Case Study: Jet City Improv

Founded: 1992, nonprofit designation in 1996
Headquartered: 5510 University Way NE, Seattle, WA 98105

Program Locations: King County
2016 Operating Expenses: $644k

It may not be immediately clear to most people what Microsoft executives and Virginia Mason Hospital neurosurgeons have in common with the youth awaiting sentencing at the King County Juvenile Justice Center or those undergoing substance use disorder treatment at Sea Mar Renacer Youth Treatment Center. To the team at Jet City, however, it has always been obvious: the potential of improv to fundamentally change lives for the better. Improv can play a role whether it is improving presentation and negotiation skills in the workplace, bedside manner in the hospital, or reframing your outlook on life after enduring serious trauma at a young age. That is why the organization conducts fee-for-service workshops in the private sector and provides the exact same content pro-bono to young people in homeless drop-in spaces, and detention and treatment centers.

Since the organization’s beginnings in 1992, they wanted to be more than a world-class improv troupe. Co-founder Mike Christensen explains, “The idea was that we should do comedy for people who need it or can’t afford it.” By their own count, to this day, they are likely the only improv theater in the country conducting outreach at this scale. The outreach work began with free performances at summer camps for children undergoing challenges, to young burn survivors at Camp Eyabsut, juvenile arthritis patients, and to children with developmental disabilities. About 15 years ago, the Sanctuary Arts Center, a drop-in arts and visual storytelling space for homeless youth located just a few blocks away from Jet City’s theater in Seattle’s University District suggested that Jet City teach improv there. Youth were coming in and doing art on their own, and Sanctuary Arts Center thought it would be beneficial for them to socialize and engage with each other more. From there, the Jet City workshops were born and are now at the point where Sanctuary Arts Center youth recently produced a fully original Shakespeare-Monty Python theatrical mash-up combining film, animation, and original songs called MacMegabeth for the paying public. In 2007, a similar chance connection brought their work into the King County Juvenile Detention Center.

Social Impact: Supporting youth resilience through improv

Juveniles experiencing secure confinement are 80% more likely to engage in future criminal behavior and aggravate existing behavioral health conditions. There is a national trend to make detention a last-resort option that is reflected in King County’s own statistics. The average daily population in detention decreased from 105 in 2006 to 51 in 2016 (nearly 50% over a decade). Despite the decrease, 836 unique youth are admitted to the detention center each year, and there are youth who can spend up to a year in secure confinement awaiting trial. Reflecting national patterns, these youths are disproportionately African American (in 2015, 10% of the general population aged 10-17 and about 59% of the detention population) and Hispanic (in 2016, 14% in the general population compared to 19% in detention).

The current juvenile detention center is slated for replacement. In the meantime, incarcerated youth are housed in an outdated prison-like facility that is too large given the declining population, and leaks if it rains too hard. It is here that every Tuesday, a Jet City Improv cast member steps through the double doors and a body scanner, past guards posted in every corridor, and into a windowless classroom of waiting youth wearing wristbands indicating their level of offense. Every week, the ten or so detainees in that room get a chance to play, be kids again, and gain some social skills that may serve them long after they leave the facility. “We’re always fascinated…when something starts and you can see them turn on. It is simple rules of maintaining eye contact, being positive, listening to each other, building on ideas and not negating ideas. It goes toward comedy and things that are fun, but there are so many other ways to use it,” says Christensen. He quotes his co-founder, Andrew McMasters, when asked how Jet City measures success. “He said, when the kids come in with their hoods down, looking at the floor and go out with their hoods down, looking up.” Though the comedy produced may seem all fun and games, the staff at Jet City recognize the gravity of even starting in on this work. For youth who have not had many stable adults in their lives, it is vital to be one hundred percent committed—even if it means coming in on Thanksgiving, because Thursdays are improv day.

Every week, the ten or so detainees in that room get a chance to play, be kids again, and gain some social skills that may serve them long after they leave the facility.

It is the simplicity of the rules of improv comedy that makes them so powerful, and so equitable. They include things like, Say “Yes,” Say “Yes, and…,” and “There are no mistakes, only opportunities.” These simple rules help create a totally original, imaginative, fun-filled, and democratic universe of possibilities for any group of people, no matter their abilities or background. Jet City cites outreach work with children with developmental disabilities and creating non-verbal play for students where English is as second language as examples.

For the last 15 years, the Jet City Theater and headquarters has sat at the north end of “the Ave” in Seattle’s University District, a typical college neighborhood corridor of cheap eateries and dive bars. Running five to eight performances a week on a staff of just over five, Jet City Improv relies heavily on a dedicated group of volunteers to make it work. This group has had no trouble finding the volunteers, in part because of their dedication to building community and being immensely welcoming. Families looking for something to enjoy with their teenage children, or those looking for a night off from the bar scene, find it at the Jet City Theater and want immediately to give back. After detention, some youth from the King County Juvenile Justice Center travel up to the University District to volunteer in the front of the house or serve as ushers, sometimes earning some community service hours as part of their sentence. The team sums up why they are successful best, “Improv is an authentic story, it’s totally open and available to anyone.”


Funding support for the 2018 Social Impact Study was provided by:

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       king county                         



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