Let’s hear from G.L.O.C.s JESS ALLEN & TARA COPELAND on their many improv collaborations including, most recently, Tara & Jess, their beautiful friendship and how they’ve kept it copacetic for over 10 years! Go ladies!
When did you ladies start working together and how did that come to be?
JESS: We started working together…Lord, I can’t remember. Ha! It seems like forever. I know it was when I put together Ms. Jackson for the first Del Close Marathon. So I guess that’s 1999 (I Googled it). Ms. Jackson was made up of improvisers from previous groups I’d performed with (Stencil and Adhesive) and people I had heard were awesome but did not personally know. One of those people was Tara.
TARA: I don’t remember really knowing her before that. I told her that I really wanted to do it, but that I had no money to pay for rehearsals, and she said it didn’t matter and they’d cover me. It was supposed to be a one-off show, but it was so well received that the group decided to stay together, and we did shows together for something like six years (we even won and ECNY award!) until finally the group was basically just me and Jessica and then we just did shows as Tara & Jess.
What are you currently working on?
JESS: We have at least one improv show going at all times. Right now we are part of the cast of the Armando Diaz Experience / Sleepover on Thursday nights and The Made Up Musical on Friday nights, both at the Magnet Theatre.
TARA: We recently did a short run of Tara & Jess and are looking for some time to do another one. Personally, I’m in the constant state of wanting to write a show that I have an idea for and never actually writing it. I’ve written a few sketches for it and just need a little kick in the butt to get it finished. I also created the Musical Improv program at the Magnet and just created Musical Megawatt teams (with Jess’ help), am in Diamond Lion at UCB, Baby Wants Candy and Gravid Water.
Was this your first collaboration with another woman? If not, who had you worked with previously?
JESS: Working with Tara and the ladies of Ms. Jackson was not my first all female collaboration. The first improv group I was ever in was all ladies. It was called Stencil and it was put together by our then teacher Shira Piven who was then teaching at the New Actors Workshop. This was the same time period she was directing Burn Manhattan (all men). I loved working with Stencil and I can say I never thought of us as a female improv group. I thought of us as an improv group. I think that’s important. We didn’t view ourselves as a group of ladies doing lady improv. We thought of ourselves as being improvisers and yes we were ladies but who cares? You know? It wasn’t even reactionary it was just not thought of – for me at least. Maybe because I also improvised with guys all the time. I don’t know. But I do remember people seeing the shows and saying ‘that was great, I was worried it was going to be agenda improv’. And being young I was like ‘what?’. But now I’m like yeah, we’re improvisers doing our thing and then I think do you worry about ‘agendas’ when you go see all male groups? Probably not. I think ignorance is bliss in this circumstance. Not knowing that people were thinking that when coming to see us and I never even entertained such notions was EXTREMELY freeing.
TARA: I was in a sketch/improv group in college and I worked very closely with some of the women in that group. My friend Becky and I wrote together and my friend Adrianne and I did too. I became very very close with them through that group. That group always only had two or three women in it and I tended to become very close with them in the four years that I did it. But I would say my first official “female” collaboration was Ms. Jackson. And not so long after Ms. Jackson, Eliza Skinner and I did a show that is to this day one of my favorites. It was called Jilted. Frank Spitznagel played piano for us. We wore wedding dresses that we bought at a salvation army, and the story was that we were best friend brides on our wedding day, about to marry twin brothers (stick with me…) We walked down the aisle only to find a note that we’d been left at the altar (Colton Dunn and Brian Finkelstein provided the voiceover of the note for us). We had a whole congregation full of our friends and family there, our uncle Carl was there on keys, and we’d recently taken an improv class at the Learning Annex, so we decide to make the best of a bad situation and put on a show. It was a longform show where we did some shortform/medium form games, and it was incredibly fun and funny. I still think we should bring Jilted back. We only did it a handful of times.
Also, Jessica St. Clair and I had so much fun together on Mother that we were banned from doing scenes together for a brief period of time. It was soul crushing.
What was it that drew you to the woman you now call your partner/collaborator?
JESS: I heard she was great. Never met her before or seen her perform. Ha! But I was like I want to work with the best. Who’s going to make me run faster kind of thing. Well, I picked the right person. Tara is amazing. She’s smart, warm, quick, and unbelievably funny. She makes everyone look better. And that is a great gift. (Especially for me! Ha!) There are so many reasons we work together all the time. The first one that hits me is our passion. We are both very passionate energetic people. We both love improv (as cheesy as that sounds) but we do and that keeps us going and pushing forward. We both will perform at anytime anywhere. Not everyone will do that. That sounds like a no brainer as we are in this world of performers but surprisingly that’s not always the case. And at this point we know each other so deeply that improvising with Tara is one of my favorite things in life. She always has my back and I always have hers. She continually surprises me which I lurve! Tara has made me a better performer and for that I am eternally grateful. We’re also both committed. We’re committed to getting better, to trying new things, to showcasing each other.
TARA: What originally drew me to her was that she said she’d cover my cost of rehearsals. : ) What has kept me wanting her by my side all these years is twofold. One is that she is a genius on stage. Her heart, her mind, her work ethic. She is one of the best improvisers in the city, but she’s also an incredible actor. She is consistently generous, confident, and hilarious on stage. We fit together perfectly. I remember seeing her do her one woman show, American Standard and feeling amazed at her ability to make me laugh and cry at the same time. Then, when she did Staunch, I couldn’t get enough on it. I ended up doing lights for her in Staunch, b/c I was basically going to be there for every single show anyway. To this day, my husband and I quote Staunch all the time. Jessica is an incredible actress, and she brought so much humor, madness, sadness and mania to that show. You felt every feeling, and the more bizarre and out of control she spun, the more real it felt and the more you felt as an audience member like you were watching the truth on stage. Jessica jokes (and sometimes doesn’t joke) about TRUTHS, and I think she is a master of truths on stage.
The second thing is that offstage she is truly one of the best friends I have ever had. We IM each other pretty much all day long for 8 hours straight. We almost can’t talk on the phone anymore b/c it’s always an hour long conversation (not that it stops us). We were bridesmaids in each others’ weddings, threw each others’ bachelorette parties, and will probably have babies together someday. She is married to one of my other best friends, who I have loved with my whole heart for over 11 years. When we went to California for Ptolemy and Shelly [Slocum’s] wedding, Andrew and I shared a hotel room with James and Jessica and I literally woke up smiling with happiness to get to see them first thing in the morning. It was a little creepy, actually. I think I sang “Good Morning, Starshine” from Hair and they kept asking Andrew if I was always like that.
Do you hang out outside your creative endeavors? What do you typically do together?
JESS: Yes. All the time! Ha! I see Tara at least once a week at our shows – usually twice a week for 2 shows. And then we talk ALL DAY on AIM. She is my lifeline at my day job. We were both in each others weddings. She knew my husband before I did. We get mani/pedis. One of our fav things to do before shows. We do couple dinners. She’s one of my best friends. I love her. Wow – this is way lifetime territory but I can’t help it. It’s TRUE.
TARA: I think that we are more friends at this point than creative collaborators. Either that, or the line is so blurred that I just don’t see it anymore. We get together with Stephanie Kasen (from Ms. Jackson) and we have these big girl heart to heart dinners. And, like I said, we basically IM, text, and talk every single day. I don’t even know what we typically do together. We are just always together.
Can you describe your creative process when working together?
JESS: In the beginning we used to rehearse all the time. Now it’s being together in shows. But because of the all day AIM sessions, and the calls, and the knowing everyone in each others lives – all of that knowledge, love, hurt, fears – all of it is there for us on stage. There is no fear or mistrust between us on stage or off. That is an unbelievable gift to have on stage. It makes the play supremely free.
TARA: I saved this questions for last b/c I don’t know how to answer it. I don’t think there is a process, just a commitment to honesty, respect, and take really good care of each other all the time. We are in a constant state of free fall, knowing that we will land somewhere soft (That’s the Dr. Phil in me coming out finally). With Jessica there is so much truth, so much support, and so much care that you can truly trust your every instinct and know she’s doing the same.
What is the hardest part about balancing your friendship and your creative partnership?
JESS: I think our friendship is so entwined with our creations – I think they are one in the same. I think the hardest part of it all is the business side. I mean, sometimes she’s chosen and sometimes I am for auditions, jobs, etc. That can sting for an hour and then I remember I want only the BEST for her and she deserves nothing less – I mean Tara is AMAZING. And then I’m back to being good – You know brush yourself off and on to the next. I think that is a testament to our friendship. Competition in this business between friends is HARD but it would never come between us.
TARA: This one is easy. Motivating the creativity. We have talked a lot over the years about writing something together, filming something together, just doing *more* creatively together. But I think we are so comfortable being friends who do all kinds of improv together, that we’ve gotten sort of complacent in that role. I kind of hope that this interview, and this website, might inspire us to really embrace that we’re seen as creative partners and do something more with it. Even if that something more is get together and work on separate things once a week, but do it together and bounce ideas off of each other. We definitely need more of that.
They say you’re not truly friends until you’ve had a fight so – have you had one? How did you resolve it?
JESS: I can’t remember fighting with Tara. Ha! We have little squabbles and don’t agree on everything. It can get heated but never screaming or the silent treatment.
TARA: I can think of one. I did lights for Staunch and I saw all but one or two shows during its entire run. One night before the show I was hanging out in the lobby of the PIT talking to some friends, and someone asked me something about looking forward to the show (I can’t remember exactly) and I sarcastically replied in a way that made it sound like I didn’t like the show or was sick of it or something (maybe Jess will remember the specifics). One of her co-workers overheard me and didn’t know me or know that I was joking and told her the next day that the girl who did lights for her hated her show or something like that. Jess confronted me about it directly. It had really hurt her feelings. I remember that it took me a minute to even understand b/c the joke had made so little impression on me. It was easy to resolve once we figured out the misunderstanding. I was so glad she asked me about it, though. I appreciated the directness of the confrontation, and I know that if we ever have disagreements, we’ll get that from each other.
JESS: Tara was amazing and did the lights for Staunch which there are no words for her generosity of time and level of support. AMAZING! But I do remember a friend from my day job came to see the show and had heard Tara in the lobby say something that sounded negative about coming to see the show. Don’t remember exactly what she said, but my friend from work did not know she was one of my besties and therefore did not get her sarcasm. She just thought Tara was being mean – ha! So she pulled me aside at work the next day and said something like, ‘you should know some woman was out front before your show, saying disparaging things….etc.’. Then she described Tara and I was in SHOCK. I was like no way. There is no way she feels like that about the show or me. But then the doubt creeps in and I started feeling like, well maybe she’s over it. I mean, she is being beyond helpful by running the lights and maybe I am taking advantage of her and her time. Maybe she thinks the show is boring now. I mean, the classic downward spiral of doubt begins. So the next time we either talked or saw each other I remember bringing it up first thing. I needed to know. And Tara was like ‘what are you talking about?’. Then she remembered her off handed remark and was like I was making a joke to another mutual friend. I mean, comedy of errors. But the fact that we can come to each other and go directly to the problem is what makes us so strong as a comedy team and as friends. We don’t feel the need to make it comfortable because we’re past that point. We both know we love each other and respect each other – so let’s cut to the chase and solve this problem. And we do and then we move on. We both are direct people – in our communication style, in our likes in our dislikes, we are very much who we are and I think that is what attracts us to each other.
How would you define healthy competition?
JESS: I would say it’s when you push one another to go that extra mile. You make the other person work hard to keep up with you and vice versa. I think we are both very much invested in making the other one look great. And because that is our focus the competition becomes fun. It’s fun to push one another to make bolder decisions, choices and to stick with them.
TARA: Healthy competition is when someone pushes you to be better and to work harder. When you’re in a healthy competition with someone and they have success, you are happy for them.
Do you think it’s important for women to work together and, if so, why?
JESS: Yes! I think it’s just a great specific experience. And every woman should try it, at least once. I think it’s important because working w/men and working w/women is very different. The dynamics are extremely different and you get totally different results from each experience. And that is what I’m always looking for. A new experience. Something to excitement me in a new way. For me, working with women, has been, on the whole, a completely freeing experience. (I can play any character I want and it will immediately be accepted.)
TARA: I think it’s important to be able to work with other people, period. But, yes, I think it’s important for women to work together, to believe in each other, to support each other. There is so much stacked against women in the industry anyway, but especially in the comedy world. That Christopher Hitchens Vanity Fair article was beyond insane, but it was also printed. In Vanity Fair. We’ve got to keep it real and get each others’ backs. Nobody else is out there fighting for us. Also, if you work with women, nobody can ban you from doing scenes together.
What are your future goals together and separately?
JESS: I think together – we’d love to keep improvising forever together. Ha! We love it and we fit beautifully together. Separately, I would like to write more and act a lot more. I fell into improv through acting and I’m ready to get back to that side on a full time basis.
TARA: I’d love to get a show written and put up somewhere. I want to be auditioning more. I want to go to LA for a few weeks; I’ve never done that and I think it’s time. Mostly I just want to work more, but also just keep working. I love this business, I love the people in it.
How do you think the dynamic changes with an all-female collaboration?
JESS: I think the dynamics change simply because men and women are different. We behave differently when with all men or with all women. So from the jump you’re working from a different part of yourself when w/all ladies opposed to a mixed group. For me the dynamic has been very freeing. I feel very free to be silly or bold or both. I love playing w/both mixed and all female groups but with all ladies I do feel a true freedom that I don’t feel with a mixed group.
TARA: There are a lot more candid stories about things like periods and butt sex. Sorry, but it’s true. And it’s so much freer, and more fun in a way. You really can let loose. That word collaboration is really important. When women are truly collaborating, I think there is so much less judgment, less fear of being judged and less inhibition. And it creates great work.
What do you hope to see from the future of women in comedy?
JESS: MORE. I want to see more women in every facet of the business. More women managers, agents, writers, directors, producers, stand ups, improvisers. MORE. All of the comedy movies that have come lately have maybe one woman. And she’s usually not very funny, she’s usually just eye candy. And it’s like COME ON! There are SO many hilarious women who could play that part or any of the other male parts in the film. It gets boring seeing all white guys be funny. We need more ladies, more ethnic people in general – more variety. It’s time – it’s actually WAY past time. And that is why I say more MORE MORE – ladies in places of power and creativity – not just in front to the camera.
TARA: I want women to be everywhere. I want movies to have actual funny women in them, not funny men and pretty women. I want there to be less of a physical bias against women. I wish that women were given the same standards and choices as men in comedy.
Anything else you’d like to say?
JESS: I love GLOC!!!! I love you for having the fortitude to make this a reality. You are one of the ladies I am talking about. Taking power. Creating space for different voices. YAY!!!
TARA: Two things:
1. One of the luckiest things you can ever be is coached by Jessica Allen. She gives ALL of herself to the groups she coaches. She loves them like they are her children. She sees almost all of their shows, without being asked or paid. She spends most of her nights with the people that she’s coaching; watching, coaching or hanging out with them. They are some of the luckiest people in all of improv and I hope they know it.
2. Glennis, you are a rock star. We should all get together, all the women on this website and do something together. Why not? We can take over the world. Maybe this is how it starts!
I hope so!
You can see JESS & TARA improvise together tonight at 8pm in the SLEEPOVER!, tomorrow, December 17th at 8:30pm, when they sit in with TACO SUPREME and following that at 10pm in THE MADE UP MUSICAL. All shows take place at the MAGNET THEATER [254 W 29th St, NYC].
Find out more about TARA on her site and look for JESS’ site coming soon!