ChangeMakers

ChangeMakers: ‘Improv evangelist’ Jada Pulley makes space for LGBTQ+ performers

A person wearing a floral outfit poses on a stage
Jada Pulley poses for a portrait on the stage at the HUGE Improv Theater in Minneapolis on June 5. Pulley founded the Queer and Funny Improv Festival, co-directs the Black and Funny Improv Festival, serves as a house manager at HUGE and is the operations manager at MinnPost.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

In celebration of LGBTQ+ Pride Month, throughout June MPR News is featuring transgender and nonbinary Minnesotans making an impact. See more at mprnews.org/changemakers.

About six years ago, Jada Pulley was bored and looking for something to do. They had recently returned to Minneapolis after attending Brown University in Rhode Island and wanted to rebuild their social network.

On social media, they stumbled across the BIPOC Improv Jam at HUGE Improv Theater in Minneapolis, a weekly event where people of color can practice the comedy performance art. Pulley decided to check it out and never left.

Today, Pulley, who is nonbinary, is a self-described “improv evangelist” and a house manager for HUGE.

“It was a wonderful way to make community and now, most of my friends I've met through the scene in some way or another,” Pulley says. “I love improvisers. They are so supportive generally, and I have really opened into my social butterfly-ness and just learned to really own myself and my story in more ways.”

In the years since, Pulley, 28, has become a prolific producer, founding the Bad Poets Society, which fuses their love of improv and spoken word. And with their “improv dad” John Gebretatose — HUGE’s co-executive director and director of diversity and inclusion — Pulley co-directs the Black and Funny Improv Festival, an event model other improv groups around the country have since emulated.

Pulley also co-founded the Queer and Funny Improv Festival (happening on Nov. 12) to provide a space where queer performers could play free of “straight-washing,” or improv setups where traditional marriages and gender roles are the default.

Pulley can usually be found at HUGE: They are in improv groups Blackout, DUH and Hot Pot as well as the Based on a True Story improv series.  When they’re not at HUGE, they are the operations manager at local news nonprofit MinnPost.

Pulley and the HUGE team are also gearing up for later this summer when, after the Twin Cities Improv Festival on June 21 through 25, the theater will be leaving its current space in Uptown and moving a few blocks north on Lyndale. It’s slated to open in September.

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Who are your trans and nonbinary heroes?

My heroes are honestly just my friends. We are out here, living our best lives, or our lives to the best of our ability, and surviving in a world that doesn't want to see us thrive, but we're doing it anyway.

So, every time I’m just walking down the street and I see two femme-presenting people holding hands, I'm just like, “Yeah!” And I try not to be creepy about it because they don't necessarily know what’s up [laughs], but I'm just like, “I see you! I love you! I love your love! Go for it!” My real heroes are just like everyone out here doing the damn thing, you know? Which feels like a cop out answer, but it's true.

Who is a rising trans or nonbinary leader in Minnesota?

I think of my friends who are out here doing their They/Them/Theirold, which is an improv team that is a twist on the classic form the Harold — an all-trans Harold team.

What's something you want everyone to know about trans or nonbinary people?

We’re here, we’ve always been here. It’s completely natural despite what you might have been taught. I see a lot of people being like, “Oh, that's just the way it is. This is the way that God made us.”

No. Even if you believe in God, or gods or whatever higher power there is, nature is nature. And that is what has been created for us. And like, there's so many friggin gay animals out there [laughs], that yeah, it has to be legit, right? If a penguin can do it … Look at the worms, always look at the worms.

That we're here, that we're gonna be here; we're gonna thrive no matter how hard you come for us. People will live their lives. You can either get with it, or you can make it harder for us. Hopefully, you get with it, and we can hold hands and sing Kumbaya and just create a better world for this generation and the next. But, you know, you do you, I'll do me. And we could do “we” if you wanted.

Why improv?

I always joke that I'm an improv evangelist. I just try to get everyone to do it, because it's been so impactful for me. Even though I'm playing a character, it just has taught me more about embracing failure, and how I'm enough. I love improvisers as people, because I can come with a little idea and then it turns into something bigger. There is a big “yes, and” collaboration embedded into this community. You don't have to worry about being weird, because that's the fun thing.

I have been on a long journey of self-confidence. I started out very shy and just didn’t engage with people very much at all. Then I kind of slowly started taking on more leadership, like in high school and that kind of forced me to hang out with people. And then in college, I learned that maybe I wasn't so shy, maybe I just wasn't around people that really gave me what I needed to open up.

Because I grew up in Burnsville — and there are a lot of cool people there, no disrespect, but at least in the track that I was on in school I was often the only Black kid. I was in the GSA [Gay Straight Alliance] in school, but it’s less a salient memory for me. I remember my mom found out and she was like, “What are you doing there? There’s no reason for you to be there unless you’re like that, and you’re not like that.

At that point, I still identified as a woman, but I knew there was some queerness there and I always knew that, but I wasn’t dating anyone; I didn't have any crushes or anything like that. So, it was just kind of like a back-of-the-mind thing until I got to college when it became a bigger part of my identity and activism.

I finally built up enough confidence to take an acting class, like acting 101, my very last semester of college. It took me all four years to get up the courage. That just kind of planted the seed, like “Hey, this is fun. I can do this.” I think it's been something that I've been constantly working on, but improv kind of blew it up. At the beginning of the journey, there’s no way I could imagine myself on stage doing anything, let alone just being goofy, or even being myself.

What motivated you to start the Queer and Funny Improv Festival?

I started it with Pam Mazzone and C. Michael Menge, in collaboration with John [Gebretatose]. There was this thought that some white man is going to come steal this idea, so we got to get to it before they do it and do it right, you know?

With Queer and Funny, just wanting that affinity space and recognizing that there are a ton of funny queer people in the cities doing improv, and putting a space towards, and coming together to celebrate that specifically. Planning for that the first year, I was like, “Damn, there are a lot of queer people doing improv here!”

But you wouldn't necessarily know it from just coming to shows because I feel like a lot of things were kind of straight washed, where even though there were queer people in the cast you would still play like “Oh, this is a man. And this is a woman. And this is a traditional marriage and gender setup.” So giving intentional permission to be like, “Hey, we don't have to follow that script.” We just hate scripts in general in improv.

HUGE theater has definitely been leading the charge in terms of trying to be more progressive in the improv space with its affinity jams and just being clear about the boundaries that we set before a show. Making sure everyone feels safe and comfortable to play because you can't play when you're not feeling comfortable.

What are your hopes for your community, however you define it?

I want my community to be happy, healthy and thriving. I want my Black community, my queer community, my improv community, my personal social community, my cat [laughs] — I want us all to just thrive together with the emphasis on together. If we're a community, I want us to act like a community. To have each other's backs and be able to support each other in different ways in the good times, and the bad times, and be goofy together, be able to be our full selves together.

And that itself is a huge aspect of resistance, right? You can't be in the streets marching all the time, you have to fill your cup. The revolution will be led by all sorts of people doing all sorts of different things. I believe that one of those people will be a comedian. Comedy has been a big source of social change.

What do you do when you're not doing comedy or working?

Shout out to my cat — me and her have spent lots of time together. I just really enjoy being outside. I have so many knitting projects that one day I'll get back to. I really enjoy making community even if it's not in the comedy space. And I don't know, dating takes up a lot of time. Put that I'm single! [laughs] Meeting new people is fun. Feel free to slide into my DMs, you know?

Volume Button
Volume
Now Listening To Livestream
MPR News logo
On Air
MPR News