Detroit native, Jessie Kunnath, on following her dreams, sharing her love of improv with others, and the Detroit Improv Festival. If there’s one place you are likely to find Jessie, it’s on the Stage. Without further adieu, Jessie Kunnath —
I was born in Detroit, Michigan and grew up in Warren, a suburb just north. I’ve always been fascinated by live theatre. For my 10th birthday, my mom took me on a train to Toronto to see Phantom of the Opera.
I loved every minute of that trip.
One year in college, I convinced a friend to forgo football season tickets in exchange for the Broadway tour ticket package, which if you know me, is a big deal since I bleed green for my Michigan State Spartans.
But, it wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I actually had the urge to be an entertainer. I went to see an improv show at Go Comedy! in Ferndale, and during the intermission they prompted the audience with ‘if you think you can do what we do, but better, come out to our auditions next week’.
I didn’t believe that I could do it better, but the improvisers looked like they were having such a great time on stage that I wanted to be up there too, so I went to the audition and failed REALLY WELL, but they offered me classes at a discount and I got hooked.
First Paid Gig
My first real paid job in improv came from ComedySportz Detroit. I had been paid for other shows prior, but not without the expectation of selling a portion of the house. CSz was the first time that I (and the rest of the cast) wasn’t responsible for bringing audiences in.
That being said, I have amazingly supportive friends and family that have travelled distances of hours to see me preform. I truly am the luckiest.
I was part of the opening ensemble with ComedySportz Detroit. CSz Detroit is housed within the Michigan Actors Studio so during the audition process, hundreds of people showed up.
This was the first time I had received a callback for an improv audition.
I had never seen a ComedySportz match before being cast, but I have probably watched everything that is out there on YouTube since.
You moved to Chicago from Detroit — what was that experience like?
After I graduated from Michigan State University I moved to NYC to work in advertising. I moved to the big city with just what I could fit in Plymouth Breeze, leaving all my friends and family an 11-hour car ride behind.
It was a difficult transition for me and when I left that job in 2009, I moved back to Michigan and found a community within improv.
My favorite part of NYC (besides the access to Broadway) was the energy that “the city that never sleeps” offers, so it was an easy decision when I received a job offer in Chicago.
I moved into my apartment on July 3rd — just in time to watch the rooftop fireworks.
What inspired your interest in improv?
At first classes were just fun. It was something to look forward to each week. About 4 months into them, I started exploring workshops and intensives outside of Michigan.
It became more of an obsession and I traveled to the Impatient Theatre in Toronto, The Second City in Chicago, and Improv Utopia in Cambria, CA.
I learned about the community outside of Michigan and realized how great and generous the people are within this community.
When the Detroit Improv Collective was formed, I jumped at the chance to get involved. I couldn’t wait to bring people to the Detroit Improv Festival to show them not only how great Detroit is, but how great and resilient the people of Detroit are.
You’ve been involved in Improv competitions, how are they typically judged, and what has your experience in them been like?
Most of the improv competitions that I’ve been in have been judged by audience vote to some degree.
The first one I ever entered was the biannual competition, Colony Fest, at Planet Ant Theatre in Hammtrack, Michigan with a group called EstrogenTyme and I had never met most of the other women in the troupe.
I was in a scene where I reading a dirty magazine in braille and wouldn’t share with my scene partners. Those ladies are some of my favorite people to improvise with to this day.
I’ve heard that being a woman in comedy is hard, and I’ve heard that men have to cast women in the roles of wives or mothers.
In my experience I’ve never felt that I was stuck in these types of roles. And even if I did accept those roles, I might be a wife, who is also the President of the United States. But I suppose I haven’t felt these struggles because women now-a-days are bred funnier.
Social Media & Career
I imagine promotions of shows must have been super difficult without social media.
TheFacebook was introduced when I was in college, about 5ish years before I learned about this nifty little art form called improv.
Getting a degree in Advertising and then going back for a certification in Digital Media Arts, I can honestly say I don’t really think I would be where I am at today without social media.
I probably wouldn’t have found out about improv classes.
I really have fallen in love with this art form. If there were a way that I could make a decent living at it, I’d be all in.
You’re currently training at the iO, what have you been learning in class and what has it been like working with Barry Hite, Adal Rifai, and Rance Rizzutto?
The iO Theatre teaches long-form improv as the art, as opposed to a means to the art.
We work on a lot of relationship scenes and encourage group mind and exploration.
Studying with Barry, Adal and Rance has made me more in tune to my own style of play. They all have been kind enough to not only present the iO material, but also give their own flavor to it.
I’ve filled up a lot of notebook pages with these three.
Top 5 Favorite memories in Entertainment.
5) Going to an open casting call for Extras on the Rob Schneider’s film “Virgin on Bourbon Street”. It was filmed in Greektown (Detroit), and a friend and I stood out in the snow celebrating in a Mardi Gras-type of party. You can not see us in the final movie.
4) I hosted a live telethon on a closed-cable network at my high school on my 18th birthday. We raised $700+ for the fire department and it was fun to blow out my candles on air with the possibility of people watching.
2) Being part of the cast for ComedySportz Detroit. At the callback we played Triangle (switch left) and I ended up chasing an object work chicken around the stage. I really felt that the auditioners and other auditionee were on the same page as me. Turns out they were and I got cast.
1) My favorite moment is meeting other like-minded people interested in improv and being able to geek out about it. The National Improv Network has made giant strides to connect them. Attending ImprovUtopia is an amazing way to do this. And my family within ComedySportz Worldwide is so supportive and magical.
You’ve taught workshops. What was it like being in that role and in what ways has it given you a new or different perspective on improv comedy?
Teaching workshops is so much fun.
I’ve found that I learn so much from the attendees, that it’s more of like a free workshop to me.
I like to think that I take the best nuggets from the teachers I’ve learned from and impart wisdom on those I’m coaching.
You’re responsible for social engagement on the iO Chicago's Twitter account, what are your responsibilities with it?
Twitter is my ideal social media tool. The most captivating stories happen in 140 characters or less.
But because of this limitation, you are challenged to come up with a short post.
I share the duties of posting and only post on the odd days, promoting shows, contests, trending hashtags, Life at iO posts and general comedy thoughts.
I do as much as I can physically do. I love learning and discovering and failing (in safe places, like the classroom). I love learning off-beat skills too, like puppetry and clowning. I read blogs and books. I watch shows, improv and not. I talk with my friends and I love to brunch.
I have the most supportive friends and family.
The one person that really solidified my decision to move to Chicago is Nancy Hayden.
She put all my hesitations to rest when she told me that when she moved to Chicago (after Second City Detroit closed) she had to work her way back up.
She gave me the advice not to be discouraged and that people would take notice.