Lookie! From 7/10/05 Pioneer Press!!

Jill Bernard beats drum for art of improv

"I'm much more famous on the 'Net than I am in real life," Jill Bernard says.

You can't tell as much by the steady stream of people trickling into the Old Arizona Theater, tucked without a marquee next to a coffee shop at Nicollet Avenue and 28th Street. It's a Wednesday night, and Bernard is dressed for work — punker-shaved black hair festooned with magenta bangs and sprouts, black shirt fronted by a British flag, black lip- and eyeliner, black hose and a Catholic-school plaid skirt designed to show more cheek than chastity.

Bernard, who turns 33 later this month, promises this is the last Twin Cities performance she is giving, ever, of what must rank among the bravest and most captivating solo shows concocted for a local stage.

"Drum Machine" stars Bernard and the Zoom RhythmTrak 123, an electronic machine loaded with a few hundred drumbeats, bass lines and generic songs.

Each unscripted performance starts with Bernard coaxing words or phrases from her audience to serve as seeds of inspiration. She then asks someone in the audience for a number — between 70 and whatever, to steer clear of the audience-popular 69 — and dials up that numbered beat on the RhythmTrak. She keys the tempo up or down and, from there, wings it. Bernard develops characters and storylines and songs, all on the fly, unfolding into a manic musical.

Bernard, who cut her improvisational teeth on ComedySportz theater and as an occasional guest in the Scrimshaw Brothers' ensemble shows, recalls awaking one morning about 3½ years ago "and got in my head there had to be a show called 'Drum Machine.' "

She walked from her Uptown apartment to the Music-Go-Round and was drawn to a squat, translucent blue box the size of a desktop digital calculator, with light-up pink buttons. She paid $150 for a new one, unopened, and set about discovering the machine's charms.

"Improv needs to be scary," she says. "I was totally comfortable, and I needed something to make it come alive for me again."


Bernard had rehearsed with the machine only while seated and showed up to her first "Drum Machine" performance, through a local cabaret, dressed in business casual. She left the stage after 10 minutes. After a colleague commented that "punk girls are hot," Bernard adopted her punk persona, and her show came to life.

She won a slot at the vaunted Chicago Improv Festival after telling organizers "nobody in Minneapolis can keep up with me." Her work caught the attention of improvisers around the country through the insider Web site YesAnd.com. She performed in and led improvisational workshops in New York City; Toronto; Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; and Juneau, Alaska, among other places. She estimates she has given more than 50 "Drum Machine" performances — each one different from the last.

"I have the second-most popular solo improv show in the world," she says, placing herself behind the work of Chicago soloist Andy Eninger. But if she hadn't already committed herself to "Drum Machine" performances in Seattle and Phoenix, she says tonight might be the end of it here or anywhere else.

"Part of it is it's not scary anymore, and the Zoom RhythmTrak is a pretty limited collaborator," says Bernard, who also performs with various improvisational ensembles. Another reason for pulling the curtain, at least locally, is many of her friends have never seen it.

"That's f——— lame," she says. "So I wanted to throw down the gauntlet — like, if you don't make it tonight, that's it. No excuses."

A typical improv show draws a largely college-age crowd. Tonight, many appear to be in their upper 20s and 30s. A woman approaches Bernard, who is seated on a bench near the ticket counter.

"I love your hair — can I touch it?" she says, and proceeds to pet the buzzed crown and walks into the theater.

"I was at the Pride festival, walking with my girlfriend," Bernard says, playing her hands up in quote marks around the word girlfriend, "and this girl's like, 'Oh, so that's what it looks like.' "

Bernard is beaming as a few friends step in.

"Dale, what's going on?" Bernard says.

"I came to see you."

"Oh yeah? Me, too," she says.


A few Somali men take up seats in the back row, and the theater is so full — about 70 or so — that latecomers have to pull in chairs from the lobby. There are three improvisational performances on the bill, and Bernard is wedged in the middle. As the first group performs, Bernard is on the summer-cool patio, warming up with Rockettes-ish leg kicks.

Mike Fotis, another top improviser here, introduces Bernard's final "Drum Machine" by telling the audience, "There will be no sadness, for we will go down in a burning blaze of electricity."

Bernard had earlier hooked the RhythmTrak to the theater's sound system and placed it on a music stand. She sets it near the center of the stage and faces the audience.

"Can somebody tell me a sentence you heard today?" Bernard says, meeting silence in response. "Or, any sentence."

The first suggestions tossed up are "Keep it simple" and "People with problems," along with a number Bernard buttons into her RhythmTrak. The machine serves up a midtempo, hip-hopped beat. Bernard closes her eyes and grooves into her own world for a moment, then reverses the sentences and cues each half of the audience to rap, coming up with the sentence "People with problems keep it simple."

Soon, Bernard slowly spins a story about an 85-year-old woman who uses a wheelchair only for the fun of it and is planning to spend her Christmas shopping out of a catalog, punctuating her breaks with little growls and audience raps. Other suggestions inspire her to construct a romantic musical, featuring flashbacks, between Abbie Hoffman and the attorney prosecuting him for crashing the Democratic National Convention.

At the intermission, Bernard has substituted her skirt and tights for blue jean capris. She takes some congratulations and leaps to her feet when someone from the audience tells her she was "amazing." Bernard doesn't have much time to bask — she's part of the troupe that closes the evening.

In the patio, she skips up alongside the four men who will share the stage with her.

"C'mon, let's head back in and do some more make-'em-ups."