By Nicole Erb
Whether it’s with an improv ensemble or mastering her craft as an individual storyteller, Jenny Rosen is a seasoned Bay Area performer who has her roots in BATS, SF’s highly acclaimed and longest running theater(where she’s a company member). She also teaches improv to kids and has collaborated with her husband, Moth Host Corey Rosen, on a children’s musical. We caught up with Jenny in Potrero Hill to talk about her approach to improv and the fundamentals to her storytelling style.
If you have a passion for improv and storytelling, Jenny’s SF Improv Storytelling Class, starts Wed. 6/7.
1.How did you get into improv storytelling?
I had never really done any kind of acting, storytelling or improv. I had been working nights for 3 years and had recently switched to a “day job” I cannot really explain how or why I decided to sign up for an improv class, I just knew it was something I wanted to do. First day of class, I was hooked. Freedom to create on the spot, the magic of failure, of gifts, of creating stories, appealed to me instantly.
2.Your chicken or the egg question: Which do you need to master first, improv or storytelling?
I was absolutely doing a ton of improv before I got into storytelling. It was a natural progression for me. One of the best skills I learned was the Story Spine, a nine sentence starter to create a story. Improv story telling taught me to find out about who the hero is, and how to take them on a journey.
3. Improv is famous for saying yes. What’s the craziest thing that’s resulted from you saying yes- in your art or your life?
Finding and marrying my husband! Corey was below me in taking classes and all of a sudden he was in our student improv group. I was like, “Who is this funny guy?, I want to hang out with him!” We were friends for many years, creating stories, shows and just hanging out. He finally asked me out on a real official, honest to goodness DATE. And I said YES! We have very similar storytelling and improv styles. We love telling stories. He’s a better singer.
4. How has improv helped you as a writer?
The best is the freedom to write it all down, good, bad, weird, dark and not judge it. To not get stymied by writers block. Also, to say YES AND to your ideas.
5. You’re a BATS improv company member. Any advice for improv and storytelling newbies?
Do do do. Go out there and improvise, write everyday. Fail all over the place. Take classes, see shows. I was either taking a class, performing, or watching theater 4 days a week when I first started.
6. What do you do when you get stuck on ideas? Do you have any go-to techniques?
It sounds funny but one thing I do is write down really bad ideas, absurd ideas and that tends to get me back and inspired. I also get up, move around, take a break, play a silly improv game.
There’s an improv game called, What Comes Next? where you literally can only say what comes next. “the door bell rings, you hear it, you get up from the chair and head to the door, you open the door, there’s a clown…..”
7. How do you keep yourself honest in the moment, if you think an exaggeration or lie would be more interesting?
The best stories are the honest, true stories. There are ways to keep it grounded and compelling without exaggerating or lying. Tell your story in a genre, create an act out in the middle, be a significant character. Most important is tell the story, yes?
8. You’re married to a fellow improvisor and storyteller. Ever feel like you’re competing for the spotlight? Any advice do you have for people in relationships with their collaborators?
I never feel like I am competing with Corey. We are two different people with two different styles. I adore improvising with him on stage however! My advice is to do things together but do things separately, have honest check-ins with each other.
9. Do you and Corey get to work together often? What’s one of your favorite projects?
We do get to work together. My favorite collaboration was our children’s musical, “Wish Fulfillment, ltd.” which examines what actually happens when someone makes a wish. Beautiful original music by Corey.
10. Solo or in a group. Which do you prefer to perform with and why?
I like both but if I had to choose, it’s with a group. I love performing live theater with fellow actors, creating something together. It’s that ensemble thing I like so much.
11. You do a lot of corporate training. What’s the biggest mistake you see big-wigs making in public presentations? What advice do you mostly commonly give?
I think one of the biggest mistakes is not reading the room. Advice I give a lot is don’t forget about the power of silence. You don’t have to fill in all the space with words. Stillness can be very powerful.
12. How is your approach to storytelling different?
You get narrative skills as an improviser, the feel for how a story should go, ways to approach a story all come from an improv background. Let’s play different characters, change the genre, all that juicy stuff.
13. When doing improv storytelling, do you have a goal before you start? Post-show check-ins?
My goal is always to tell a good, honest story. Have the story go somewhere and hopefully the audience be changed by it. Or at least give them something to think/talk about. If I am doing an improv show, we do usually tend to have a check-in. What did we like, what did we notice that didn’t go so well. When it’s improv, it’s never to be repeated again. If it’s a story I will be telling again, we look at: what landed with the audience, what went flat, how can we expand/condense parts that need that editing.
14. What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from improv?
From Keith Johnstone’s Impro: “The improviser has to be like a man walking backwards. He sees where he has been, but he pays no attention to the future. His story can take him anywhere, but he must still ‘balance’ it, and give it shape, by remembering incidents that have been shelved and reincorporating them. Very often an audience will applaud when earlier material is brought back into the story. They couldn’t tell you why they applaud, but the reincorporation does give them pleasure. Sometimes they even cheer! They admire the improvisor’s grasp, since he not only generates new material, but remembers and makes use of earlier events that the audience itself may have temporarily forgotten.”
15.What does improv bring to the storytelling process.
Improv helps you create an interesting, simple story.
16. Which improv storytellers do you admire the most?
Dana Gould and Mike Birbiglia.
17. A preview of what students will learn in your class?
YES! We will be using improv and the tenets of improv to help create and shape our stories. Maybe it’s a story we always tell but using improv maybe we find a way to deepen it, find a different angle, and think of it in a different way. Learn to say not only, YES but YES AND. Let’s say your story is about the time you stole a candy bar from the corner store when you were six. So we get your perspective but what if you told the story in the perspective of your parent?, the store owner? the candy bar??
Thanks so much Jenny!
Be sure to check out Jenny Rosen’s SF Improv Storytelling class, starting Wednesday, June 7th. You’ll have the chance to apply all her seasoned techniques to your story and performance in a pro theater.