Kelly Jennings, A Life of Improv


May 11, 2024




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(KENSINGTON, Philadelphia) — At the sound of a loud, strident whistle, a referee in black pants and a matching black and white polo shirt bursts onto the stage and circles it a couple of times while blowing his whistle as the crowded 100-seat theater claps. At first, the claps are discrete, as the audience seems unable to fully grasp the situation, but then they progressively grow louder as their understanding of what is happening becomes clear. This is how the improv show performed by ComedySportz has started over the last 30 years.

The ComedySportz Philadelphia at 2030 Sanson Street is the longest-running improv show in Philadelphia. Improv, short for improvisation, is a form of live theater in which actors, often together with the audience, create scenes on the fly without scripts to guide their performance. According to Chicago News, improv as a theatrical form started centuries ago. Still, the modern form of improv kicked off in the 50s at the University of Chicago and, since then, has spread to major cities across the world.

The theater comprises four sections: two smaller sections facing the stage from the sides and two bigger sections directly across the stage, separated by a narrow corridor. The theater is semi-dark, and the only lights illuminating it come from the stage. It is hard to see people’s faces. Still, we can guess the broad age range of the audience by the sound of their voices: from child-like voices, accents, and goofy and silly comments that clearly give away their teenage years to rusty and altered pitched sounds that pack years of wisdom.

In a breathy voice, as if he had just run a 10K, the referee goes at length to explain the rules of the show and provide detailed instructions for how the audience will be asked to participate. The show is a “fierce sports match,” he says, between The Blue team representing Philadelphia, which sends the audience into a frenzy upheaval, forcing the referee to wait until the loud clapping and the whistling subsides to introduce the New Jersey Red team, who are booed as they step onto the stage. Little did we know that The Red team would go on to score a surprising win.

The referee introduces the three judges from the audience: a 5-year-old girl sitting in the last seat of the previous row in the section facing the stage from the left side; a young male doctor currently doing his hospital residence, sitting in the top row in the first section, right across from the stage; and finally, another man in his mid-30s who works in finance, seated in the far right side of the second section in the third row from the bottom.  These judges have to score a few games, which are then added to the final count to select the winning team.   Finally, the referee requested the audience, who by now is known as the “loyal fans,” to behave as if the show is family-appropriate.

After this 20-minute interactive warm-up, the show is set to start. A young woman dressed in a red sweater and dark pants, introduced as The Red team’s captain, jumps onto the stage, followed by two other male actors, who sit on a wooden bench on the right side of the stage, waiting for their captain to start. Then, a close to 6-foot man in his mid-50s enters as the captain of The Blue team, followed by two other young actors, a male and a female, who sit on the left side of the stage, facing their matching team.  The following 45 minutes are full of interactive, high-paced improv games like the “Adverb Game,” where the referee throws in an adverb for the team to incorporate into their lines, or the “Reverse” game, where the players go back and forward between their lines per the referee’s instructions.

As the show progresses, the laughs and applauses become increasingly louder. The show ends with the counting of votes earned through the different games played, and surprisingly, the New Jersey team beats the Philadelphia team by five points. The crowd is not disappointed, measured by their applause and whistles as both teams left the stage waving.

Kelly Jennings, 56, is a ComedySportz veteran. In 2020, with over thirty years of experience performing at the ComedySportz of Philadelphia, she jumped at the opportunity to become the Educational Director at the Philadelphia Improv Theater (PIT), the only long-form improvisation theater in the Philadelphia area, founded in 2005.

By the time she moved to PIT, Jennings had taken on most of the roles she could ever have at the ComedySportz Theater: improv performer, teacher, or manager. “I was ready for something new and different,” she says.

“Kelly is just great at interacting with all kinds of people,” said Heather Stuart, a close friend who has known her since 1993. She met Kelly when she auditioned for ComedySportz in Philadelphia.  “When I saw Kelly for the first time, I knew I had to work with her. The energy, the vibe I got when I saw her.”

That vibe and energy that impressed her friend Stuart also radiated through our Zoom call on a late Friday afternoon in March. Wearing a black turnbuckle sweater with a pixie-like haircut style—voluminous blond hair exposing a bulky, long bang and short on the sides and on the back, parted on the right side, with a light eyeglass frame firmly centered—she immediately offered an affectionate and broad smile that would make anyone feel as if they were sitting in her leaving room having a glass of wine. 

Jennings talked about her love for acting, her passionate vision for PIT, and her dedication to growing her business as a corporate coach.

Joining PIT allowed her to set her vision of creating a whole community around and within improv. ‘“We are not just saying, ‘Here is a list of classes; go and sign up,’ but I want current students, alumni, and instructors to feel like part of a community. We’re not a university. We’re not a college, but I wanted that kind of alumni to feel so that whether somebody just took one class, or whether they go through the whole program, they can feel like they are part of a community that they could come back.”’

PIT now has a Facebook page that will continue to build a sense of community, where current students and alumni can come back and talk about their experiences, whether they come to see a show or taking a workshop or classes.

People come to watch improv for many reasons. “Maybe you’re bored at home, and you just want to do something fun on a Tuesday night. Or maybe you want to be the next, you know, SNL Star,” Jennings says. From her perspective, whatever brings you into improv, she wants them to leave feeling that they have learned something valuable and are part of a community filled with diverse people whom everyone can identify with.

When asked why this role as the educational director for PIT, her face lights up, she straights her torse up, and through her characteristically warm smile, she talks about how she finally can dedicate her time and energy to working on her ideas rather than executing on others’ people’s ideas. She wants to broaden the types of classes being offered. “My artistic director and I were on the same page, and that was important for me as we shaped the future of PIT.”

One of her priorities is to enrich that community by attracting a diverse population to improv in Philadelphia. “It is sad to say, but it felt like ‘an old white boy club.’  We need to broaden our curriculum to increase our ability to be more inclusive.

Jennings has created classes to reach the LGBT community and encouraged instructors to

think outside the box to design courses that can bring in other community members. For example, the Educators Practice Group classes, headed by Katie Butler, a PIT Instructor, is an example of their approach to attracting participants from this community.

In the Spring of 2023, I took two practice group classes where we played games like “I am an object,” where participants form a circle, and one enters the circle, assumes the shape of an object, and announces it like “I am a Tree.” The next participant enters, assumes another shape that complements the tree, and announces, “I am a flower.” A third participant does the same. The first participant decides which of the other two objects (Tree or Flower) to keep in the circle while the two others leave, and the next round starts. What is critical in this game is to keep the game moving and not let the participants overthink. The result is spectacular as participants play both roles as actors and spectators. This game fosters creativity, teamwork, and an extraordinary willingness and ability to accept others as they are.

The benefits of improvisation techniques go beyond entertainment. Companies have integrated and embraced improv into their training curriculum to spur creativity, increase teamwork, and enhance active listening skills. “Yes, improv works across multiple settings and situations,” Jennings confirms. And that’s why I have fallen in love with my profession.”

However, the realization that improvisation, where scenes and entire shows are made up as you go, can help manage anxiety is not a totally new concept, but it is gaining traction. According to a recent article, the benefits of using improv to help manage anxiety have been promising.

When Adam Taupin, a practicing psychologist in Philadelphia who works with adults with depression, pitched an improv class focused on managing anxiety, Jennings was thrilled. The class filled quickly with about 12 students.

But Jennings recognizes the challenges ahead of her in executing her vision. Despite the success of some of these new, forward-thinking classes, it is still challenging to reach different audiences. “For many years, the vibe about improv has been more of an activity around entertainment, and it takes time to build a new vibe.”

Jennings believes that the move to a new location this January is long overdue. The previous facility in Sansom Street felt more like a collection of unorganized dark rooms spread out through a 3-story old building, with an even darker basement, where it felt too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. Together with renewed energy post-COVID and new leadership, Jennings looks forward to her future at PIT.

Kelly Jennings’s life

It all started with her love for acting during kindergarten. “I took acting right away, as long as I can remember,” she said as she snapped her fingers from her right hand and leaned forward towards the screen. Her first role on a stage required little lines — she was cast as a snowdrop in a play about springtime. ‘“How funny is that?” she laughed. Then, I got to play the Caps Salesman, and by the third show, my teacher asked me to direct the play. I cannot remember what the show was, and I can only remember being very proud, coming home, and telling my parents, “I am directing a show.”’

Born and raised in Ardmore, Philadelphia, Jennings graduated from Syracuse University’s acting school in 1990. When she graduated, she imagined herself as “a very serious actor, ready for classical theater, more like Shakespeare style.” But things turned out to be quite different. Right after graduation, Jennings attended a unified audition in Philly, where ComedySportz of Philadelphia was there to recruit actors. To her surprise, they called her.

“In my mind, I did not do improv, I did not do comedy, but then they cast me,” she said. “Still, I believed they would figure out really fast that she was not funny.” But they never did, and she stayed on for 30 years.

“Every show is a surprise.” Improv requires one’s full attention and presence to move a scene forward successfully, and many experts would say it spurs creativity like no other.”

Cecily and Gwendolyn’s Fantastical Anthropological Inquisitorial Probe…The Improv show that toured the country.

A few years before the pandemic, Jennings and her colleague, Karen Getz, who is also a long-time improviser, decided to try something new. Starting a show by jumping out of a hot balloon might sound surrealist or like a scene from the “Back to the Future” movie.  Their show did not start exactly like that, but it was close.

Jennings and Getz created a show in which the beginning, the ending, and everything in between were as unknown to them as to those who came to see it.  The show revolves around two characters, Cecily and Gwendolyn, time travelers from Victorian England, which transposed its audience back to the late 1800s.  They played the roles of social anthropologists whose mission was to study the “society,” which would be the city where they performed. This show toured across the country– from Washington DC, Colorado, Minnesota, Cincinnati, Arizona, and Pennsylvania.

The show required no technology or special effects, and so it was easy and cheap to produce. “The theater was illuminated with regular lights, and those social cues, like the lights going off to signal the start of the show, never happened.” Guests walked in and took their seats, and suddenly, the show started even without them noticing it. By then, the two characters had made their way out of the improvised hot air balloon, made of a big basket from a discount store nearby, with balloons attached to the top, placed right in the middle of the stage. Once out of the balloon, the characters, wearing Victorian-like dresses, start talking to each other and, to the audience’s surprise, to them too.

“I’m less interested in clever, funny jokes than I am in emotionally grounded scenes where we see people being affected by the circumstances, they, themselves, are creating. I think that’s a lot more interesting to watch, and I think it leads to a lot more really like genuine laughs.”

The challenge for them, as actresses, as Jennifer said, is that “We did not know what would unfold here this evening,”  The characters would have a few prompts ready to invite the audience to participate, like “You have such an interesting piece of clothing. Tell us more about that,” or if it were more like a shy, reserved audience, then they would have what they called the newspaper headline, where one of the characters shared a headline from the city newspaper and invited them to comment on the headline. That’s the way they kicked off the show. Depending on the city, people would engage in conversations more quickly, but once engaged, we would take them further and say, ‘That is fascinating. Why don’t you come here and show us? Let’s play that out here.”

Two other volunteers were also on stage as part of the show: one with crayons and a big piece of paper to sketch out what they saw and the other with a notebook and a pen to write what they heard. “After all, this was a research project,” Jennings says. The show ended with a discussion of the experience and what the audience and the characters learned about that society.

But not everyone loved the show, particularly in the beginning when they were still figuring out how to build the show. ‘“We had people saying that this was ridiculous, ‘you were supposed to be acting for me,’ and we had one woman actually walking out of the show, and her companion stayed.”’

We learned quickly that we had to be upfront and transparent about how the show was super interactive, so it was not such a shocking surprise for the audience.

These situations are delightful for a performer like Jennings because they allow her to learn to stay in character and make those moments a part of the show.  For example, when some audiences were not as receptive, I would say, “Wow, people in this society are very angry,” and the show would progress.

They also learned much about each city’s unique social and cultural personalities through audience engagement. “We kind of knew about it but did not think much of it until we were there performing.” For example, in Philadelphia, people would open up once they understood how the show would play out, but in Washington, DC, people were very closed, and the first show did not go great. We realized that they worked for the government and NGOs or Think Tanks. So, sure, they were not going to talk because of the kind of jobs they do, which require some secrecy or some non-disclosure.”

Once we realized they realized these differences, we had to find ways to tailor the opening of the show to the “personality” of the city. ‘“In Washington, of course, they would not be incredibly open about themselves. We had to start the next show by acknowledging that to the audience. “Hey, we noticed here that you don’t talk to anybody. Is that a thing here in Washington, DC? And that got people talking about not talking,”’ Jennings said. This changed the dynamic of the second show.

Jennings believes, “If the purpose of improv is to have spontaneous theater and the purpose of theater is to help us have conversations and connections, how could we marry these two together to build stronger communities?” And that was what the show was all about—community building.”

Moving forward

Jennings is excited about what lies ahead at the Philly Improv Theater as she and the leadership continue to evolve their curriculum, build their community of improvisers, and work hard to attract a more diverse audience and students. She is also excited about building her consultative business as a corporate coach.

Most recently, Jennings and Stuart beta-tested an improv workshop designed to improve the skills of counselors, most of them working in areas of depression and trauma, to offer them new possibilities and new ways of engaging and drawing in their patients. Their next step is to test this workshop in Philadelphia in April and take it into the real world.

“Kelly is great at asking insightful questions when there is so much clutter and uncertainty,” Stuart says. And that’s what these counselors face every day.

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