Jef Rawls helped create one of the Valley’s longest-running comedy theaters, Jester’Z in Scottsdale, which he co-owns with his wife, Shurlin Rawls. For more than 12 years, Jester’Z improv has been entertaining audiences in their 135-person theater (which they often sell out), as well as in corporate trainings around the country. Rawls, a 39-year-old Mesa resident who attended Thunderbird High School, also teaches more than 200 students throughout the year in courses such as musical improv and teen classes, as well as directs the Jester’Z troupe, which includes almost 20 members. Read on for how he’s become one of the Valley’s most successful comedy business owners, as well as to hear five reasons why he loves calling Arizona home.
What brought you to Arizona?
My mother’s womb. I’m a Phoenix native, but I’ve lived everywhere from Hawaii and California, to Washington and Utah, to Colorado and Washington, D.C. This is where my heart is and where I call home. I’ve been back in Arizona since ’94.
What’s your first memory of being interested in acting or comedy?
My mother coming out of the grocery store when I was 7, getting back into the car frazzled from some of the kids in the store, saying, “Those kids are awfu! I guess I don’t mind my kids.” With a different definition of what “mind” means, I turned to her and said, “Mom, that’s OK, we don’t mind you, either.” I remember my mom laughing and laughing, and that feeling of getting someone to laugh was a great feeling.
What did your acting experience consist of after that?
In high school, I started doing plays. There were a number of years where I didn’t do anything, and one day, I met Louis Anthony Russo, the owner of Star Theater and the Oxymoronz and started taking an improv class. From that moment forward, I wanted to get into improv, acting and comedy. He assisted me with getting an agent and meeting casting directors. I’ve been doing a lot of children’s education videos, I’ve worked with ABC and was the host of What’s Up?, an Emmy-winning children’s education program. I’ve done more than 30 different commercials — most of my acting has been on the camera.
What made you want to take an improv class?
I went on a double date to an Oxymoronz show. I loved the art form of it and never laughed so hard in my life. The next week, I brought back 40 of my closest friends, and I saw almost 20 shows before I ever considered taking a class. I took six classes and ended up performing, starting in ’96.
What makes you love improv so much?
The free style of it and being able to make people laugh. But more than the art form of it, there are a lot of techniques that not only apply on-stage, but also off-stage, making life fun and joyful and adventurous.
How does improv affect your life now?
It helps you think quickly on your feet and be ready for anything. Life doesn’t have a script, and you have to be ready to improvise in life. It helps to be able to recognize those moments when you have to go with the flow and choose to enjoy the now and the moment.
How did the Jester’Z theater get formed?
I had quit my job at Bank One to come work for Louis as his assistant producer. In December 2000, he had congestive heart failure and passed away. What that meant to us involved was that we would have to close down the theater, file bankruptcy and call it a day. That was during the same time my wife and I were going to get married, and I wasn’t going to have a job. While we were on our honeymoon, we decided to evaluate whether we could continue to run this type of company, an all-ages, family-friendly, clean comedy theater. On March 16, 2001, we had Jester’Z up and running. We closed down Star Theater and Oxymoronz and filed bankruptcy at the family’s request and opened Jester’Z. All of the Jester’Z were former Oxymoronz. It’s always been this location.
What’s your typical week like?
We spend the day time in the home office, and then in the evenings, come here to the theater to teach classes during the week and perform our weekend shows. In addition, we do almost 100 corporate shows a year, both locally and nationally. We really love going out and entertaining all types of groups or doing team training.
Why should businesses use improv for team training?
Businesses can utilize improv techniques to assist them in being a little more creative, communicating better, working together as a team, accepting new ideas, and seeing where that takes the company, as well as personally feeling validated as an employee.
What do you look for when you’re choosing a Jester?
I think a lot of people think what we look for is if someone is funny. In reality, what I look for as a producer of a comedy show is a commitment to choice. Can you make a choice and commit to it from action to cut and follow-through? With that commitment to choice, you then start adding some comedy techniques, and you’ve got a funny show. In addition, we work as a team, so being a team player is equally important.
Why focus on clean comedy?
If you think about it, where else is that happening, except for Disney? Here locally, when we first started, we were filling that void. All the comedy places in the Valley have the market on the freedom of saying and doing anything, but where can the audience who doesn’t want that go? It’s part of our core values as a company.
How do you think Jester’Z compares to other improv troupes in the Valley?
The professionalism and expertise of what we do stands out. Many of our performers have been performing for many years, perfecting that craft. Improv tends to have a high turn-over, but many of our performers have been doing thousands of shows for years and years, including corporate shows. Some improv groups are performing once a month or once a weekend. With as many shows that we have, our performers are getting a lot of experience, and I think that shows.
What are your goals with Jester’Z?
We want this to be a business our children can take over some day. We’ve modeled a lot of our decisions on the longevity of this. Improv is a lot about the here-and-now of this moment, but to run the business aspect of it, you definitely have to have those long-range goals. Another goal is to spread awareness through the community that clean comedy can be funny. Our goals have always been to teach life skills, especially to teens, to live life better through the application of Improv techniques. We have our sights set to be the leading producers of entertainment and training locally and nationally.
Why is audience participation so integral in your shows?
It keeps it fresh. Every audience is different, every audience is going to shout out a different suggestion, and the audience invests in the show. They want to know their suggestion is honored, to know that their suggestion set us up for success, that we invested in the suggestion they gave us.
Why should people take an improv class here?
To be better at life. If you’re not doing those things that are out of your comfort zone, then you’re too relaxed and not getting anywhere. Comfort is maintaining the norm. There are a lot of things in our lives that are routine, and we teach techniques that no matter what the disruption is, you’ll be able to handle it better and work outside the box to fix the problem.
What is your acting like outside of Jester’Z?
My on-camera specialty is commercial acting, a lot here locally, some national. My family and I just did a Cold Stone Creamery commercial. I also do training and corporate videos.