by Zachary Clemente
The Detroit Creativity Project (DPC) is a group of working actors, writers, directors, and musicians whose roots are in Detroit. The roster includes artists from across the spectrum of the performing arts: a musical director for a Grammy award-winning pop artist, a rising young film director, and the creators and stars of popular television comedy shows. We are alumni of The Second City Detroit and graduates of Wayne State University. For so many of us, Detroit was the launching pad for our careers in entertainment. We are committed to giving back to the city that gave us so much.
Comics Beat: This is actually very personal to me as I was born and raised near Detroit.
Marc Evan Jackson: Really, where from?
CB: I was little outside in Bloomfield Hills, but moved away when I was 12.
MEJ: That’s not a little outside, my wife is from Bloomfield Hills. Did your family work in the auto industry?
CB: Sort of. My dad worked for a company that worked closely with GM, but we left before some of the major flops; around 2002.
MEJ: I love that you talk about a time very recent as though it were classic.
CB: Well, I’m 24…
MEJ: Gosh, are you really? Good for you. Get me my wheelchair. [Laughs]
CB: What about Detroit is so important to you and what is your connection to it?
MEJ: I don’t know if you witnessed this in the 12 years that you were there, but there’s something about Detroit; it has a spirit or vibe. I only lived there for about three and a half years; I moved to Detroit to join the Second City and in that three and a half years it became home. I grew up in Buffalo, NY, I went to school in Grand Rapids, MI; I then lived all over Michigan and Maine briefly after college. Only when I moved to Detroit did I feel that draw, that pull; there’s just this underground heartbeat to Detroit. There’s a pulse of vibrance, coolness, and expression of creativity.
So Detroit is a place that has suffered a lot of egress; a lot of people have left. They took a census right before I left and they were hoping not to fall below 1,000,000 people and it ended up being 720,000, so they missed it by more than 25% – there’s just been a lot of flight of every stripe out of Detroit. But there are still students in Detroit and arts funding has gotten cut and cut; Detroit has been so good to me and to my friends and the arts have been so good to me and my friends that we wanted to give back. In 2012, my wife Beth Hagenlocker and I, as well as people I was in the Second City cast with – Marybeth Monroe from Workaholics, Keegan-Michael Key from Key & Peele, Larry Joe Campbell from According to Jim – we got together and asked “what could we to give back to Detroit?”
Our background is in improvisation and that’s what has gotten each of us our careers, and we decided one easy way to give back is to offer improv instruction free of charge in middle and high schools in Detroit. We started out flagship program, The Improv Project to do just that: to offer this instruction. One big caveat is that we’re not hoping to create more actors or comedians or writers necessarily. Improv is a skill for everybody. In order to improvise well, you have to listen and respect those you’re working with, you have to use your imagination and show up with energy, you have to find yourself saying a lot of “yes” and being overwhelmingly positive, and you have to work well as a team – it’s a great skill set for anybody. Whether you’re going to go be a doctor, a teacher, or anything at all.
Comics Beat: It’s a skill that seems like it can open doors you never thought were in front of you?
MEJ: It absolutely does. It also makes you see doors that you might’ve not been aware of otherwise. It takes the pressure off everything being perfect, it takes the pressure off having the right answer – it spurs curiosity. […] You’ll do an improv scene about something and realize when you’re done that you may not know much about that subject and find yourself researching it. It inspires a confidence and a communication skill. […] When you’re in middle and high school, the stakes seem high; everything seems important. There’s such an impetus to be cool or tough or whatever and especially in a hard-bitten place like Detroit that’s the case. Improv erases a lot of that, it makes you feel fine about saying “I don’t know the answer, could you tell me about that?” rather than going “I know.” Instead of the knee-jerking with “you can’t teach me anything,” it puts you in the other direction and makes you think that it doesn’t make you dumb to ask a question.
“Tell me about what you do, I don’t know anything about that. I’m 13 years old, why would I know about that?”
CB: So it can take down that front that people feel they need to put up?
MEJ: Exactly. It crashes through that barrier, in crashes through those obstacles that we put in front of ourselves. The ones that keep you from talking to people, that keep you from asserting an opinion, from finding yourself. It’s such a good communication skill, and again, it’s overwhelmingly positive, it’s good for interviewing skills for jobs or colleges. We are working on measuring our results; doing incoming and exiting surveys with our students, seeing how it affects their test scores. All the schools want to know that this has correlates to the Common Core Curriculum. It really does though, [improv] will make you a better learner; a more curious, more interesting, and more interested person.
CB: How does it feel to lend credence to an enterprise for good with your name and career?
MEJ: My career and my name has become whatever it is currently so gradually that it doesn’t feel like there’s anything to offer. This is something I’d care about whether I was in the public eye or not, it’s a total no-brainer. I think far more drastic a name are people like Keegan-Michael Key. When we go back to Detroit, we were there last in August for the improv festival; the performances go: middle school, high school, my group The 313 (the area code of the city of Detroit and features Keegan-Michael Key, Larry Joe Campbell, Joshua Funk, Nyima Funk, Andy Cobb, Maribeth Monroe, and Jaime Moyer), and then we had the kids come back and perform with us. To watch these middle and high school students perform with Keegan was something I’ll never forget as long as I live.
For myself and for people far more famous than I’ll ever be, it’s easy. It’s such a good thing to watch the transformation in these kids and I can’t imagine not doing it.
CB: While I’ve never been back, I kind of think that underground pulse you mentioned is expressed in a hope for Detroit. Sort of the certainty that it’ll come back?
MEJ: I think that a Detroit renaissance is inevitable, but if it doesn’t happen now with all that’s going on – all the focus, all the dollars, all the energy – then it never will. My wife and I, representing the DCP, were back in Detroit just a few weeks ago for the 1st Annual Detroit Homecoming. They reached out to expats all around in business, entertainment, sports, government, everything, to come back to Detroit for a summit. They said “let us take you around Detroit, let us show you the changes that have taken place already, and have your input on what you can do.” Beth and I were back as liaisons, sort of, to the Hollywood community, but Warren Buffet was there – there people there that were billionaires who run companies that can decide to put a call center in Detroit, they can decide to open a branch in Detroit, they can look into manufacturing their next product there.
It was encouraging to know that it wasn’t just some underground, improv theatre, artistic thing. People from all walks of life that got their start in Detroit or went to school in Detroit – anybody who has any connection to it looks back and says “I want to be part of the conversation in Detroit, I want to help with what’s next and see what I can do.” This meeting was powerful; so good for connections and networking. We were able to match-make for people who should know each other and people did that for us and it’s been pretty great.
CB: I have some friends who are interested in urban development and urban planning and it’s been such a foundational place for them to go.
MEJ: It’s a laboratory, right? There’s nowhere else like it right now.
CB: People have the opportunity to almost beta-test infrastructure systems like urban farming.
MEJ: Sure, like communal living. I mean, you can buy a house there for $5,000 right now.
CB: Yeah, but you will have to remove the tree.
MEJ: Oh sure, the one’s that’s growing inside your house? No, that’s true. They’re calling it the new Berlin, but they’re also calling it the next Silicon Valley. Companies are moving there because there’s skilled work forces, housing is cheap, and there’s an awful lot of land around.
There’s nothing like Detroit. You have an idea, you’ve been there, but for people that haven’t it’s so hard to describe Detroit and what it looked like. Even in the late 90’s when I was there…to describe the block-after-block of burned out buildings that had been burned since 1967 and nobody’s touched it. It’s hard to convey that to people who haven’t gone.
CB: Looks like we have some overlap, time-wise.
MEJ: Yes, but you were likely in diapers.
CB: One of the things about DCP that really excites me is that it reminds me of the little movements that ended up spawning things like Motown; these beautiful things that could have only come out of Detroit.
MEJ: I’ll tell you what: this Detroit Homecoming made us aware of other groups doing similar things that we’re doing, people doing complementary things – a lot of puzzle pieces got put together. We’ve met groups of people that are literally doing expatriate fundraising for Detroit. There’s a group called Born and Raised Detroit and there are a number of groups like that without this homecoming, we would’ve never known existed.
CB: Thank you so much Marc for discussing this project.
MEJ: Of course, and thank you.
Marc Evan Jackson is a improv performer, voice, TV, and film actor currently in Los Angeles. He is the voice of Spark Nevada, Marshall on Mars on the monthly live radio show, Thrilling Adventure Hour and is one of the founders of the Detroit Creativity Project, where he serves as President. Find more information on the Detroit Creative Project here.
Find tickets for the 2nd Annual Detroit Party benefiting the DCP, hosted by Second City Detroit alum Keegan-Michael Key from Key & Peele here.