From The Second City to The Annoyance and all the small independent theaters in between, Chicago is the original home of the art of improvisation—or as it’s known colloquially, “improv.”
Chicago is also home to Brian Jaeger, a seasoned improviser and Mainland’s Vice President of Media Relations. Jaeger got his start in performance in eighth grade when he received an in-school suspension for goofing around a little too much. “I was a new kid trying to be cool, and in a way, it worked,” he recalls. “My preteen rebel persona was established—well, at least in my own mind.”
Jaeger later attended the University of Florida, where he enrolled in an elective Improv 101 class. What started as an easy pursuit of school credit quickly turned into touring around the country for nearly five years with the university’s official long-form improv troupe.
“What’s nice about improv is you don’t have to prepare. You just show up and play make-believe,” said Jaeger, who prefers the more narrative, scenic long-form improv to the game-heavy “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” short-form type. “I love the art form.”
Jaeger has long believed that improv should be part of the educational system starting in elementary schools. “There are tenets of improv that can inform the basic skills of interacting with people and progressing a conversation,” he said.
That includes the well-known philosophy of “Yes, And,” which has even gained popularity in professional development spheres in recent years. “Instead of immediately going to ‘No’ and shutting someone’s idea down, you agree, then take it the next step and explore it further,” explained Jaeger.
Improvisers are acutely trained to recognize patterns, and Jaeger sees many similarities between performing improv onstage and performing in a leadership role at Mainland.
“When it comes to collaborating with others, you are only going to be as successful as the team as a whole,” he added. “Every good improviser can help a teammate who is lost in the scene and help them make something good out of it. That’s also important in a work environment—everyone has their bad days, and their strengths and weaknesses. If you can recognize that someone is struggling and support them in the moment, you’ll lift up the whole team.”
While performers who have made it all the way from the stages of Chicago to Saturday Night Live may have given improv a reputation for doubling audiences over nonstop, Jaeger says that the best improvisers are actually expert collaborators, not class clowns. “The humor in improv comes from growing the characters, their relationships and dynamics onstage,” he explained. “The people who go out there and just get wacky as hell are going to fail. If you create something together and have fun playing with it as it builds, it is so much smarter and more rewarding—and much funnier than someone hitting themselves on the head with a frying pan while riding the Gumdrop Train to Fairytale Land.”
To explain his approach to storytelling, Jaeger described one of long-form improv’s most popular forms, The Harold, made famous by Del Close and Charna Halpern at Chicago’s iO Theater and later implemented by Amy Poehler and the rest of the “UCB Four” of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York City.
“The Harold has three acts, with three scenes in each act,” said Jaeger. “In the first act, you establish each scene’s characters and their environments, laying the foundation on which to build. In the second act, there’s an escalation of an issue or a conflict introduced. The third act brings the resolution that can hopefully be tied together with a nice bow.”
Jaeger noted that a key difference between media pitching and in-house content development—both of which Mainland specializes in—is that a piece of content provides a full story arch, like a completed Harold. “But with PR, the best pitch is just the first act. A reporter or producer’s job is to tell the story, so as a pitcher, you want to only give them the raw materials and trust them to put it together, with their expertise, for their audience.”
Whether playing a 94-year-old baker attempting to create the world’s largest blueberry donut the day before he retires or pitching the media with a story about a father-and-two-sons team of franchisees about to open their third MOOYAH location in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, Jaeger says the more specifics one gives as “gifts” in their storytelling or first-act media pitching, the better.
“Instead of saying, “We went to a house” in a scene, you want to throw out an exact address, and describe the exterior,” said Jaeger, “Because you’re making things up that are not immediately tangible, by painting a picture of where you are in the audience’s mind, you can bring them on board to the reality and suspend their disbelief.”
The ability to give specifics while not overstepping boundaries in a media pitch can have lasting benefits. “If you frame it right, the reporter will find it valuable, and you can go back to them for other stories in the future because they enjoyed how you set it up,” said Jaeger. “And you’re setting up a compelling story that benefits the client and their audience, too.”
When prompted to improvise a story to illustrate his point, Jaeger gladly obliged.
“This is a story about a sword in a stone,” he began. “There were tales, and legends, and songs sung about this sword, saying that if someone were able to find it—and wield it—they would be able to cause every reporter and producer in the world to find their story ideas thrilling, interesting and compelling.
“For centuries, many people tried to find the sword. A few, it was said, were able to find it, and tried to pull it from its rock. But none were able. Countless years, and lives, were spent trying.
“Then, there was a boy. He went on a journey, packing his satchel with nonperishable food items from his father, who was a Prepper. He went out, and by happenstance, he found the sword.
“Upon trying to pull it from the stone, a sprite in the woods revealed herself, and said, ‘I’m going to share with you wisdom beyond the power of this sword. The sword’s not f****** real.’ And it vanished.
“He realized there was no magic sword. You had to put the work in, try hard, and come up with compelling stories with a journalistic mindset; all those wonderful things that don't have a shortcut like a magic sword. The end.”
“That was a parable,” Jaeger clarified.