Marc Evan Jackson only plays a demon on TV, or so he told me. The man behind the all-knowing judge of all matters in the afterlife is Marc Evan Jackson. Despite his role as the devil in charge Shawn on “The Good Place,” Mr. Jackson is anything but evil and, like me, a self-professed, incurable, devout improv nerd.
In a phone call with The Daily, Jackson described his first exposure to improvisational comedy as “life-opening.” He discovered improv by playing piano at rehearsal for River City Improv, a group formed by his former Calvin College classmates.
“I was there for 10 minutes,” Jackson explained, “and I was like, ‘Oh man, we got to find someone else to play piano because I want to do what you’re doing for the rest of my life.’”
There was something about improv that drew him in. It was magnetic, it was energetic, it was everything he loved but didn’t know it yet. He recalled about that first rehearsal: “They were the smartest, funniest, kindest, most empathetic people and I was like, ‘Oh, I would like to be among you please be my friend.’”
After his initial introduction to the wonderful world of improv, Jackson went on to join The Second City in Detroit where he spent four years. Although his time in Detroit was short-lived, Jackson said that he was intoxicated by the city and that “Detroit became home far more than Buffalo ever was, or even more than Grand Rapids.” In 2001, he moved to Los Angeles where he joined a long-form improv group made up of former Detroit residents at Second City Hollywood called “The 313,” named after the area code of the city. The 313 still performs today and includes the likes of Tim Robinson and Sam Richardson (“Detroiters”), Keegan Michael-Key (“Key and Peele”), Larry Joe Campbell (“According to Jim”) and Maribeth Monroe (“Workaholics”).
Hanging out in Los Angeles with his cohort of Detroit expatriates, Jackson and his wife Beth Hagenlocker (co-founder and secretary at Detroit Creativity Project) wanted to know what they could do to help revitalize the city they loved.
“It became clear immediately,” Jackson said. “The thing that made us all good at what we do, made us all agreeable, nice, interested, interesting people and gave us careers is improvisation and the tenants of that, the yes and, the collaboration and the agreement.”
And so, in 2012, Jackson and Hagenlocker formed The Detroit Creativity Project (DCP), a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that provides improv training to Detroit middle and high schoolers by partnering with schools and community organizations.
What does bringing improv into Detroit public schools do? According to two years of research conducted by the University to determine the program’s impact, some really good stuff. Jackson explained that it’s “legit science.” Kids participating in DCP’s flagship program, The Improv Project – a semester-long course and summer workshop series that fosters social and emotional learning – do self-assessments at the beginning and end of the program. Jackson reports that many of the students at the start of the program self-identify for social anxiety, social phobia and even depression. However, at the end of 10 weeks of one hour of improv a week, those numbers were significantly reduced, attendance increased, test scores improved and – Jackson’s personal favorite anecdote –“students who have otherwise skipped school that day are sneaking into the improv classes.”
Detroit Public Schools are underperforming and students are constantly reminded that their low test scores mean they are “at risk.” For most kids, it seems easier to stay under the radar, to not raise their hand, to not get involved. However, Jackson said, “Improvisation is the opposite of that because in order to improvise you have to be involved.”
Therefore, these kids who are told again and again that they will fail, that their schools will fail, that they don’t matter are reminded that their voice matters. Improv reinforces positivity, creativity, collaboration and agreement.
“Improv teaches such good and respectful give-and-take and language and communication patterns that just makes life go better,” Jackson added. “It makes you a better person.”
Improv is not only for wannabe actors or people like me; it is for everyone. “Everyone should do it whether you have any interest in being on any stage of any kind,” Jackson said. “If my family improvised, I’d go home for Thanksgiving.”
“Improv is good for everything,” Jackson reiterated. “It truly is great for not only finding one’s voice and finding what you care about and what matters to you but also breaking down that barrier of defensiveness about there being only one answer and it opens you up to hear and to listen to and to accept other people’s points of view as well. Improv is so wonderful in that regard, and I think it can be a launch point for activism and for getting people involved.”
“It’s one little parenthesis in their (the kids’) day where what they say matters and they’re getting laughs, they’re having fun and they are finding their voice,” Jackson added. “And they are being told not only what you say is important, we need you to be here, we need you to participate and it’s your mind, your body, your voice that is creating this work and without it, without working together, without one another, we have nothing.”
The Detroit Creativity Project reminds kids that their voices matter, their ideas matter and most importantly, they matter. Because when you create a scene out of thin air, you do the impossible and suddenly, anything is possible.
“When you step off the back line in improvisation you enter a white room with nothing in it and then you paint such vivid pictures,” Jackson said. “It’s simply impossible except that it’s not if you do it together.”
You can catch Marc Evan Jackson wreaking havoc on “The Good Place” as head demon Shawn or as Captain Ray Holt’s husband Kevin Cozner on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” You can also tune into a behind-the-scenes look at “The Good Place” on “The Good Place: The Podcast” hosted by Jackson with guests like show creator Michael Shur and cast members like Kristen Bell, Ted Danson, D’Arcy Carden and more.