Jill Bernard

The Improv Retreat

Dallas Comedy House performers Jonathan Patrick, Doug Barton, and Cesar Villa attend the Improv Retreat in Mukwonago, Wisconsin, at the end of May. You look for moments in your life to hold onto. The one I found at The Improv Retreat was when 50 improvisers arrayed in a circle 100 foot across all started to yell and run toward each other across a cool green field. The goal was to get to a new place on the circle as quickly as possible without running into each other. The mayhem of 50 adults acting like children is life affirming, and we played this game for about an hour. At as you would expect with improvisers, quick eye contact prevented any collisions.

My short review of The Improv Retreat is do it at least once in your life. You can get details on the event here. In my write up, I will take about a few highlights and summarize the workshops that I took.

The main highlight is hanging with 250-plus improvisers for two days. Much like the people you meet at the Dallas Comedy House (DCH), everyone is very friendly and prone to verbal (as well as physical) shenanigans. We had a free session on a Saturday afternoon. About a dozen people wrote down the class they wanted to take, and then we all wondered off to separate buildings. My group did Spanish-prov and though I was BY FAR the worst speaker (two on a scale of 10), I had a great time.

Though a large percentage of the attendees stayed out drinking and conversing until late (my bunk mate got in at 5 a.m. and was not able to navigate closing a door or falling into bed without loud concussions), I went to bed around midnight each night and on Saturday morning I had the great pleasure of jogging around the camp and down the road for several miles without seeing anyone else. Of course it was 5:30 a.m. (see previous sentence).

Here are quick reviews of the workshops I took.

Improv Retreat BookletMonoscenes, taught by Zach Ward

I enjoyed this workshop because Zach focused on a couple of specific things that can help anyone create an interesting interaction between two people on stage and then extend this interaction beyond the typical two-minute montage scene.

We did some basic scenes after a couple of warm-ups. He wanted us to establish a good foundation, and after a couple of minutes we were to zag to a different conversation between the same characters. In my scene with Carrie Koch (from Houston), we were maternity nurses after a tough day. We bonded over this for a time then zagged to a discussion about getting a drink after work and a discussion about our personal life: I had been married to five doctors. After we ran with this for a time, we would zig back to our first topic. By establishing good characters and a good foundation scene, you can zig and zag for as long as you want. At least in theory.

Fear No More, taught by Nnamdi Ngwe

This focused on drawing strength from your scene partner. I really like Nnamdi’s teaching style and enjoyed the class, though it felt like the first of a multi-class course. One of the key elements that he stressed was eye contact. We stared into the eyes of our scene partner for up to a minute before he allowed us to start our scene. It made for some great serious scenes but also helped break down barriers between us to allow for heightened silliness in the goofier scenes.

The Other Conflicts, taught by Jill Bernard

When you met someone at the retreat, a common topic was what classes are you in. Of the 20 conversations that I had with people, either they were in one of Jill’s classes, too, or lamented that they were not able to get one. Though I did not fully realize it before going to the retreat, Jill is revered by students and after taking her class I can understand why. She is an amazing combination of 12-year-old exuberance and unfettered silliness housed in the intelligence of a 40-year-old who takes the art of improvisation very seriously. She started her class by venting about the number of argument scenes she has seen in her life: the most common conflict you see performed. In her class, she emphasized the other conflicts. We focused on three: man vs. technology (the two improvisers attempt to land a spaceship), man vs. society (the two characters are best friends but one is going to come out as gay in their small town), man vs. nature (two people trying to fight through a snow storm to get to their cabin).

In each situation, the improvisers were together against the common enemy. In each scene, there was "hero" who was trying to triumph against the common adversary. And in each scene, the other person was some variation of the supporting character: the super hero sidekick, the helpless but good-natured oaf, the magical character (who speaks almost in proverbs, which leads the hero to a solution), and the Hoggett character, which is named for the farmer in Babe. His character says almost nothing throughout the movie but is silently supportive.


Doug Barton is a graduate of the Dallas Comedy House (DCH) improv training program and has taken workshops with Susan Messing, Dave Razowsky, Jill Bernard, Timmy Mayse, and others. During the day he makes signs at Accurate Signs. He has performed in several community theater plays, performed until recently with his band, Hello!, and has performed in a few video shorts (including The Scientist). He currently performs with CLR at DCH and with Comedy Sportz Dallas.