between scenes, reminding his students to follow the pattern the first person initiates, which often leads to comedy.
“What’s the third rule of improv?” he asks. Someone replies, “We don’t talk about improv,” and everyone laughs. “The third rule of improv is support the move,” Jones says. “Support the scene without making it about yourself.”
While setting ego aside, he encourages players to consider their true selves as a resource when reacting to another performer. “You never have to be stuck in the bullshit,” he says. “You can care and respond as yourself if you’re affected.” He reminds them why the audience is there. “We want to see people being people. …Humor is the release of the tension, which is created by people caring about things.”
His students value his constructive feedback and ability to lead them through the creative process. Todd Kasen, who joined Jones’ Improv I class this spring, says, “You come in, raised and told through life, ‘This is the way to act,’” says Kasen. But in improv, “You get to forget about how you’re conditioned. It’s very liberating to do what you think first.”
“I love how honest it is. How honest the reactions are. …Truth is the funniest thing,” says Kelsey Keverline, an undergraduate at UVA. And Marjory Ruderman says it’s playful and fun, and yet is one of the hardest things she’s ever done. “It’s an exercise in facing self-doubt. It’s terrifying, but it feels good to face that fear.”
Jones’ first exposure to improv dates back to 1990, when he saw Chris Farley, Tim Meadows and Dave Pasquesi perform at Second City. He fell in love with long-form improv before he even knew its name. He was living in Charlottesville at the time and had started writing for Offstage Theatre. It wasn’t until almost two decades later when a friend dragged him to an improv show that he learned its name. “It felt like coming home,” he says. “There’s a vitality to it. It teaches you to listen to how you react to the world around you. And I listen to others in a way I never did before.”
He started taking improv classes and trained through the six levels at the Magnet Theater to become an improv teacher. “In that same world, I came across true stories, and blended the two.” If you’re comfortable as a performer sharing your experience, he says, it will make the performance more fluid. He describes himself as shy and explains how he reconciles this with performance. “In traditional acting you’re supposed to get out there and sell it,” says Jones. “But in storytelling and improv, it’s a virtue to be shy. You have to get over the ego part of it. The audience is helpless. They can’t help you. Needing anything from the audience is death.”
One of Jennifer Hoffman Jones’ first memories of her husband is him sitting in a theater preparing to audition actors for a show he was producing. An actor herself, she had planned to audition. But when she saw him “looking hip and cool with his friends,” she turned and fled, thinking, “I don’t belong here.” But they developed a friendship over the course of seven years and she even produced his plays for Barhoppers through Offstage Theatre.
After fate brought Jennifer to New York at the same time as Joel, he invited her to watch him perform in an improv show and that’s when she fell hard and fast. “I was on the edge of my seat. I thought he was so brave.”
By 2012, they were married and had a daughter. They moved back to Charlottesville, committed to founding an accessible and financially stable arts organization focused on improv and true storytelling, which became Big Blue Door.
Four years later, their roles and their community continue to evolve. They have partnered with other organizations, such as the IRC, to help reach their mission. And their graduates have gone on to create their own groups under the Big Blue Door umbrella, “splintering in the best possible way,” Jennifer says.
And what’s next on their list? Finding their own performance space.
“The biggest jewel of all is Joel,” Jennifer says. “He is the force behind it. He is the artist and teacher who has the tenacity to build the program and take it to the next level.”
IMPROV YOUR LIFE
Big Blue Door: November 4 and 5 improv at McGuffey, Studio 20.
Comedy at the Omni with EPIC (East-Coast Professional Improv Company), directed by David Webster of Second City: Saturdays 6 and 9pm
Bent Theatre Comedy: November 11 at Gorilla Theater
The Whethermen, UVA student group: December 4 at Newcomb Theater
Amuse Bouche, UVA’s long-form improv comedy troupe: No upcoming shows
While setting ego aside, Joel Jones encourages players to consider their true selves as a resource when reacting to another performer. “You never have to be stuck in the bullshit,” he says.
Contact Raennah Lorne at firstname.lastname@example.org.