You Can’t Make This Up with Jake Sellers

Jake Sellers is a worker. He’s a member of STL Up Late, he’s a member of Meowsers, an independent team completing a nine month run at The Improv Shop, he attends as many shows as he can, performs in SDPs to help teach new students, and occasionally performs with me and a few others as Four Layer Cake. He’s a busy guy, but he’s very intentional about his improv, which has gotten him far in the last three years.

On stage, Jake is a joy to play with and to watch. He follows the fun and makes everyone else feel funny and comfortable in scene work. He really makes it a point to take care of his scene partners.

Here’s Jake and I improvising to a suggestion of PARTY

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9wn5KP7uao]

Meet Jake Sellers:

Why did you get into improv? How long have you been doing it?

I remember my first class was on September 11, 2011. So I have been doing improv for a little over three years. I think I always wanted to perform, for the longest time I didn’t know it…but I would find out eventually.

When I was in Elementary and Middle School, for some strange reason, I REALLY wanted to be the President of the United States. Which led to me gaining a knowledge of presidential history and facts that no normal person would ever have use for. Then, as a teen, I thought to myself…being the President is a pretty lofty goal, maybe I should just shoot for a lawyer. I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone who knows me that I would be a terrible lawyer let alone president. The only thing I have going for me is the hair, but that’s about it.

What I didn’t know then, and what I know now, is that the only reason I wanted to be those things is because I would be on some sort of stage…be able to talk and people would have to stop and listen to me. Maybe I craved attention, I am the youngest of three boys…we don’t have to go all Sigmund Freud here…but maybe.

I had a chance to be in a musical my senior year of High School. It was Little Shop of Horrors. I wanted to be Audrey II (the only off-stage role), but my singing voice is too high. I was runner up for the role of the Dentist…but they couldn’t give a leading role to a first time senior. So they offered me a secondary role, it had a decent amount of lines. Even now I don’t know if it was my ego or stage freight that made me turn it down, but I know I regret not doing it.

Fresh off my “I’m going to be President” kick, I ran for senior class president and won. I was excited until the speech teacher in my high school said, “Hey, Jake if you need any help writing your graduation speech let me know”. I fucking froze, I didn’t know I had to make a speech at graduation but as soon as I did, I freaked out about it for months.

At one point, I just thought fuck it, I have to make a speech so I might as well make it a good one. I wrote it all out and had it down pat. My school had a large graduating class, about 500, I think. Each senior had 10-12 tickets to give to their friends and family to see them graduate. At this moment, you’re probably figuring out what took me until I got to the graduation floor to figure out. THERE’S THOUSANDS OF FUCKING PEOPLE HERE! They called my name to make the speech, and I walked up to the podium. I fought to get the first word out…then the first sentence…then the first paragraph. Then…I got a laugh, then another one. It was like nothing I ever felt before. I would have to pin point that moment as the exact time I knew I didn’t want to be a president or a lawyer, I wanted to be a performer.

When I was in community college, I was looking for something to get involved in with acting and performing since there was nothing there. I looked online to see how some of my favorite actors got started. They all got started in improv. I looked online and found The Improv Shop. I convinced my friends to come along and we went to see a show. It was Magic Ratio and Ted Dangerous. They were the real deal! I signed up that night and I went the following week to class. There has been nothing in my life that inspires me and makes me as happy as improv. If you’re reading this (great) blog and you have any inkling about doing improv…GET TO THE FUCKING SHOP!

You are a writer for STL Up Late. How has that experience affected your improvisation?

Being a writer and performer on STL Up Late has been such a fun and rewarding experience. It has shown me the symbiotic relationship that improv and sketch comedy share. Improv is a great way to inspire sketch ideas…there is a reason why Second City and, of course, The Little Improv Shop of Horrors use it to inspire themselves. There are improv scenes that are so good they practically write the script for you. There have been some Burgerson practice scenes that are so funny that I have to turn to the person I was in it with and ask “Is it okay with you if I write a sketch about that?”

Sketch does have a way of helping your improv too, but to me, it is much more subtle. After doing sketch comedy for a while, it has been easier for me to recognize game and to play the pattern. Though there have been times where I have to tell my brain to shut up during it. It’s important when you find the game of the scene to keep that plate spinning with the more important relationship stuff. When you find the game it can be so fucking exciting that you play it as fast as you possibly can. There can also be times where you have to keep your mind from mapping the scenes. Let the funny of the scene come naturally, it isn’t the most important part anyways. Play the pattern patiently and don’t go for the cheap bit that might get a laugh in the moment but will ultimately kill the scene.

You are about to complete your extensive Friday night run at the improv shop with Meowsers. What has performing on a weekly basis as a headlining show taught you about improv?

I’m so glad you brought that up! I love playing with the merry band of idiots that is Meowers. I mean that in the most sweet and best possible way. I know I can speak for all of us when I say we couldn’t have been more grateful to The Improv Shop for giving us this opportunity and Pone Pone for being our run mates.

The Friday Soiree was never something any of us saw as a status symbol…we were just a team looking to perform as often as we could. We saw it as a fantastic opportunity. Getting a weekly show for nine months was nothing short of a dream. Though it has taught me that there are more things that go into a successful improv show than just successful improv. You have to get the right people together, lay down the right type of advertising, and create the right type of atmosphere. Often the people coming to our shows were either new to The Improv Shop or new to Improv in general. It’s your job to put people in the seats and let them know it’s okay to have as much fun offstage as we are having onstage.

As weeks went on, attendance would go up and down like any show of that nature would experience. That can be disappointing. All of us would try to do things during the week that would bring people to the show. At show time though, whether there are 100 people in the theater or 20, all of that goes out the window. Our job starting 8pm on Friday nights was to do the best and most inspired improv that we could do.

What you have to remind yourself every week is that there could be someone in the audience that has never seen longform improv before.  You have to do that show for them! You have to care about them! When weeks go on and you get burnt out, you have to get re-energized for THEM! There is no bigger honor to me and the other members of Meowsers than being someone’s window to the art form. That’s an honor that we never took lightly. My Dad always said when I was a kid that you have to work hard, because even if you think it’s unfair, the world doesn’t owe you shit. We never felt entitled to a weekend slot, but when we were given the opportunity we took that night and fucking ran with it. Above all have fun, because you don’t know how long you’ll have it. That’s what we tried to do.

What has your experience been traveling with Meowsers to perform in Chicago and New York taught you?

I love traveling with Meowsers! Going on road trips with four other guys, and inevitably Steve Raines, can never be anything but fun. We do improv, we drink beer and talk dirty…what else can you ask for?! That’s partly why we submit to improv festivals around the country, the bonding experience is as important as the improv to us.

We also love going because it’s a chance to show other cities around the country what Saint Louis Improv, The Improv Shop, and Meowsers has to offer. I fulfilled a dream by performing on the stage at Second City and going to New York for comedy. I remember the Del Close Marathon in NYC and we were all sitting there watching about four hours of improv before our show. All you would here is “Welcome so and so team from New York…Chicago…Los Angelos.” When the announcer finally said “Welcome Meowsers from Saint Louis” and we got up there and made people laugh…nothing is better than that. We felt like we made the whole city of Saint Louis proud.

Can you share some words of wisdom with those just starting out?

I read this blog religiously, and I know the number one answer is don’t TRY to be funny. I will second all of those people who have said it before and I’ll say it again, DON’T TRY TO BE FUNNY. I can say it because I’ve done it and you get the laugh, but you hate yourself after. I can still remember times that I’ve done it and it still annoys the fuck out of me three years later.

I will further it by saying be honest, vulnerable and submit yourself to the process. TJ and Dave have said in their documentary that when they play characters in a show, they feel like they’re dropping into someone else’s life and after the show they like to think those characters live on and continue their lives.  Be real and play these characters with integrity and remain truthful to the reality of the scene.

Even if you don’t see it like TJ and Dave do, as a real person, and you see it as just a character, the same rules still apply. The character you’re playing may not be a real person, but how many people do you think are just like that person living in the world? How many of those people never had a chance to get up there and say what they think or feel. You have the honor to represent those people and not joke it out. If you play real and follow the pattern the laughs will come. Even if the laughs don’t come you have a fantastic scene.

What is the best improv advice or note you have ever received?                     

When I was in level five, our team (Love Shot Miracle) was rehearsing for our graduating run.  I was in a scene with Rae Stassi and I was playing an idiot husband who was acting like he was listening to her reasonable concerns about life, but he was really just paying attention to a DIY show. I said something like “No, honey I’m listening….oh man that guy should have picked a different kind of grout.” It happened twice and I didn’t recognize the pattern and Andy Sloey stopped me. He let me know about the pattern that we had just made for the scene and how we disregarded it. He said “Don’t throw away the gift you have just given yourself, heighten it.”

I created something but I didn’t listen to it. I didn’t think it was good enough, and I started searching for something else. What was so important for me is the lesson that whatever you have at the beginning of the scene is good enough. LISTEN TO IT AND ACCEPT THE GIFT.

What is the best lesson you’ve learned from improv that translates to your real life?

The one that always sticks with me and I always try to remember is to listen. To me it is the simplest lesson in improv that is the hardest to implement. You have to commit yourself to listening. Seek to understand then to be understood.

After I learned its importance in improv I try to implement it in daily life. There are so many problems that are blown out of proportion and would be so easy to solve if you just listened to people. Not just to what they’re saying but how they’re saying it.

Do you have anything going on that you’d like to plug?

I would like to plug STL Up Late, the last few Friday Soiree shows ending Nov. 7th, and to like the Meowsers Facebook page to find out about our exciting plans after the Soiree is over.

What St. Louis improviser(s) would you like to see answer these questions?

Kate Cole, Lorne Cox and Jacob McGuire

(Optional…well, more optional than the others). Is there a video, podcast episode, blog post etc about improv that you find particularly inspirational or inspiring?

Please please please watch the TJ and Dave documentary Trust Us This is All Made Up. The Mick Napier book Improvise helped me out a lot, and nothing helps more than seeing as many shows as you possibly can.

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