a CONVERSATION WITH THE TEAM
Get to know the team in their own words! They talk about everything from how they met, why they think they’re uniquely qualified to be leaders of Stepping Stone Theater, and what they love about Chicago!
*Be Kind. Reach Out. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org before replicating any part of the conversation below. Thanks!*
Wonderstruct: On another note. Let's talk about friendship. First impressions of each other, and when did you guys become friends?
Jules: Charley ain't no damn friend of mine.
(Jonald and Charley laugh)
Charley: I met Jules when she had moved to Chicago and she started taking classes at The Annoyance which was kind of amazing. She had an amazing reputation because she was already a well-founded performer in her own right. And she didn't need to take the classes. She wanted to take the classes and her reputation sort of preceded her. People were coming up to me before I ever met her and saying, you gotta meet this person. She's awesome. She's amazing. Um, and then I met her and I was like, I don't see it.
(Jules and Jonald Laugh)
No, but really I remember she came into the office to ask me something and she was like, yeah, I'm Jules. And I was like, Oh my God, I've heard so much about you. And immediately just from the way she was talking to me I was like, “she gets it, she's on top of it. And she is doing (Improv) because she truly wants to learn and she doesn't want to take shortcuts to success. She wants to experience everything just like anyone else even though she has the experience to pass through it all. And I think that's an admirable quality, Jonald. Um, I met him in, uh, in a crack den.
(Jonald and Jules laugh)
Charley (cont…): Um, Oh yeah, that's right. No, I, I met Jonald, uh, at The Annoyance. I went away for a year to motorcycle school, um, to follow a passion. And when I came back, uh,
Jonald: I was in charge!
(Jules and Charley laugh)
Charley: I mean, it was weird. A year in the Chicago comedy community is like 12 years, anywhere else people come and go and it can be a whole new group of people. And when I came back, they were like, there's this amazing director, Jonald. And you should see this guy. And (Jonald and I) got to talking about directing and about shows and I think from day one rather than being in any sort of competition as directors we've always been very much like, “hey man, can I ask you a question? How do you do this?” And that has just put us on this nice equal footing. And so, I feel with both of them, I know Jules is going to be a dedicated hard worker who doesn't put herself above anything else. And that Jonald is someone that is always on the level with me and someone I could go to for anything. And there's never any animosity there.
Jules: I do remember going into the office and meeting Charley. I think one of my more vivid memories is of being asked to teach classes at Annoyance. Charley seemed very adamant about me teaching classes. So that was pretty cool. But in addition to that, (Jonald and I) became managers at Annoyance and worked together, and sat in the office and talked crap all the time. Jonald is my director for my touring company and all we heard was about this Jonald guy, Jonald, who’s Jonald, Jonald Jonald. He's the director. And then me and Jonald became cool.
Jonald: I’ve heard of these names through the grapevine. I think both of your reputations have proceeded you before meeting you personally, which is a great thing to have within this community because it's hard to get that garner and also just as fast to have a bad garner. So, it's been really good to always have that positivity behind each of your names.
If I could think of a moment where all three of us became more friendly is during meetings at The Annoyance. And I think talking shop led into joking around each other which became a more friendly atmosphere. It was always those moments during meetings that I felt like, ‘Oh, this is not just a professional thing. We're just all hanging out and joking around with each other.’ That's a huge thing. I think joking around and having that mutual understanding of how to joke around with each other is big.
Wonderstruct: So my next question is for you specifically Jules, Stepping Stone has been a dream or a goal for you for a long time. What was the catalyst or maybe series of events that led you to start building a team and share this endeavor of yours with Jonald and Charley?
Jules: The catalyst overall was the pandemic. I was in my final interview for a job out in Florida for the director of improvisation. So I was looking for a way out of touring because I've been touring on and off since 2013. And I wanted something that was a bit more solidified. I didn't get the job offer as expected because of the pandemic. I kept thinking and praying and meditating on it. What in the world do I do, I wasn’t panicky. I was just like this is a time where I can just figure my stuff out. Because I still want to do theater, but I still want to help in the community. Cause that's what I love to do.
After thinking about it one morning I woke up and immediately it was like “own your own theater”. I started speaking it more into existence and a couple of things happened. I started jotting things down, things of what I would want in my own theater. And again, this is something that I've wanted to do my whole life. I went back to old like papers and ideas that I wrote down years ago when I was a young adult. And then two different things happened. One, most of the theaters, Chicago improv theaters, closed obviously because of COVID but also because of financial issues, institutionalized racism, racism issues, and Facebook, as far as the improv community goes, was a wildfire and at one point I saw Jonald post on Facebook, “so guys, are we going to open our own theater” or something like that? And so I commented and I was like, I'm already on it. And so many people liked it and started messaging me. Jonald immediately messaged me and I was like, “what? Oh, you're down. Okay.” So I was very excited. And then Charley was one of the first persons that I thought of because he had left The Annoyance before the pandemic. He stepped down to raise his kids. And I knew that and I respected that, and I did a little Zoom chat with Charley and was like, kind of picking his brain about what he wants to do, what he saw himself doing. And I said, I have this idea and I'd love to have you on board because I've always respected his style of work and like his intelligence, his experience, and then having Jonald on top of that with his connections in the community and his work ethic, I was like this is a solid, Plus we're all people close in age, very professional in the sense of when it's time to work, it's time to work. I'm very particular about who I work with. So it just became the three of us. And the more we started talking about it to other people, the more other people got excited that the three of us were working together and it was awesome. So that's kind of how the three of us came to be.
Charley: And just to confirm Jules, if Florida calls, you're going to take that job. Right?
Jules: Uh no! If I don't have to leave Chicago, I am not leaving Chicago. I hate Florida. Florida stinks. I took a shower and I smelled like swamp water,
Charley: That egg smell. It's real. If nothing we get out of this interview, I hope it's that people will walk away knowing that Florida smells.
Jules: It's called Red Tide it’s a seasonal thing.
Wonderstruct: On the flip side, Jonald and Charley what do you find fulfilling about being on the Stepping Stone Theater team or uniquely fulfilling? What makes this experience different?
Charley: I’ll say that, all of the major Chicago improv theaters were pretty established by the time any of us got here. And there was a certain sense of, “this is how it's done”. There are just the systems that were set up and it was just accepted. That's just the way it is. And so it's been incredibly refreshing, instead being like, “Hey guys, do we like this aspect of Chicago theater?” And to hear two people go, “no, we don't.” And then say, “how would we do it differently?” and start having that conversation. The fact that we will also be one of the few, not-for-profit, Chicago improv theaters, which means we have a different sort of goal and assert a different mindset than the established theaters that are for-profit. So it allows us to reinvent how a Chicago improv theater operates. And that to me is the most exciting part. And to do it with two people that are so open-minded and so forward-thinking, it’s great.
Jonald: That's pretty much the same sentiment that I'm feeling where here's an opportunity to make whatever you want out of a theater and where you can create your own “rules”. You can make up your own philosophy of improv. It's really also this thing about having a Black woman lead us. That's amazing. And then also amplifying the BIPOC community. As a Director, I'm sitting in these rooms with these other theater producers that are at these higher levels. I have to push back and say, “this cast has like one POC person on here. Why is this?” And to continually make that argument all the time is tiring. Now to have the opportunity to be on the other side and take care of business so that any other directors or artists that are coming up, don't have to face that. Now all they have to do is focus on their art. Hell yeah. That's Stepping Stone. That's what it's all about. It's all about amplifying those underrepresented voices that are out there. And that's super exciting for myself and also to work with the people that are good at making that happen.
Wonderstruct: What technical qualities do you think your team brings to the table that make them uniquely qualified to be leaders of Stepping Stone Theater?
Jules: This is one of my favorite questions because I think we’re all unique in this because just a little quick backstory, fact, or reminder is that a lot of these improv theaters were created in the fifties and the eighties. And these are people, again, I’m not knocking anything that people have established, but we’re coming from a place of a different type of experience where we’ve seen a lot, we’ve experienced a lot. I love the fact that I’ve been a student, I’ve been a teacher, I’ve been a performer. I’ve been manager, I’ve been a director. So I’m coming from many different aspects of how to shape what I believe and feel like we can contribute to the community to help them to give them the voices and hear their voices as they should be heard.
And the same thing with Jonald and Charley, their experiences, I mean, that is exactly why I was so excited to have them on board, what they can offer to the table is managerial experience, director experience. All our networks come from different places, which is so cool. So what we have, it’s just so stretched out that we can find resources and people to help us in so many different aspects. we all have so many things to bring to the table. And for me, that’s a lot because it makes me feel confident in Stepping Stone because I feel like we’ll be very well-rounded.
Jonald: From my own perspective, I always have felt comfortable in Jules being a good mediator, I’ve always felt like if somebody needed to assess different points of views and then give a thought of how to move forward, Jules is really good at that. And then with Charley, back to talking shop at the bar, a lot of that stuff was also the balance of professional business etiquette. I think there’s something about needing somebody that can speak the lingo of someone that has worked in an office day job. A lot of theaters were brought up with artists making the theater happen with no business backgrounds. So when it came to business happening, a lot of these business decisions that needed to be made were. . .improvised. So it wasn’t good for the long run because look at what has happened during this pandemic. And Charley brings this business mind to the table.
Charley: I think for me, it’s nice to finally not be the most attractive person in any group.
(Jules and Jonald laugh)
Jules: That’s all you have to say?
Charley: Oh, okay. Yeah, I can improvise. What I love is that I think there are levels of honesty between the three of us. We all have a way of addressing things in totally different ways. And I can see it working really well in a theater. With my experience there’s a lot of tough conversations that we have, whether it’s notes that you’re giving actors or notes that you’re giving teachers to become better teachers or, you know, running just the day-to-day, you know, employees of a business,the best way to do that is with honesty. And I think the three of us, one of the things I’ve noticed and made me go like, Oh, this is going to be good. Is that we have Jules who, if it came down to it, I would be like Hey Jules, would you mind calling and really telling this person how it is? And I have no doubt, she’d be like, yeah, I got you, don’t worry about it. And then immediately just call and do it. If I needed someone that has a softer hand and knows how to massage it in, in a way that will get them exactly what they needed to hear and get the change that we’re looking for, then that is Jonald. And those both are such admirable qualities when you’re starting a business, because I also know that Jules is going to tell me how it is and Joanld’s going to make me feel good while giving me what I need to hear.
(Jules and Jonald laugh)
Charley: That did sound more weird than I meant it to. Honestly, you’re laughing and that’s the only reason I even thought that sounded weird, but “make me feel good”. As Halle Berry once said.
Jules: Halle Berry, in our interview, from Monsters Ball, ew. I love this so much, Oh my God.
Wonderstruct: Jules, you've performed in other cities outside of Chicago. So, why Chicago? Both for Stepping Stone and for you.
Jules: That’s easy for me to answer because I had always been attracted to the city of Chicago since I was a kid. I grew up in Houston. I did not like it out there. It's just, aesthetically it was not something I was into. I really love, I thought I loved New York city, which I do because it's home. It's where my parents both grew up and where they met and got married. I got really into watching John Hughes movies. John Hughes movies are mostly set in Chicago. There was something about Ferris Bueller. I know that sounds weird. It was less about the story. I would look and be like, Oh wow, that's Chicago. That looks cool. Show more backdrop. That was like my thing. And I never got to come here.
So I first lived in New York. I went to school in New York. I lived in LA for a while., I did not enjoy it as most people would. I think you have to have a nice amount of money to really enjoy it the way you should. When it comes to comedy and Stepping Stone, when I got hired with Second City to do The Ships, we had to do rehearsals here in Chicago. And so for me, it just felt like I was getting a taste of this beautiful city and I was never, ever worried about all the stuff that's in the media about Chicago. I just fell in love. Like I would take long walks throughout the city during our rehearsal days. And I was like, I should move here. And because I saw that the Chicago improv community is, was so kind and so supportive of each other, I was like, this is amazing. It's a beautiful city and people, unfortunately, have the wrong idea about it, but I love all the different aspects. I'm still exploring it. And I don't want to leave the city. And I think Stepping Stone will do so well here. I just couldn't see it anywhere else. I really couldn't. So I think Chicago would a hundred percent appreciate this type of theater in their community.
Charley: Did you ever hear the Michael Douglas quote about Chicago, LA, New York?
Jules: Oh, no. What did he say?
Charley: I never thought I would quote Michael Douglas, but his quote was Hollywood is hype. New York is talk. Chicago is work.
Charley: And, I 100% feel that with the Chicago comedy community. I have no ill will towards anyone who goes to LA or New York versus Chicago because they've put in the work and they're ready to do the hype or to do the talk, that's awesome. I love the work and the people who are putting in the work so much that that's where my passion lies. And I think that's true for both improv, but I also think it's true for the city. I love this city so much. I want to put in the work to make it the place where people don't think if you walk out your door, its dangerous. We have so many resources here in Chicago that for some reason, get relegated to the area that they're in. Like we have this huge comedy community and the South Side doesn't know it, Englewood doesn't know that there's the world-famous Second City in their own town, in that the greatest comedians, maybe of all time have come out of here because it's just a totally different place. And I think putting in the work to connect those as a comedy theater and bring the positive aspects of improv to areas that need some sort of. . .
Jules: Outlet, outlet.
Jonald: Doubling down on what Charley was saying, I mean this place is the city of broad shoulders, right? Everyone that comes out of here always talks about the hustle and grind of Chicago. And I feel that's super real because what a lot of actors will say is that they'll come to Chicago to get their chops and then go to New York or LA to move forward within the film or TV industry. What's to say you can't create roots in Chicago to make yourself a better artist because I think there's also a Midwest mentality here - I just know, coming from Jersey that there's a rigid, razor-sharp POV that's East coast style that when I moved to Chicago, I knew I had to refine it to figure out that Midwest flavor. And then also visiting LA a good number of times that it was more laid back and that you were trying to hit that hustle that you were doing in Chicago to bring people up to speed. So Chicago is a great middle-ground of those two worlds where one’s moving fast, one’s moving too slow, and I just need to find my own way. That's what I think Chicago is, where people have the opportunity to figure out how they want to hit that hustle and grind and then keep on moving forward.
Charley: I think also just the title, Stepping Stone is a genius title because I think it acknowledges something that none of the comedy theaters in Chicago acknowledge, which is that like none of the theaters in Chicago have made someone famous. None of them. Second City didn't make anyone famous. Second City got them the opportunity to go to SNL. Second City gave them the opportunity to do this or that, same with IO, same with Annoyance. It's like, they've all given other people the opportunity. They were all this Stepping Stone to something better. They gave them a chance to get on stage and work their craft. And so I think, just the name Stepping Stone, it sort of encapsulates everything that's true about the acting community, but also what we hope to be for Chicago.