I always made improv my mistress
Jessica was my first improv teacher at iO. She started it all for me, so I’ve been eager to sit down and chat with her for months. After many failed attempts to meet up, I was finally able to sit down with Jessica, catch up on life and ask her a couple questions about improv and comedy. As we sat at the Starbucks on Wells and North, before Jessica headed up to teach her Second City teen improv class, we people-watched, talked about improv crushes and ventured into conversations about how improv really has the ability to change to world.
So, Miss Jessica Rogers, where did your comedy career begin?
Gainesville, Florida in 1996. I started doing Theatre Strike Force, which was University of Florida’s (UF) improv team. It was wonderful because I took it as a class for credit. Humanities credit of improv. Amazing. It was a blessing. From being part of the class, I fell in love with it. I fell in love with it so much that I switched my major so that I could focus solely on improv. I was originally a theatre major and I had all these other projects I needed to do and I didn’t want to distract myself from improv. So I switched my major to education so that this could be my only after school activity.
Wow, you’re so smart. You caught on so much quicker than I did.
Ok, so starting from the beginning, where have you studied and performed?
Starting in Gainesville, I played at UF. Through being in Theatre Strike Force, I got to perform in a bunch of festivals around the country, which were amazing opportunities for a college kid. Then a couple friends of mine and I decided that we wanted to do our own type of improv. That’s what you always have to do, branch out and start your own thing. We wanted to do improv for the sake of doing improv. We started rehearsing, got ourselves a manager and booked a weekly gig at a bar. We, ACII (Anatomically Correct Improv Ink), started performing once a week at The Purple Porpoise, which ended up leading to an awesome opportunity where we got to perform an original sketch at Gator Growl, which is University of Florida’s homecoming. We played Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, the field where the Gators play. We had an audience of 65,000 people. It was incredible. That was definitely the highlight of my improv career. Yes, so I was what, 20 or 21 at the time. We were like “if we can do this in Gainesville, then we can totally take Chicago by storm.” So, the five of us jumped in a couple of U-Hauls and moved from Gainesville to Chicago.
That’s where I started taking classes at Annoyance and iO and immediately started playing at Annoyance. They had a show on Friday nights that I played with. By the time I got to Level 2, I was on a team at iO. So between those commitments and various other shows at the Playground and some other theatres around the city, my plate was pretty full. I loved what I was doing. I ended up playing with my iO team, Space Mountain, for five and a half years, which was incredible. Loved it. We broke up because Frank Caeti got Mad TV. Rebecca Allen got ETC. Tim Sniffin got Boom Chicago. Everyone just started going bigger and better, so that was the reason we had to be done.
After five and a half years of playing on that team, I was just done playing on Harold teams. I played on a couple more after we ended, but I just didn’t have the same sense of family as Space Mountain which is why I don’t play at iO anymore.
Ahhh, I always wondered about that. I always wished you’d perform at iO, so I could see you all the time.
Yea, I know. I just fucking hit the lottery as soon as I moved here. So after that, there was no way to recreate it. So I started focusing my attention on teaching and directing. Second City said they wanted me to start teaching in their youth/teen program and then I just fell in love with working with the teens.
So how long have you been doing that?
I’ve been teaching at Second City for six years. I’ve been teaching at iO for eight years. At iO, it’s Level 1 and Level 2 only, just because I prefer the newer levels. At Second City, I’ll teach the improv program for adults, though I prefer working with the teens.
As an 8th grade math teacher, do you feel that it’s closer to your day job, working with the teens?
I’m always amazed with what teens can produce on stage. I find myself absolutely taken back by their honesty, their level of intelligence, their openness and how receptive they are to new ideas and to each other. It’s just really neat to watch a bunch of kids who have no filters, a bunch of people who aren’t jaded, just going out and playing. There’s also a little bit of jealousy inside of me that’s like, “I wish when I was 15, I had this opportunity. My life would be so different.” Being able to be part of that is pretty special.
I can imagine. Alright, so who would you say has been the greatest comedic influence in your life?
You know it’s tough to say. I don’t know if I have one specific comedic influence. There are so many people. There’s Gilda Radner, Adam Sandler. The variety is so great. There are so many comedians I’ve looked up to over the years. I think it’s just the idea of getting the opportunity to create, with a group of people and not knowing what’s going to happen as a result of it. But the only certainty is that me, them and the audience will enjoy it. I think that’s what it is. For me it’s more of the process than the product. Therefore, I don’t have one singular comedic role model.
Have there been any personal influences throughout that have been a big support factor?
Well, it’s definitely an asset to be able to start performing and be successful with my husband, who was my boyfriend and best friend at University of Florida. He and some other friends of ours, who we still talk to multiple times a week, are all huge influences. We’ve become a family because of what we were able to create in our early twenties. I would say that Joe Tex, Ed Zeltner and Jason McMillin would be my biggest personal influences. Because I saw what we could create and that’s what gave me the strength to move out of Florida and to Chicago and do this with my life.
You know that feeling when you’re going to cry and you choke it back? It makes me feel like that.
I feel the same thing, because I think I always knew that, but that was the first time I ever articulated it.
You mentioned that it’s not necessarily the comedy that influences, it’s more the process, but could you articulate how comedy or improv has affected your life and vice versa?
I don’t want to say that comedy and improv has made me a more positive person, because I’ve always been pretty positive, but it definitely sheds a lot of lightness to my daily comings and goings. I think that being part of this world helps me remember that there is a greater force out there and just having in the back of my mind the idea of “yes and,” let’s work together, let’s build, is something that helps get me through.
I apply these ideas to my classroom. I work with my students, I talk to my students. We talk about give and take. We talk about sharing the focus. We talk about taking care of one another. So, just recognizing how important the basic foundations of improv are and applying them to all facets of my life, I think is probably the way that I use comedy daily.
I find it interesting because I feel like it’s so obvious to me now that I don’t understand how everyone doesn’t understand that it’s so obvious.
Right. It’s so obvious and it’s so important. I hate to preach to the choir, but I listen. I hear. I’m able to be more patient and present. You know? Get through everything. I think that’s what it is, patience is so valuable and something that I’ve learned from this. Patience and trust.
What advice would you impart to your younger self as an improviser?
Keep going. I would tell myself to keep going, not to give up. I would also tell myself to write a whole lot more. If I could get in a time machine and talk to myself, I would force myself to have written a hell of alot more than I actually did.
Because I feel like I didn’t train myself properly for what I want to do. I didn’t give myself the opportunity to grow out of just being an improviser into a writer, because I focused solely on improv. So I think if I had just been a bit more open-minded back then and developed even more skills, I could have probably gone in several other directions.
What other doors do you think would have opened for you?
I think that I probably would have been more apt to write a one-woman show. That’s something that I was more hesitant about because I didn’t feel as skilled in that department, so I always put it off. I think if I had written more material sooner, it could have built up to that. I’ve found that it’s easy to write with other people, but I need the motivation and the commitment to just sit down and write independently. To train myself earlier.
What’s one of the greatest obstacles you’ve had to overcome in terms of improv? Or has life gotten in the way at any point in time?
Um, that’s a tough one. I try not to let anything get in my way. I mean, I moved here. I got a full-time job teaching. Despite the fact that I had a full-time job, I still interned twice a week at iO and Annoyance. I bartended at iO. I was doing rehearsals, taking classes. I’ve always been really good at time management.
Hmmm, I’d say the one obstacle would have to be my desire to keep a full-time job. I put that in the way. I look around and I’m so proud of all my peers who have been able to create even greater opportunities for themselves in the arts because they went headfirst into this and let nothing stand in their way and I always made improv my mistress. I love having a job. I love having stuff. I love having insurance. Those little things. From day one, I said I’m not giving that up until I have an opportunity to replace that. That hasn’t happened yet. It was the sense of stability. That would be the obstacle.
You mentioned you’ve had a number of significant achievements, which one or two would you say you’re most proud of?
Right now I’m the Artistic Director of the Teen Comedy Festival, which is a CIF production. Getting that phone call from Jonathan Pitts, was really, truly an honor. Knowing that he could pick anyone in the city to come in and take hold of this amazing opportunity for teens and I was the first person on his list? So it shows that the work I’m doing with the teens is getting people talking and they’re impressed. So that makes me feel good about myself and the work that I’ve been doing.
Second City contacted me about a year ago and said they wanted to start using comedy with patients with high levels of anxiety. To see how improv can help people with anxiety cope with their disorder. So I created a program and I was able to teach a bunch of different workshops and work with this psychologist who specializes in anxiety and panic disorders. First of all, getting a call from the Second City Training Center and having them say we want you to help us develop this curriculum is a huge honor. But also just being able to work with these patients, some of which this disorder is debilitating and they have trouble functioning at work, was incredible. Getting them in a room and watching them play and just be able to breathe and be comfortable, that’s when I realized there is a greater good here. This isn’t just about the funny; there is definitely a greater purpose and this is it. Comedy is the reason I went back to school to get my masters in special education. I wanted to see how I could use improv with kids with special needs and that’s how I decided to transition it into adults with special needs, here at Second City.
I mean, I get to teach at Second City and iO. I’ve been teaching at these institutions for over half of a decade. I’m respected. I love what I do. I think those are huge achievements. And I recognize that I’m lucky. I wake up every day and I am so grateful for the opportunities I have. I’m so grateful for everything I do. Everyone asks me if I get tired, and the answer is no, I’m not. I’m doing what I love.
Are there any keys to your success in terms of balancing your time between your two careers as an 8th grade math teacher and an improviser?
I’m just ridiculously organized. I make sure that I get to school early so I can get done what I need so I don’t have to stay after school late. I maximize my time there so that when I get out, I can just focus on this [improv] world. As I get older, naps help. Naps definitely do help. The pure joy of every experience that I go to is all the motivation I need. So as long as I stay organize, well rested and I have that sense of motivation, I find that I can plug everything in. It’s go go go. But I wouldn’t be happy any other way. I mean, what’s my alternative, I sit on the couch and watch TV?
I find it so hard to catch up on so many shows, I just never have time. But then I find that I’m cutting myself off from those not in the improv world because I don’t even have TV shows to relate to anybody with!
Ya know, it’s funny, for as much as I have going on, I do still manage to watch a lot of TV. It’s ridiculous. For example, my husband and I got up at 7am this morning. So what did I do? I sat on the couch and graded papers while I caught up on all the TV I missed this week. It’s different now that I’m a little bit older, where I used to have rehearsal and shows every night of the week, I’m to the point where I make sure to give myself at least two to three nights off. But I’ve also seen all the shows already, but I get it. You’re so hungry and you don’t want to miss anything because it will never happen again. It’s tricky.
If all of your improv students remembered one “rule of improv” from your class, what would you hope it was?
Accept everything and have fun. We do this because we love it. If it feels like work, then it’s not fun. So that’s my big thing, have fun.
What is something about you that no one knows?
Something nobody knows that I want to go on your blog? Um, I’m so sappy. I cry during everything. Like TV shows, movies. I was watching Glee today, my husband ran to Target and came back, and I’m on the couch literally gasping for air. Like one of those “good cries,” and he walks in and he goes, “Oh, I love you so much. You cry at the make believe.” Sobbing. It was ridiculous. I’m a crier.
What’s your favorite Chicago restaurant and do you have a preferred dish there?
So there’s a couple. My favorite Mexican restaurant is El Mariachi Tequila Bar. Broadway and Sheridan. I used to love their chimichangas, but I got to a point where I could no longer eat deep fried burritos. Now I’m a big fan of their enchiladas. My favorite sushi restaurant is Jai Yen. It’s a small little BYOB where Broadway and Halsted meet. Then of course there’s The Bagel at Broadway and Briar. That’s my favorite. Go there and get a big fat sandwich and fries. It’s glutinous, but it’s so good.
Where are you currently performing?
I’m currently performing with International Stinger, the improv group I’ve been playing with for about two or three years and we play at Playground Theatre.
Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?
I see myself performing sketch more. Still continuing to do improv because I love it, but really sitting down and writing something special. I also look forward to seeing how we can continue to develop the use of improv for people with any kind of special needs.
What is the greatest insight you’ve discovered about life and comedy?
I’m going to cry. The greatest insight that I’ve discovered is that…life is really good. To be able to do what you love with people you admire and respect and spend your time around really, really intelligent people. I don’t know, there’s nothing more heart-warming and insightful than that for me. That’s what I’ve learned. It’s good.
Any final comments?
It’s such an amazing world. It’s such an important world. When you sit back and realize all the good that comes from this art form, then you start to realize just how important this is. It’s not just about the funny, there really is a greater good.
Jessica Kelley Rogers began performing in her hometown of Miami, Florida. After falling in love with improvisation at the University of Florida (Theatre Strike Force and A.C.I.I.), Jessica moved to Chicago to study and perform improv while pursuing her other passion, elementary education. A graduate of iO and the Annoyance Theater, Jessica, an 8th grade math teacher, also teaches improv to adults at iO and The Second City. Jessica has been directing The Second City’s Teen Ensemble since 2007.
As the Artistic Director of the Teen Comedy Fest (CIF Production), Jessica can currently be seen performing with The Playground’s Member Ensemble International Stinger. Since her move to Chicago in 1999, Jessica has performed in and taught at a variety of improv/comedy festivals around the country, including the Chicago Improv Festival. She has played with several improv ensembles at iO, The Annoyance, and The Playground. A former performer with The Improv Playhouse in Libertyville, she has worked with teens at the Audition Studio North, Beverly Arts Center, and several Chicago Public Schools. She developed curriculum for The Second City’s improvisation program and their Educational Touring Company, formerly EdCo. Jessica’s directing credits include teen and adult productions at Sketchfest, Donny’s Skybox, and The Bailiwick Theater.
Interview conducted on October 13,2012.