City Transformation, Creativity

Fundraiser aims to boost interest, investment in student improv through Detroit Creativity Project


Marc Evan Jackson remembers living in a Detroit where you just didn’t walk anywhere. He wouldn’t walk the block from his Midtown apartment to Traffic Jam & Snug; he’d drive to spare the indignity of being mugged or worse.

JacksonFast forward about 13 years. Jackson, now living in Los Angeles, is not your average Detroit ex-pat, wallowing in stories about the city’s grit and can-do attitude. Nope. He’s the kind of guy, who, along with some pretty famous friends, is doing exactly what people who love Detroit do. The actor and comedian along with the other members of The Detroit Creativity Project are putting time, money and action behind their hope for the city.

This weekend, Jackson and other performers will host the “Detroit Party,” a fund-raising celebration that serves as an old-fashioned variety show of sorts. Hosted by Michigan native Keegan-Michael Key, the second-annual Party supports the Detroit Creativity Project, a non-profit organization that gives back to Detroit by bringing the arts and arts education to city schools.

Key, star of Key & Peele, is just one of the guys who will show up, maybe talk a little about their time in Detroit and perform their best stuff for the LA crowd. He will be joined by the likes of Jackson, who has had roles in TV’s “Parks & Recreation” as well as movies including “22 Jump Street,” Paget Brewster, actress and star of “Criminal Minds” and the “Thrilling Adventure Hour” and one of our Detroit Unspun favorites, Allee Willis, a Detroit-born Grammy-Award winning songwriter and documentary-film maker.

These guys and gals will come together for one night (Saturday, Nov. 1) at the Largo, an awesome performance space that Jackson calls much better than the dive they performed at last year. Just kidding. But getting such an event venue to raise funds for the Detroit Creativity Project shows, Jackson says, how much street cred Detroit has and how much people in LA and its neighboring cities care about this very city.

Jackson, by the way, is the Detroit Creativity Project president. He and talked this week via telephone about the Detroit Party, his time in the city and the reasons why he believes his success – and that of many of his friends and follow actors – came from their Detroit roots.

Some background on Jackson: The writer and improviser came from the Buffalo area, cruised through Grand Rapids, spent some time in Traverse City and lived in Detroit for nearly four years. He then moved from the Second City Detroit to Los Angeles in 2001. Marc has taught improv at Second City Hollywood and in 2003 formed a long-form improv group of other Second City alumni called The 313, an homage to Detroit.

keyJackson has become best known for his work on NBC’s Parks and Recreation and Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and as Sparks Nevada in the live stage show The Thrilling Adventure Hour. His recent film credits include 22 Jump Street and The Kings of Summer. He is also a contributor to the after-school literacy program 826 LA.

In 2011 he founded The Detroit Creativity Project with several Los Angeles-based performers. Its mission: “To empower and inspire young people through the art of improvisation. Improvisation is group theater that is spontaneously created without script or rehearsal. The performers rely on listening, respect, teamwork, and making fearless bold choices. Through improvisation our students build confidence and develop creativity, collaboration and a curiosity for learning.”

Jackson has taught improv to a lot of people; he even worked at Grosse Pointe South and had a troupe there called “Second Suburb.” (As an aside, one student fell in love so deeply with this comedy art form that he now owns his own improve theater in Philly; nice work, Greg!)

So will a bunch of LA people really come together to help a bunch of former Detroiters do and say nice things about Detroit? You bet, Jackson says.

“You’d be surprised. Detroit has a wonderful reputation,” Jackson said from his car in LA, where he laughed, seeing the “Lego Movie” director strolling down the street. “Everywhere I travel and talk to people about the DCP, they always ask about Detroit. Detroit is cool. Detroit is globally cool. Everybody knows about Detroit.”

The conversation goes something like this, Jackson riffs. “Detroit – I’ve heard about Detroit. Something’s going on there. Something’s happening. I should buy a house there?”

“It’s everybody,” he says, more seriously. “Rich people. Cool people. That’s why Shinola is there. They did the market research and they found out that ‘Made in Detroit’ means something.”

And helping schools, students and the arts in Detroit definitely means something – to Jackson, to his fellow artists, to everyone where. This is where you learn the ropes – and get the appropriate rope burns when you fail. And the appropriate amount of success when you don’t.

“Detroit is such a great proving ground; they get great at what they’re doing and bring it to larger venues like Los Angeles,” Jackson said. “When they continue to come up in their field, they can brag about working there. Detroit is a badge that indicates quality.”

Improv is a particularly good way to show that off, Jackson notes. Doing improv in Detroit required a huge amount of skill, he recalls. They had to write at least three to four shows a year, whereas other Second Cities could rely on new audiences and old shows. Here, you always had to be cutting edge to get people in their seats.

“We were always writing, so we got good at it. We were always in the process. Never did we let our guard down. It made us strong; it was running with ankle weights and doing what you needed to do,” Jackson said. “Your skill set was tempered in Detroit and you came out stronger.”

That is why he loves teaching students this art.

“Everybody should improvise. It is really about reminding people that you need to remove those limits (imposed upon you as a teen or adult). Remove the need to know the answer all the time. When your decisions aren’t based in fear, you are more playful and curious. … It’s a confidence builder that creates unparalleled communication skills.”

So you need to make yourself and others look good? You need to listen and hear what someone else is saying? You need to react to that’s thrown at you? All very Detroit. And all lessons we need to learn here, kid or not.

It makes you realize your bullet proof and you can go into any situation,” Jackson agrees. “Improv makes you a better person. It makes you a better neighbor. It helps you celebrate.”

If you want to hear the podcast of the event, which will be available Monday, click here.

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