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:
“Hopefully more performance opportunities. I’m in a couple episodes of “Review” (2nd season). I have a couple movies coming out this year, including “Kitchen Sink,” a zombie/vampire/alien movie. “Night of the Living Deb” is coming up and “Is That a Gun In Your Pocket?” which has women go on sex strike if men won’t give up guns. It’s a modern day “Lysistrata” (ancient Greek play).
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.
“Everyone would be a lot happier and a lot better off if they had a little improv in their life.”
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
I started UCB 301 with Julie Brister last eve. It’s always interesting hearing other people’s backstories. We have a lot of East Coasters, some Midwesterners and one LA unicorn and most have moved to LA within the past five years or so.
We did an exercise where we walked around and would stop when someone shared a brief factoid or anecdote. Topics included car problems, car crashes, Vegas, pets, celebrity encounters, Halloween, bosses.
- I had a date, but no car. So I walked into a Honda dealership and walked out with a new car. I’m now paying $350 per month for the next six years.
- I was listening to the WTF podcast. I left my front room and kept hearing Marc Maron’s voice. I looked out my window and he was hosting a barbecue next door.
- My gerbil had 17 babies. And then ate them all.
- I broke my arm because I fell asleep while riding my bike.
- I got into two accidents. The second one happened as I was after leaving physical therapy from the first accident.
- My favorite part of Halloween in college was waking up early the next day to see who was walking home in their costume from the night before.
- Me and my friends went to Vegas. I was the only one that was 21, so my friends would give me money and I would walk down to the floor to bet on roulette. I lost their money.
Then we separated into two groups and did a short show – three monologues and four two person scenes with three beats per.
It’s going to be a fun class. Some really smart, fun performances just in the first class. And Julie is extremely concise in her notes and very supportive.