by Sophie Lucido Johnson
Jet Eveleth is the kind of performer who makes you feel like you haven’t done enough with your life, just by the sheer amount that she’s already accomplished. She has been member of The Reckoning at the iO Theater (Chicago & Los Angeles) since 2001. She also tours the shows Adsit & Eveleth and Jet & Paul. She has also toured the original sketch shows, Ted & Melanie, The Barb Lameter Show, Cafe Noir, Roseville, Touched, and I Live Next Door To Horses (Winner of Del Close Award for Best Scripted Show). She development the television pilots Ditch Mitchem, You Should Be Famous, and Jet Across America. Her film works include the comedies, American Legacy, One-Small Hitch and Close Quarters. She has performed at the Andy Kaufman Awards and was included in “Best Of Chicago’s Stand-Up” at The Lincoln Lodge. She was listed as New City magazine’s “Top 50 Players” in Chicago for 2010 and 2012. In 2012 she toured Europe performing and teaching physical theater with The Second City as part of a cultural exchange with the US Embassy. She studied clown with Paola Coletto, Aitor Basauri and Philippe Gaulier, mentor of Sacha Baron Cohen. She is the former artistic director of the Chicago Improv Festival and teaches for The Second City Conservatory Program, the iO Theater and for Columbia College’s Comedy Studies Program, where she received her Masters in Interdisciplinary Arts.
Improv Wins is lucky enough to have Jet teaching a master class this year on January 25 and 26. We sat down and talked to her about her workshops, her background, her favorite things, and her inspirations, in preparation for the conference this year.
TNM: So you are doing some master classes for improv wins this year.
Tell me about the workshops you’re going to be doing.
Yeah I’m doing a “Playing Honest” workshop — I’m actually offering it twice because it can fill up. The work itself is inspired by my experience doing long form in Chicago, you know like watching shows like TJ and Dave, and playing in them as well. The way that lots of the work in Chicago is unfolding to be very honest and truthful. It is also inspired by my work in clown. I studied with some LeCoq-inspired clown teachers. Then also, it is inspired by my work in Meisner. So it’s kind of combining different schools and studies into how to bring that into long form improv. The work is very experiential in that you can talk about it but it’s really, when you’re in the room, you realize that it so much about energetics.
Yeah, definitely. TNM has had you before and we are all crazy in love with you.
I think you’ve managed that because of what you’re talking about: energy, and you have a really beautiful spirit to you.
Could you tell me about your story? What got you interested in improv in the first place?
Honestly, we would make home movies and videos as kids and we had to improvise the scenes we wouldn’t script them first; we would sort of talk about what we were going to be doing. I think the openness of that excited me because there is so much play when you know what you want but you have your own way of getting it. And I went to college and I got in early decision to NYU in the Meisner Program and I was like, “Yeah, this is what I want to do,” but I didn’t have enough money to pay for it, so I ended up going to UMass Amherst. But there was an improv group at UMass Amherst and one day I walked by an audition they were having and they were like, “Come on in!” When we started playing games and stuff I was like, “This is all you do?” And they were like, “Yeah!” And I was like, “This is so much fun!” Because always my favorite part of doing a play was the first few weeks where everything was really open. Like, you just play the characters and don’t even worry about the script. And I was like, “Oh my god in improv you neeeevvvver get the script!” Something that has always made me feel kind of different is that I think I don’t think in words. I think more in gestures and personalities and in visuals and in space but I don’t really think in words, and I always felt different. Then recently I felt better because I read this quote about how Einstein didn’t think in words. And I was like, “Ok, so I’m not an idiot necessarily.”
Yeah, you’re actually basically Einstein!
Well yeah, that’s what I’m trying to say. No but, I realized that not everyone does think in words, but you have to figure out how you process the world and the human experience and then create from there. So I really process through energetics and connections.
So when you do improv workshops are there like a lot of those exercises where you make eye contact for twenty minutes?
That’s it! That’s all we do. (Laughs.) No, but, we do live in the eyes a lot, because the eyes are big connectors.
I hope that it’s clear that I LOVE those exercises. I think that if I’m allowed to look in someone’s eyes for twenty minutes my work improves tremendously.
(Laughs.) Well, really, I do a lot of side-coaching so nothing stagnates. I never do an exercise where you just look in the eyes and then that’s it. I try to start from simple foundation of eye contact and simple breath — things that don’t take any effort. And then from the effortless place we try to find what’s going on inside of us so that we can bring more of ourselves to the stage. I think that something that is lacking in American theater is that we don’t bring enough of ourselves to the work that we do. Sometimes I think something that holds us back is that we don’t always know who we are.
Yeah, totally! Maybe you don’t even ever find out until them moment before you die, and then you’re like, “Oooh.”
That’s kind of a beautiful idea.
Well, improv gives you such a nice ability to explore that.
It sounds like you came up studying a lot of theatre, which is so cool, because a lot of people just study the math of comedy and that’s it. It’s a nice flavor to talk to someone with such an extensive background! Who are some of your influences?
It’s kind of across the board. It’s so funny when I think about who I look up to it’s not even necessarily just actors — although I am a big fan of all these actors, and of course great improvisers, when I got to Chicago I got to see what great improv can be, like on an artful level. But also, I’m a big fan of painters. And dancers. Isadora Duncan for being brave enough to say, “I’m tired of the seventeen basic poses in ballet.” She was like, “What if we just move to the music?” To me, I was like, “OH MY GOD. That is what improv is.” To let go of this idea that there is this structure, and what happens if it’s just expression, and you design the movements; they’re not set. That’s sort of inspiring to me. Or the fact that Picasso always worked from a source, but especially in his later works, he wasn’t really worried about his work looking like his source. He wasn’t worried about people seeing a bowl of fruit. He painted form a source, and then trusted that that would be enough. I think about that with improv. If you get a suggestion, that’s really just a suggestion in the moment, and there’s no need to prove that you heard it; it’s about knowing that the word inspired you, and then moving on, and having that just be your inspiration. Inspiration is more important than the obligation to the suggestion.
That’s really beautiful. I agree. I feel like all art forms are kind of just improvising in a lot of ways. So, you started in Chicago and now you’re in LA — what are some differences, or things you’ve learned from each of those cities?
You know, I’ve only been in LA for a year, and when I came out to LA, I came out more for television and film, but I still do a lot of improv and I teach it a bit… but I feel like what I’m learning the most from both cities is that improv is an evolving art form. The times that we don’t serve it are the times we hold on to the past and try to do things the right way, because there is no right way to do it. And I do think that’s why I’m such a fan of someone like Picasso, or Isadora Duncan, or Charlie Chaplin, is because there’s no handcuffs to the past. They really were revolutionaries. And I think that when I meet people and they speak about black-and-white in improv, or rights and wrongs in improv, in a way I know that there is something off. I can’t believe that there could be such black-and-white in an evolving art form.
What are some changes you’ve noticed since you started doing improv?
Back in the ’80s, you can watch videos where it was a line on the back wall, or a semi circle, and someone took a step forward and said something witty and then stepped back. It was very high structure because it was really born out of short form. And that’s ok! Short form is its own beast. Short form is ballet: there are seventeen techniques, and this is how we do them, and they’re very structured. Now we look at modern dance, as sort of reaction to ballet, or born out of ballet, right? It’s like, now we realize that there is break dancing and evolution of modern — tap, anything! Anything that isn’t super-high-structure is sort of modern. Modern became this catch-all of, “It’s not ballet, so it’s modern.” And that’s what is happening with improv now. When people are very stuck in their ways, and things are very high-structured, to me that looks more like short-form. When improv is done in 2014 as it should be, it really starts to look more formless and effortless. It looks more gray and a little harder to figure out before it happens. You can’t see it coming. It is a little more courageous and unsafe, and that’s what I love about it.
I love that sentiment. So, if you don’t mind, tell me all about your OWN dreams and hopes and goals.
For me, I want to take everything I love about improv and everything improv has taught me and bring it to new mediums and mixed mediums so to develop film that has more improv in it and to create pieces of theater that mix clown with improv. I’m interested in blending more worlds. I went to graduate school and I studied interdisciplinary arts, and it was just the beginning of understanding. When you want to push an art form to the next place, one of the best ways to do it is to bring in other art forms to inform it and get it past its own boundaries.
What I love about your dream is that it’s not, like, “I hope to win three awards and have two children.” It’s like a beautiful, nebulous, webby dream.
Oh no! Too hippy dippy?
It’s so good!!! It’s like one of those things where you can go forward into the future and know that if you work as hard as you can, you’ll feel successful at your dreams. That’s how we should all dream! We should all dream in such a way!
I think if you talk to the average improviser, what we really want is to play with our friends. I mean, that’s what I want. And I’m really lucky, because the people I play with are also my best friends. To me, they’re geniuses, and I want to create the next level of this work. I can’t wait to be 80 and see what the NEXT level is. I like knowing that I’m part of a movement — that it’s bigger than us. I want to learn how to push myself. The stage will always be scary for me. But you get to the place where it’s not scary for me anymore. The next place for me is film. It’s really scary to me, and that’s how I know that I need to get into it. When I hold a camera, it still feels a little overwhelming. That’s why I know… I tend to thrive when I’m a small fish in a big sea. That’s when I’m happiest! When I’m a little overwhelmed. In film, I really feel like the beast is bigger than me — and not that I’ll ever tame improv, because I always say that improv is a wild horse — but I’ve learned a little bit of horse-whispering, and now I need to go learn how to ride a different horse. In LA I feel like I’m getting thrown all the time. I was like, ‘Man, what I thinking” But I wouldn’t have it any other way. What I’d really love to do is own a small production company.
That would be so cool!
The person I look up to the most is probably Charlie Chaplin. “The Great Dictator” might be my favorite movie. To me, there’s so much beauty and depth and truth and comedy in that film. And it has so much bravery and so much to say I think you can only create that work when you’re by the camera and by the light and you kin of get behind it.
Great! What was your favorite TV show as a child?
That’s such a hipster favorite!
I thought it was normal! I loved Traci Ulman and Carol Burnett and SNL, but Golden Girls was one of the biggest influences. It was four archetypical female comedians tackling a differnt type of clown. You know what? Name another show like that. No other show, I think, in the history of American television has four female leads before a male even comes into play.
Well, Real Housewives.
You got me.
Love the comedy of Ricky Gervais and Louis CK? Having a difficult time playing clever? Try playing real. Let go of feeling robotic on stage and speaking in unnatural tones. Instead of playing a fairly convincing human, be a human. This workshop will focus on making improv easy by bringing more of yourself to the stage. Designed specifically to help students move past the traps of complicated situations and forced invention. We will focus on techniques that allow your thoughts to descend and that ignite your imagination. We will take a completely unique approach to the stage by using a long-form approach with Lecoq clown and Meisner techniques to discover your own comedic voice.