Jacque Arend: Improviser and Instructor with The Torch Theatre

Jacque Arend, founder of, performer with, and instructor at The Torch Theatre in Phoenix, photographed at Federal Pizza in Phoenix, by Nicki Escudero

Jacque Arend, founder of, performer with, and instructor at The Torch Theatre in Phoenix, photographed at Federal Pizza in Phoenix, by Nicki Escudero

Jacque Arend

No matter who she is playing on stage, Jacque Arend has a talent for engaging audiences, making viewers feel like they’re a part of her world, no matter how absurd it might be. Arend has been making improv lovers laugh for 10 years in the Valley, and the 35-year-old Phoenix resident is a founder of and instructor at longform improv theater The Torch Theatre.

Besides also doing corporate workshop training through The Torch Theatre, Arend can be seen playing on stage often, as she’s a member of improv troupes Light Rail Pirates, Mail Order Bride, JaxN Reed, MuChuChu, The Foundation, and Hickory Dickory Dock, and performs in regular shows such as The Wedding Party, The Skewed News Hour, and Birds and Broads. You can catch Arend on stage this week as part of the 14th Annual Phoenix Improv Festival at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix. She’ll be with Light Rail Pirates Thursday, April 16, and Mail Order Bride Saturday, April 18. For more information and tickets, head to www.phoeniximprovfestival.com.

Read on for what makes Arend so passionate about longform improv, and to hear her name her five favorite reasons for loving living in the Valley in a video.

What brought you to Arizona?

When I was in my freshman year in college, I was going to Grand Valley State University for film and video in Michigan. I was on winter break, and my parents came home from a vacation, sat me down, and said, “We have something to tell you.” They told me my dad was taking a job in Arizona and that they were moving within the next couple months.

My mom grew up here, her siblings and parents lived here, and my parents had always wanted to retire here. I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was, because I cried and was like, “What, we’re leaving Michigan?”

They asked me what I wanted to do. At the time, I wanted to stay and go to my sophomore year at college, but I made a deal I would move down after that, because I thought, as the youngest, that’s what I needed to do, is be with my parents. I moved out here in 1999 and took classes at Scottsdale Community College, where I had an acting/directing focus and took acting classes through the theater program.

I was born in Harbert, Michigan.

What’s your earliest memory of being interested in acting?

I got into the drama program in middle school. We had a really great theater teacher who gave us lots of opportunities. My parents had a VHS camcorder when I was a kid and always got the top-of-the-line camcorder at the time, and whenever I had to do English or science project presentations, I was always like, “Let’s make a video!” The more videos I made, the more creative I got with them, and I love that exploration of building something with people, of collaborating and creating something, and that visual aspect of having that final product.

It’s funny because I really enjoyed mowing lawns, and I used to make a little extra money mowing friends’ yards. One thing I always loved about mowing lawns is that it was instant gratification. You put this effort and work into it, and you get to see what you’ve accomplished. It’s that big sigh of, “Wow, I did something.” That can relate to all kinds of things in your life, but that’s what making movies was to me.

I grew up in the ʾ80s and had a TV in my room for as long as I can remember, so I grew up on that culture of television and movies. I have three older brothers, so pop culture was always a big aspect of my life. I was super-into it.

In my junior and senior years of high school, I was very adamant about becoming an Academy Award winner for directing. I think a lot of the reason why I chose directing is because I never got any of the leads in the plays. I was always a supporting character, and I think that was very frustrating to me during that period of time. I thought I wasn’t good enough, but over time, especially where I am at my life, I realize you don’t have to be a lead to be great or impactful.

How did your career in improv begin?

I always did theater in high school but never really thought that was a possibility for me, but in doing the acting classes at Scottsdale Community College, I was successful in the way it gave me lots of confidence and courage through the feedback I was getting from my instructors. I made a lot of friends and felt really comfortable there, and it was a much different experience as opposed to the film department.

Film is competitive, and I think it takes an ego to really succeed, because you have to be ruthless in a way. Not that you have to be a negative individual, but it does take a little bit of walking over people to get where you need to go. It’s part of the attitude you need to have in order to succeed, and that wasn’t really me or a part of my personality at the time.

I didn’t fail out of film class, but I dropped out, because I didn’t show up for a cinematography final and got an F. My instructor was very upset with me about it. He thought I was quitting, and yes, I did quit. It wasn’t really what I wanted for myself, and it gave me a lot of anxiety I couldn’t put myself through at that time in my life.

What it did help me out with was I really started to understand the theater quality of ensemble play and that community and was very attracted to that. At that time of my life, I hadn’t found myself yet or had the life experiences I needed in order to take the next step.

When I turned 25, I wanted to change from being unmotivated to having passion and drive. I had friends who lived in Chicago who I had known from high school, and they kept asking me to come out. I loved Chicago because I loved the city after growing up on Lake Michigan across from Chicago, so I had a romanticized relationship with the city and wanted to be able to enjoy it as an adult.

I thought maybe I should study comedy, because the one thing I knew out of doing film and theater was that comedy was a natural thing for me. I always enjoyed making people laugh and liked that quality in me. I looked into The Second City and was going to take a week intensive with them, and then a friend of mine, [local comedian] Dave Thurston, whom I worked with, told me about the iO Summer Intensive in Chicago, and how it was a five-week program. It was similar in price, especially for how much I was going to be getting out of it, and that sounded so much better to me, because I wanted an excuse to go there for two months. I wanted to be able to go out and enjoy spending time with my friends, but I was also doing it for this reason.

In 2005, I went to Chicago for the summer and instantly connected with it, thinking, “Where have you been all my life?” It was love at first sight, “you are the man I’m going to marry”-type of thing. I got so into it, I spent very little time with my friends. I hung out with them on weekends, but during the week, I was just at the theater from morning to night. I did my class during the day and then would go back and watch shows at night.

I saw the most amazing performers, and I would see them and just say to myself, “I want to be that good. I know it’s going to take some time, but whatever that is, I want that.” That has really driven me as a performer, to have these mentors and look up to them, to think, “If I keep working at it and keep focusing on the craft, I can be that good.”

How has your career evolved since you came back from Chicago?

When I was in Chicago, I knew my life would not be complete if I didn’t continue doing this. I knew I had to go back to Phoenix at some point, so I searched online for the improv that was in Phoenix and found the troupes Galapagos and Apollo 12, but they were ensembles — I knew the chance of me getting into those ensembles was unlikely, so I searched for a group that had auditions. I didn’t really want to do short-form because I learned long-form in Chicago, and I felt right in that type of performance.

I found The Originals, which had just started, and the founder [Matt Rosin] was open to auditions. He called it “medium-form,” which was some short-form with scene exploration, as well. There were opportunities to just do scene work and not have all these parameters set up for you. I went to the audition and become a part of it, and that was my first inside foot into the Phoenix improv scene. [Phoenix improviser] Stacey Hanlon was in it at the time, along with my Light Rail Pirates troupemates Chris Williams, Adrienne Sanford, and Xchel Hernandez.

That was the first step, and a major one. The great thing about it was that because of the structure and nature of the group, I was pretty much performing three weeks in. Matt was so eager to play as much as possible and get us up there and out there, so we had shows all the time. Every week, I was performing, and there is no better way to hone your skills than to perform, perform, perform.

Back when I was with The Originals in 2005, Matt was looking for someone to represent the troupe at the Phoenix Improv Festival. I was like, “Yes, I’ll do it.” I started going to their meetings, and that’s how I met the other founders of The Torch Theatre and got involved with the long-form community.

How would you describe your improv evolution?

I have taught since 2007, and it is interesting to see students go through the same process I went through. It is really interesting seeing them get frustrated, because I think when you love something so much and experience what it is like to succeed at it and have a great time, you want that all the time. If you’re not feeling it, you second-guess yourself.

The process as an improviser is really fascinating. When I studied at iO, I had [improv veteran] Miles Stroth as my instructor. He had come out for Phoenix Improv Festival to do a workshop, and it was my first time seeing him since I was in Chicago. I did a scene, and when it was over, he said, “I’m really enjoying your process. Keep it up.” It was the first time I had ever heard of anyone refer to it as a process, and I was like, “Ohmigod, Miles just told me he was enjoying my process.” It was probably the most amazing thing I could have heard at that time in my career path.

I got super-lucky because Galapagos hand-picked me to do this competition with them in L.A., and I really had no choice but to play at their level. I couldn’t second-guess myself or say, “Oh, I’m not good at this.” I had to say, “Alright. They picked me. I’m here to play with them and have the best experience, so let’s just go for it.” I progressed very rapidly, but it probably took me about three years to get in a zone and go on stage and be confident every time.

You hit new challenges throughout. It probably took me five years to strengthen the muscles in my brain in regards to long-form and remembering things and bringing things back and making connections. It took maybe another two years to get really good at mapping, and take things from life and put them through satire in an improv show.

It’s super-fascinating, because you’re learning all the time. Especially, with me, I had that drive from the beginning to be the best I can be. I don’t think I’ll ever be as good as I want to be. I know I have a lot of gifts and am a strong improviser, but I will always want to be better. I think that says a lot about what improv means to me in my life, because it will always challenge me to be a better person, on stage and off.

What do you attribute to your passion for improv?

I love the organic-ness of it and the collaborative spirit. Theater is great, and I’ve had a lot of fun with it, in the rehearsal process, working with other people, and being directed. All that stuff is great, but there’s just something about the immediacy of improv, where everything is in your hands, including how you’re able to connect with your team before you go on stage and while you’re on stage, how every single moment influences the next. That organic process is so rewarding. It can’t be beat, in my opinion.

I love that I’m able to play men. That’s something I think about all the time, because as an actor, what would I play? I can’t play men on television or on stage, because that’s not who I am, but in improv, I can do that all day, as much as I want.

How would you characterize yourself as an instructor?

It’s been a really valuable process for me. When I first started in 2007, I probably shouldn’t have been teaching, but everyone has got to start somewhere. I was very raw and green during those first couple years. If you’re open to change and learning and growing, that’s how you strengthen in all areas of your life.

Right now, I feel like I’m in a major instructing groove, which is another step in my improv career in getting to where I want to be. That’s one of the benefits, too, is that I’m willing to accept the fact I’m not perfect and never will be.

Personality-wise, I have a lot of struggle with always wanting to be the best. I had a book when I was a kid, called, Nobody’s Perfect, about this boy named Peter, who was perfect throughout the whole book. There would be these vignettes with other kids who weren’t perfect, and I read it so many times. At the end, you find out Peter is actually a windup toy, so as perfect as Peter was throughout the whole book, he wasn’t real.

Being able to accept and always keep in perspective I can always grow relates a lot to me as an instructor. I try to be the best I can be at any moment. As an instructor, I really do truly believe anyone can do improv. I really believe anybody who lets down their guard and opens themselves up to be vulnerable can do improv. It’s about communicating, allowing things to affect you, and yielding to your imagination and allowing yourself to be something you’re not, and really allowing yourself to explore that and have fun with it. Some people have some natural gifts that set them above others, but ultimately, everybody can do it, and it’s useful.

Beyond performance art, improv is useful in how you act in social environments and work environments. It’s knowing those things that have given me better evaluation skills to be able to pinpoint what the problem is so I’m able to communicate more directly about how to fix things.

How would you characterize the Phoenix improv scene?

I think The Torch Theatre has definitely created a strong long-form presence in Phoenix that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. We’re similar to iO in terms of philosophy, and our curriculum is very similar to them in style and approach. As far as we as instructors and The Torch Theatre training program, it’s very focused on honesty through characters, relationship and emotion. I think, almost in a way, it’s interesting, because being the first long-form game in Phoenix makes it a very different experience for us because we’re able to relax and casually go through it, so there’s not a lot of pressure or competitive edge.

The community is super-supportive and almost polite, to a fault. As we’ve been growing, there’s certainly not a lot of aggressiveness on stage. Not that that’s a negative thing, but it certainly makes our shows have a different feeling, than maybe a show might have coming out of Chicago.

Because of those reasons, too, we’re so focused on what the root of improv represents, which is that collaborative spirit, the community and the support. We’ve had people tell us from the bigger cities that it’s nice to see that. It’s nice to see a community where you’re still focusing on those things, and it’s still very prevalent, and you’re doing it for the art and passion. You’re not getting bogged down or saturated by some of the negative stuff that comes out of it.

I think part of that is because this isn’t an L.A. or New York. There aren’t 30,000 people trying to get the same job. A lot of our performers do this as a hobby or an outlet, or because this is what they’ve been looking for all their lives in order to get through the day. Some people love performing and want to continue doing it the rest of their lives, and they have careers, so it’s not like they’re trying to make it big or make it on SNL or anything like that. Because of that, it’s a lot easier, I think, to have that supportive community, where we just want to see each other succeed.

How do you think you stand out as an improviser?

I’m definitely a grounded improviser. I’m realistic and relationship-based. It doesn’t mean I can’t play absurd or that I don’t want to, it’s just that’s my natural go-to and where I feel the best on stage, where I’m playing realistic characters who are having major things happen in their lives.

I have acting skills. Definitely lately, with some of the comments I’ve been getting on shows and how I’m affecting audience members, a lot of the feedback is, “I just love that you played that character and became that person.” That’s something I live for, is going out there, finding this character in the moment who I never knew existed, and letting the audience feel something. I tend to enjoy quiet moments on stage and reacting.

One of the great things about improv is that, yes, there are those guidelines, these things some people call “the rules of improv,” but they’re just guidelines and things that were established by people before us who said, “This is how you can make a strong scene. This is how you can make a strong impact on stage.” Ultimately, none of those rules matter. Once you get strong enough, and you’re able to recognize a strong choice versus a weak choice, you can do anything. You can break all the rules and still have an amazing, phenomenal show.

What are your goals as an improviser?

I want to be the one to watch. I want to be the improviser people tell their friends about. Not that I don’t want the same for my husband [improviser Sam Haldiman] or my fellow improvisers, but I want to have an impact. I think that’s one of the beautiful things about being in Phoenix when I was and getting involved with the improvisers I did at the time I did, is that it’s a part of the Phoenix history of improv.

It doesn’t really matter what happens to me at this point forward. I never did a retirement plan or a 401k, and I don’t save money very well, but I feel like I can teach improv until the day I die. I feel like the longer I teach and perform, the more expensive I’ll be. I’m not saying I want to jack up my rates, but it’s nice to know I chose something I can live off of.

What advice do you have for people who want to try improv and who have never tried it?

It’s like making the choice to jump out of an airplane. It’s scary but the thrill of a lifetime. Most cases, you survive. Nobody’s died from getting on an improv stage, and life is about taking risks. You’re going to only really maximize your life if you’re taking risks and putting yourself in situations where you’re uncomfortable. How else are you going to learn if you’re never uncomfortable?

The skills improv focuses on are all about building confidence. You learn empathy and sensitivity. We live in a social environment, where our life is about socializing, and we interact with people every day. That’s all improv is doing, is interacting on a different level. By taking classes and learning those skills, it’s only going to make you more confident and more comfortable in your everyday experiences. You learn that aspect of saying “yes,” and it infiltrates you as a person. I think people find when they start taking improv and start saying “yes” in class, they start saying “yes” in life more.

I’ve noticed for a lot of people who take improv, it’s led to better opportunities that have enriched them. There have been people who have gotten promotions after taking classes, people who have made the decision to move and make a big life change, people who have met somebody, gotten engaged, and gotten married. It opens doors.

Learn from as many instructors as you can, because so many people express things and approach things differently. Each person’s style and way of describing things is going to affect you differently.

Why would you encourage people to check out the Phoenix Improv Festival?

There’s something amazing about the festival that inspires. It’s a big theater, and it’s beautiful. Getting into the festival and being on that stage raises the stakes for those performers, and it really inspires super-magical events.

Being in that crowd, and sharing that experience of laughing and being surprised is special. The improvisers are discovering things in the moment, and because of that, the audience is discovering things at the same time. There’s something really wonderful about that live experience of getting engaged and being affected by these players, and then to have something magical happen that’s unexpected and gives you these cathartic feelings.

There’s a lot of laughter, but sometimes, it’s more than that. There are so many different experiences you can have emotionally in watching that. It’s such a wonderful thing and a great way to forget about life for awhile. Even in regards to making the choice as a human being to experience improv, you’re opening yourself up and saying “yes” to something.

Learn about other Phoenix improvisers:

Learn more about The Torch Theatre improviser Stacey Reed Hanlon here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about The Torch Theatre founder and improviser Bill Binder here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about The Torch Theatre improviser Anthony Desamito here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about Jester’Z founder and improviser Jef Rawls here on Phoenix People.

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