Monday, May 31, 2010

Guest Blogger Jill Bernard: Why I Live in Minnesota

Jill Bernard is a world-renowned improvisor and teacher based in Minneapolis. She is a featured player and Director of Education at Comedy Sportz Twin Cities and a co-founder of HUGE Theater, a company dedicated to furthering the art of long-form improvisation in the Twin Cities. She is also a co-producer of the Twin Cities Improv Festival, held June 24-27 at the Brave New Workshop. If you're in the area, check her out at Comedy Sportz; I'd also highly recommend seeing her solo show, "Drum Machine," as well as her occasional collaboration with iO Chicago's Joe Bill in a two-man Harold show, "Scram." She is also the coach of my Six Ring Circus improv team, Tightrope, and my friend.
More info on her can be found at

First I would like to thank Max for inviting me to write this guest post. It is always nice to be a guest, especially an invited guest.

I was inspired by a one-question interview of Andy Sturdevant where he answers why he lives here, in Minneapolis. I've been asked this question a lot. Since Max just moved back here, it seems appropriate to ask, and answer.

Like Max and Andy, I am not from Minnesota. I was born in Richmond, VA where I spent two and a half blurry and colorful weeks before moving to Illinois with my brothers and mom and dad. I grew up first in Evanston, IL and then Downers Grove, IL, both Chicago suburbs, Downers Grove decidedly more suburban. Even though we were about an hour train ride from Chicago, I didn't spend much time there as a kid. It was a place for field trips and Christmas. My brother ventured there a lot. I just didn't think of it, I guess. After high school I went to Coe College in Cedar Rapids, IA. I chose it because it was small and near home and offered financial aid and liberal arts. I was there for two years and it started to feel too small. People knew your business before you knew it yourself. I stayed in the Midwest because it would've upset my mother too much if I left, but I chose the biggest school I could find, the University of Minnesota. At the time, my friend Pat Tischler was moving here, and I thought, well that will be nice. (Side note: Pat and I saw each other about twice after we got here, in the whole seventeen years. I've no idea how to find him.) I came up for one investigatory weekend, stayed with a friend's parents in Roseville, decided it would be okay, found an apartment through the campus office, and that was that. That was 1992.

I was still a theater major even though I'd already sort've lost interest in scripted theater. I didn't find about improv until a classmate at the U of M, Mikey Heinrich, told me about ComedySportz. I knew right away that improv was to be my life's work. It just felt like I'd been built for it. Sometimes it's like that. I wanted to know everything and study everything and do everything improv.

The logical places to go if improv is your passion are Chicago and New York. Someone said to me recently, "Everyone wants to be famous" and the truth is, I don't. Being famous seems really irritating. I want to be just famous enough to not be homeless or hungry, that is the level of fame I seek. If I had wanted to be famous I would've had to move to New York or Chicago or LA, these are requirements. There are exceptions but you're more likely to get pregnant using a condom than get famous staying in Minnesota. I am not like everyone else. I do not enjoy struggle. I do not enjoy clawing my way to the top. It is not how I best succeed. To be frank, I do my best if everyone just leaves me the fuck alone and lets me do whatever I want. Minneapolis is the perfect place for that. If I want to do an improv show, no one asks my pedigree, no one gives me attitude. I just ask the people I find talented, or maybe hold an audition, and we do a show.

I have a policy. If I walk into a store and no one's at the counter and no one offers to help me, I just leave. If you don't want my business, I won't bother you. I feel similarly about New York and Chicago and LA. There are plenty of improvisors there, they have it covered. I will stay here. People often tell me I'd be very successful one place or another, and I don't think they're lying. I would just rather stay here.

How is it working? Terribly. This is a terrible idea that I would not recommend to anyone. There is not a way to make a living as a professional improvisor in Minneapolis. That is not a thing that exists. You have to be a theater owner or a writer too, or something. I am doing a thing that is not possible. In Chicago you can get into the Second City or iO system and actually do pretty well. I stayed at Andy Eninger's beautiful apartment while he was out of town and thought, "Oh. I may have made a mistake." So what keeps me?

Minneapolis itself is part of what keeps me. I love it here, it's beautiful. I am the only person I know who is giddy from first snowflake to last. I can never have enough. Part of that is because I don't have a car - most of what people hate about snow involves the roads and the cars and the getting places. Mostly I just love the cold, and the pretty pretty snow. I don't know about North Minneapolis, people say there are violent unsafe parts, but in South Minneapolis the parts that people call "ghetto" are the furthest from Warsaw 1940 that you can imagine - they're called "ghetto" because poor people live there, but I'm poor so I don't care. Minneapolis strikes me as a safe, clean city, and it passes the smile test. I never want to live anywhere where strangers won't return your smile. That leaves Chicago right out, and excludes much of New York, maybe Queens or Brooklyn would be okay. People talk about "Minnesota Nice" like it's a bad thing. Look, I don't care if the civility is fake or not, I like politeness. Please and thank you and holding the door are a drug to me. I like kindness, a lot. Kindness takes space. My theory is the only reason New Yorkers are rude is because they're on top of each other, you have to shove somebody or you'll miss your subway stop. Minneapolis has space, space to be polite, space to do whatever I want to do artistically.

I feel like I'm supposed to say "the people" is what keeps me here, but that does a disservice to all the people I know and love in New York and LA and Chicago. I genuinely love and adore my Minneapolis friends, and I'm thrilled by the people I get to collaborate with at ComedySportz and HUGE and Six Ring, they're absolutely top drawer. But it's uninformed to think that everyone in New York is cynical or everyone in LA is plastic. You can never say "everyone" is anything. The minute you get to know more than two people that myth is dispelled. I enjoy Minneapolis improvisors because they are open-hearted and unpretentious and game for anything. There's a lot less bullshit among Minneapolis improvisors. There's no steamrolling blowhards, which is to say the Minnesota version of a steamrolling blowhard is the same as the Minnesota version of "spicy." No one's trying to use you to climb the ladder because there is no ladder. That saves a lot of time, but it's not insurmountable in other cities. I've worked on Chicago productions, most notably WNEP's "Defending Your Life," that had no bullshit. It can be done, the people are out there.

The reason why I'm here, then is a combo package - it's the people AND the weather AND the something else. The something else. The something else is it just feels right.


  1. The something else may be biscuits.

  2. One more reason to love Jill. But I have to admit, I have no idea how you could possibly love winter that much.

  3. Great question with a thoughtful answer. Thank you for sharing it.

  4. Nice thoughts Jill Bernard. Can you come back for another guest post about your experience as a woman in comedy?