Katie studied with Alderson for three years. While studying, she didn’t go on a single audition.
“I got the training of my life. I focused on the work because I wanted to make sure I was a legit actor before I stepped in front of casting directors.”
After completing the program, Bill recommended Katie study with Jack Waltzer, a lifetime member of the Acting Studio who has worked with Dustin Hoffman and Sigourney Weaver.
“It was a privilege to be in his presence and his student.”
Feeling prepared, Katie started using her acting tools. Two years ago, she joined Theater West as an associate. She did the grunt work of cleaning toilets and slowly worked her way up by doing play readings and performing in the theater’s children’s shows. Last summer, she auditioned for and earned the role of Susan in “Against the Wall,” a play written and directed by Charlie Mount and based on his experiences in New York’s stand up comedy scene.
“I got my chance to demonstrate my capabilities and use everything I’ve learned. I incorporated it into the character and the show, which was amazing. It scared the shit out of me. As I was reading the script, I thought, ‘I don’t know if I can be funny’, but I knew it was something I needed to do. Thankfully, I felt really safe exploring it with Charlie.”
Serendipitously, Charlie suggested she research Sue Kolinsky, a stand up comedian to get a better feel for the role. Katie recently waited on Sue while working at the W Hotel.
“Adler’s performance is the main reason to see the new play.”
“…Adler has appeared mostly in supporting roles in five plays with the company. In Against The Wall, she’s given the chance to shine, and shine she does.”
“I was taken aback and blown away by the great response we had and grateful for all the kind words in the reviews.”
The show earned a four week extension.
Theater West’s current production, “VERDIGRIS“, is the 30th Anniversary Revival of its 1985 Hit. Katie is one of 11 cast members and the ensemble experience is very different from “Against the Wall.” Under the direction of Mark W. Travis, Katie has stretched her improvisational muscles through character interrogation (responding to questions as the character) and character play dates (getting together with other characters on a play date and remaining in character the entire date).
“It’s really great to be a part of something so special. Opening night, I felt the biggest high. We received a standing ovation and the response was moving. That’s why we do theater. It’s a story that touches you. I thought, ‘I could die happy right there.'”
What’s next for Katie Adler?
“I have no idea. And I’m totally okay with that. I’m embracing that. I want to work with people who inspire me and that I can learn from so I can grow personally and artistically. I want to stretch myself. I love watching movies that touch your heart that change you. I want to be part of stories like that.”
When Katie’s not acting, you might find her immersing herself in nature. She often goes on road trip adventures with her best friend of 17 years, Melanie. On their outdoor hikes, she carries a handful of dresses to change into when inspiration strikes, and Melanie shoots a bunch of photographs. I suggested she turn these into a coffee table book. I’ll take the writing credit.
“Spirituality is really important to me. I feel closest to something higher than me when I’m in nature. I go outside to regroup. It’s crazy here. It’s a grind. It’s a hustle. I feel like you need to check in with yourself and nature’s my favorite way to do that. It’s an equal passion of mine. There are so many great places just hours away. I don’t have places like this in New Jersey, so I’m trying to take full advantage.”
Katie and I live in the same apartment building. I bumped into her doing laundry the second week after moving in. I vaguely remember our conversation, but one of the themes I often come back to is acting in Hollywood is a process. It’s doing the work, surrounding yourself with like-minded people and constantly putting yourself in a position to succeed. Every time I chat with Katie, we talk about the process, but she reminds I really need to enjoy the journey.
Katie is like chicken noodle soup – she makes you feel better. She exudes warmth, comfort and she’s present – she takes in everything you say and responds in the moment. It was great talking with her.
Like many actors, Katie’s acting journey started young. At seven, Katie started dancing, taking ballet classes. She loved moving around. Her parents were involved in a community theater in New Jersey and a production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had a profound impact on her life.
“I knew, watching my mom on stage and seeing how much fun the kids my age were having, that I needed to do that.”
Katie attended a performing arts high school. While she initially wanted to attend a regular high school, her parents enrolled her, encouraging her to give it a try.
“I wanted to be ‘cool’ and watch football games, but I saw kids dancing in the hallways like Fame, and I thought, ‘All these people are just like me!’ I found my people. I stayed. It was the best experience of my life. It changed everything.”
She spent her four years dancing and participated in several musical theater productions. When she wasn’t in class, she was taking extra dance classes or in rehearsal at the community theater.
“We did every musical you could think of and my family performed together. My father is a lawyer and he joined the theater.”
As a child, she played Annie and Cabaret was her favorite in high school.
After graduating, Katie enrolled in Montclair State University as an undeclared major, but after seeing all the dancers and actors, she declared a BFA in musical theater with a concentration in acting the second semester of her first year. While she was there, Montclair unveiled a new Broadway style theater. Her first show was in the new space.
“The scale of teachers was amazing. They had Broadway backgrounds and the caliber of talent among my peers made me realize very quickly we weren’t there just for fun. My friends, Jelani Remy, is Simba in ‘The Lion King’, Mike Liscio is in ‘Avenue Q’ and Rob McClure is a Tony nominated actor who starred in ‘Chaplin’ and is currently in ‘Honeymoon in Vegas’ on Broadway. At one point, I wanted to be on Broadway too.”
After graduating, she was skimming Backstage Magazine‘s auditions and came across an opportunity for FMA Live, an interactive, traveling hip-hop concert that teaches Newton’s Universal Law of Gravity and Three Laws of Motion to middle school students. She submitted. A day later, she auditioned. She was called back. They conducted a phone interview. And she received the call a couple days later.
“I was on the New Jersey Turnpike and almost got into an accident because I was so excited!”
The show went to almost every state. She traveled the country in a tour bus three months at a time and then took a month break. She did three tours.
“I loved performing for those kids because the appreciation level was genuine and clear.”
While both tours were excellent experiences, the dancing was taking a toll, so she began to reevaluate her career path.
“I loved these shows, but my soul wanted something deeper. I also injured my knee and the shows were pretty taxing on my body, so when I wasn’t on tour or had free time, I looked up my favorite actors on Wikipedia to get a better idea of their career path. I realized I needed to do hard core training, studying was really important and I wanted to do it right.”
Katie searched and found The Ward Acting Studio, which teaches the Meisner technique. Wendy Ward traveled from New York to teach at a studio in Philadelphia.
“From first class, I felt like this is it for me. This is the technique I’m supposed to learn. I did Wendy’s classes for a whole summer and then went back on my third tour. The whole time I was away, I was itching to get back. I felt like, ‘I have to pursue this.'”
After performing a scene in class, Wendy told her, “If you really want to do this, you could.”
That validation sent Katie on her next adventure:
“That’s it, I’m moving to LA.”
In the second half of my interview, I’ll share Katie’s LA experience, her work with Theatre West and what’s next.
In the second half of my interview with Julie Brister, she addresses questions about acting in Los Angeles, what makes a good improviser, how improv has changed since she started, how UCB has changed and what’s in store for her future.
Most everyone who moves to LA with dreams of pursuing their passion is faced with the artist/commerce conundrum. Julie said, if you’re not full time on your passion, it’s a grind, unless you’re equally passionate about your day gig.
“In New York, I had a full time job. And ‘wow.’ I do not how people do it and still pursue their passion,” she said.
During her first year in LA, she focused most of her time and energy on kick starting her acting career.
“I was pretty dogged about pursuing acting work. I created opportunities for myself. It’s a hustle. And that work paid off. It’s not easy. It’s hard. And it took time. I still look and see what’s on Actor’s Access. This is my job,” she added.
One of the traps of Hollywood is getting wrapped up in product vs. process, the idea that success is right around the corner. It very well may be, but there are no guarantees.
“Once you accept how random, arbitrary the chances are you’re going to get this thing, you can forgive yourself for doing it,” she said.
I asked Julie what makes a good improviser:
Listens and respects others
Be someone who plays well with others
Be brave and take risks
Be willing to commit as an actor in the scene. There should be no delineation between an improviser and an actor. In one of my early classes, Ian said, “This is an acting class” and there was a rustling among the 20 something’s. You have to react. If you don’t, you’re not going to be good until you get that. You have to be affected by what’s going on.
Have other interests and bring them to the scene. Don’t just do improv and don’t just focus on comedy. It’s important to feed the well because it makes everybody better.
With respect to UCB, she said:
“They’ve done an incredible job. I’ve seen it from the beginning. They brought together supportive, like-minded people that want to create funny work. Besser in particular said, ‘We want keep cost of shows down and provide a place where people can play and take risks – not pay to play.’ That’s rare to tell people we want people to push themselves and be dangerous on stage. I think that’s exciting. And to see it go from small thing to enormous thing is so satisfying. I’m proud of us. That we’ve made that happen. When I started classes at UCB, you gave your check to a lady to a lady named Celia who was helping them with classes. From having her put it in an envelope to five spaces to two major schools. That blows my mind!”
I asked about the evolution of improv:
“I’ve watched style, even within long form, change. I love watching improv evolve. I love it all – fast and gamey style scenes and slower, more patient improv. TJ and Dave was a shift for me personally. There was a realization that we don’t have to always come in with a premise. The fast style of play works great in a Harold, but sometimes, as an improviser, you want to slow it down. And they are the masters. It was a re-energizer too. We all get in slumps or get a little burned out. Seeing something like that – patiently listening and not letting anything get by and really using information given to you – that’s so much fun to watch.”
As for what’s next, Julie said it’s going to be a little more of the same:
I asked Julie about how improv has infiltrated TV and film. She said:
“It’s really amazing to see how far improv has come culturally. There are a lot of improvisers in TV shows and it is so much a part of the working process today. That’s super exciting in the minutest ways. As an actor, seeing how it changed is exciting. Back in the day, most actors would be like ‘I don’t know what to do off script’ and it was a real edge to be an improviser. Now, most people have some improv experience, especially here in LA. There are so many more opportunities for it. It’s exciting to see it’s become part of the mainstream.”
I asked Julie about improv and life and she said, “The basic tenants of being a good improviser, playing well with others listening, these are life rules. If that bleeds into society, that’s a good thing. Everyone would be a lot happier and a lot better off if they had a little improv in their life.”
I said in in my first post and I’m going to say it again. If you’re taking improv classes at UCB, Take class with Julie.
If you’re going take improv classes at UCB Los Angeles, you have to take Julie Brister’s class at some point in your journey. Period.
Julie taught my 301 class and here’s what I like about her: she’s efficient with time, succinct with notes and super supportive. She’s also old school – no talking heads scenes. She wants you to get into the environment, she wants real emotional reactions and she wants you to slow down and listen. While UCB may be known for fast and funny improv, Julie wants it to come from a richer “what’s happening in the world of this piece” place.
Julie fell backwards into improv. She was taking acting classes for a long time in New York, but wasn’t really pursuing acting projects. She was burned out on acting classes and knew she wanted to do comedy. She did stand up briefly, but hated failing. She was a dinner party one night and a friend of a friend had a toe in the comedy world. His wife worked at Catch A Rising Star and he was faxing jokes in for the weekend update. Julie was intrigued.
In New York in the late 90’s, there were really only two improv comedy places to go – Chicago City Limits or UCB. She lived on the East side and said it was a dead zone. Chicago City Limits was pretty far from her place. UCB was five blocks from her apartment. She decided to check it out. The evening she went, she saw show with four people in the audience. She loved it.
They were doing sketch and some of those sketches showed up on TV show later, like when Besser plays a weed dealer people can’t get away from. After the transaction, he keeps talking. Five or six people did a Harold, including Billy Merritt, Michael Delaney, Sean Conroy and Linda Delaney.
I thought, “This is creative and fun and I was certainly intrigued about the performance, not about playing somebody else,” said Brister.
After the show, Julie stayed in the lobby and talked with a few people. Someone approached her and asked if she was interested in classes, including an upcoming workshop for women taught by Amy Pohler and Tina Fey. She signed up.
“We were asked if we’d previously improvised. I lied. And immediately regretted it because I could tell there were guidelines for scenes I wasn’t following. I knew playing make believe. I saw a show and understood the basics – commit to reality and play broadly. I asked a lot of questions. I was hooked immediately,” said Brister.
Julie added that Tina offered gentle guidance and both were incredibly supportive.
“We laughed a lot. They were both very thoughtful in how they shepherded us through scenes,” said Brister. “The workshop featured a lot of scene work, but we also sat in a circle and talked about what it was like to be a woman in comedy and our frustrations. It was very illuminating.”
Amy played a profound role in Julie’s teaching style.
“Amy was my favorite teacher. The perfect blend of support and tough love. She had no problem calling you out if things start to go awry or if the energy was cluster fucking, she’d put the kibosh on it right away. Her notes were supportive. I had her for three different classes. I really liked her teaching style,” said Brister.
Julie was among the second wave of incoming students for the burgeoning theater, even though, at the time, there wasn’t officially a theater. The UCB was operating out of a solo arts space.
“Their first classroom space was in a martial arts studio. We had two classrooms. It was amazing! That was a step I got to be a part of. Glad I got to be there,” she said.
They had performance nights. And her class formed a practice group in her 201 class and started rehearsing with a coach. Her practice group became one of the theater’s first Harold teams – Mexican Popsicle.
Her team performed every week, sometimes twice. Julie was working a full time job and would have a show every night.
“It was very different from how theater is now because we were really allowed to be terrible. We were so green. We really figured out a lot on our feet,” said Brister. “Today, when people get on a team, they’ve been improvising for a few years. By the standards we have now, I’d never get on a team.”
The team helped sharpen her comedy chops, which lead to some work on Conan in 1999. She did bits a few times a month – 30 bits overall.
She eventually started teaching in January 2001.
Julie was in New York for 18 years, but decided a change was needed. “Before 30 Rock, there wasn’t a lot happening in terms of TV in New York. It was soap operas, dramas and Conan. There were commercials. And MTV stuff. But I was ready for something new. And I knew the theater was opening in LA and I was excited about starting over,” said Brister.
Julie moved to LA in 2006 and started teaching.
I’ll share the second chapter of Julie’s UCB career in LA in my next post. In it, Julie discusses how improv is playing a greater role in TV and film, what makes a great improviser, improv and life and how longform improv has evolved.ro