Jill Bernard’s “Drum Machine” Still Keeps the Beat After 20 Years

by Ira Brooker

For most of us, the idea of being asked to speak onstage with no prepared notes is the stuff of nightmares. The same goes for being asked to sing in front of a room full of strangers. For Jill Bernard, that’s just another day at the office.

A co-founder of Minneapolis’s venerable HUGE Theater, Bernard has spent more than two decades cementing a reputation as one of the most knowledgeable and respected improv comedy performers not just in Minnesota, but on an international scope. She’s performed her signature one-person improv show “Drum Machine” in more than 20 countries, culminating in a 20th anniversary production Friday night at HUGE.

That kind of longevity is remarkable for any improvised show, but it’s especially impressive considering Bernard’s degree of difficulty. “I always tell the audience it’s a sweepingly epic, historically improvised, one-person musical,” Bernard says. “It’s one storyline with a bunch of different characters, all played by me.”

In its original incarnation, Bernard’s made-up musical was accompanied only by the Zoom RhythmTrak RT-123 drum machine that gives the show its name. “In recent years, I’ve been collaborating with a musician to put an improvised musical soundtrack beneath it, with songs and dances and whatnot,” Bernard explains. 

The show was launched out of necessity in 2002, when Bernard was invited to perform at an improv festival without her creative partner. That experience eventually evolved into the current format of “Drum Machine”: Bernard conducts a brief interview with an audience member, then asks the crowd to suggest a specific historical period. She then uses details from that conversation to craft a history-based comedy musical narrative that can run anywhere from 15 to 90 minutes.

Musical improv is notoriously tricky to pull off, and doing it solo is all the harder. It’s no surprise, then, that “Drum Machine” has opened some hard-to-access doors for Bernard over the past 20 years. “I did a show in the United Arab Emirates,” she says, “Which was interesting because improv is technically illegal there. The government approves all scripts, and there’s no script for improv. So all of the improv shows are billed as educational experiences and I think the

the officials just look the other way.”

Even with all of that experience, the nature of improv means there’s no such thing as a sure thing, as Bernard has discovered at some corporate gigs. “The most disastrous show was here in Minneapolis, at a conference for the whole wheat industry. They did not know what they were looking at.”

Befuddled wheat dealers aside, “Drum Machine” has earned its iconic status via Bernard’s adaptability and unflagging positive energy. She recalls a show in Sweden where the audience suggested a retelling of the Vikings arriving in North America. Partway through the performance, Bernard realized she didn’t want to incorporate the atrocities of that real-life history into her comedy set. Instead, she drew upon a detail from her intro conversation with an audience member who worked as a writer, and gave her character a notebook that allowed them to rewrite history on the fly. “The piece ended with a big closing number called ‘Welcome to America.’ it was such a lovely feeling to have created, using imagination, an alternate America that would be wonderful to welcome people to.”

Drum Machine
presented by HUGE Improv Theater
FRI, July 22ND, 9:30 PM. $12.

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