In the entryway of Jessie Gray’s home in Wichita sits a bronze statue of a 10-inch winged pig suspended in flight. She bought it – her first piece of “real art” – at a gallery in California right after she quit her corporate job. She didn’t know where she was going to live or where her next paycheck was coming from, but says, “I had to have it.”
The purchase made perfect sense later when she moved back to Wichita to start an improv school: “When Pigs Fly” summed up the improbability of making a go of it.
Her journey to open Flying Pig Improv on April 20, 2019, began years before.
A student of Wichita theater discovers improv in California
When Gray’s father – 48 years old when Jessie was born – retired from the military, he moved the family five times, sometimes to locations where Junco, his Japanese wife, and his mixed-race daughter did not feel welcome. After a time living in Japan, he took a job in the aircraft industry in Wichita in 1963 and Jessie began school.
Gray’s passion for the stage began at Wichita’s West High with drama teacher Gina Austin, then at Wichita State, where she said she learned from “the best in their prime” – Richard Welsbacher, Joyce Cavarozzi, Mary Jane Teall and others.
After college she and a roommate moved to Los Angeles on a whim, where for five years, she took acting classes and worked temp jobs and “girl Friday” assignments for those in the show business industry. “I never did anything big in Los Angeles,” she said. After the LA riots in 1992, they moved to the San Francisco Bay area, where she spent the next 25 years.
That’s where her fascination began with the spontaneous play of improv: a form of live theater, usually comedy, where actors make up their characters, plot and dialogue on the spot. “It was everywhere in San Francisco,” she said.
While doing temp work in San Francisco, Gray worked on stand-up comedy and a one-person show, but found it too lonely. “I loved the ensemble feel of improv and that we had each others’ backs. It was a community. And it was fun.” She kept studying improv and performing, and then taught improv classes. She was a regular performing troupe member of Awkward Face at Pan Theater in Oakland and Flash Mob Musical Improv in San Francisco. She went on to direct and coach improv troupes.
At this point, she realized that, although she had a lot of great friends, she really wanted men in her life. “I was into this thing where you ask the universe out loud for what you want.” She says she learned you have to be really specific about what you ask for. Soon, she found herself cast in a play where she was the only woman with 13 men. But all the men were gay. “So many of them became longtime friends, so it was great.”
Corporate world offers outlet for improv work
One of her temp jobs resulted in a job offer from Wells Fargo that kept her theatrical skills in play during her next 20 years in the corporate world. As Wells Fargo’s brand manager, she went all over the world explaining the stagecoach brand with a three-hour, one-woman workshop.
Five years and 600 performances later, she was burned out and knew she couldn’t continue in that job. Wells Fargo’s creative services group hired her to do live corporate events.
“I became executive producer of team member talent to create rock bands, gospel choirs, talent shows and music that became opening and closing numbers of conferences” she said. “It was so powerful for regional managers to see their employees perform. People were amazed.”
Unfortunately, restructurings and a new manager in 2013 led to workplace conflicts. She says she kept trying to get laid off, hoping for a severance package.The stress became too much. “I just walked away from it and left all that money on the table.”
She got back into improv and took all the classes and workshops she could, while managing the condo building where she lived rent-free and the improv theater in Oakland for the next five years.
A return to Wichita to find renewed purpose
Her next career step brought her full circle back to Wichita – a decision based on both practical and emotional considerations.
“Wichita’s more financially manageable lifestyle for those who don’t make much money than the San Francisco Bay area.” The people here also drew her back. Every time she visited Wichita, she would gather with people she had stayed in contact with over the years. “They warmly welcomed me back.” She also wanted to spend more time with her mother, who at age 91, is still active and living on her own.
The transition just felt right. “Everything is so accessible here,” she added. “If you wanted to have lunch with the mayor, you probably could.” She is encouraged by so many talented people striving in the arts in the Wichita area. “It’s exciting.”
The one area she needed help with was how to be a successful entrepreneur. She engaged a consultant to give her the business tools to get her feet on the ground.
Although Flying Pig Improv is celebrating its fourth anniversary in April this year, her studio at Hillside and Douglas was closed for one and a half of those four years due to COVID.
“During that time, I didn’t qualify for anything,” she said of the emergency government grants and pandemic loans for nonprofits and businesses with employees. “So, I just kept paying the rent, the bills; trying to wait it out.”
Her tenacity paid off. With drop-in classes on Saturdays and more structured classes on Thursdays and Sundays, the Flying Pig began to soar. She offers the only improv classes in Wichita, except for those at Wichita State, which Gray also teaches. She also offers performances of her own 14-member troupe nearly every Friday and Saturday, with the schedule published on flyingpigimprov.com.
“Now the thing that thrills me is when I look out at the audience (and see people) who have come back. Repeat audiences are great.”
The Flying Pig studio is also home to the Wichita Ukulele Society, and at times various other creative groups meet there. Gray also is a popular lunch speaker for community groups and leads corporate training and team-building workshops.
“Improv can change people in ways that are subtle and bold. I love that they try to be vulnerable and brave at the same time.”
Wichita improv classes draw engineers, teachers and therapists
Who takes improv classes?
Gray said right now she has more engineers than any other profession, and they may take classes to develop better interpersonal skills. “Engineers are incredibly creative, and they solve problems we don’t even understand.
“But they have an imagination swirling around in there that they have not had the opportunity to bring out.”
Next comes teachers, who are usually outgoing and not afraid of being in front of people. Therapists are also frequent students, who may apply improv skills into role-play or other imaginary situations in their practices.
There are no improv prodigies, Gray says. She has to repeat exercises session after session before students get it.
But over time, students develop the skills of the craft, “and then you wear them like a tool belt; when you need one, you rip it out.”
Skills learned in improv readily apply to real life, she says: “When judgment leaves your life, it changes everything. Be a listener. Don’t try to fix it, just accept that’s the way the person feels.”
Her plans for the next year include outreach to youth who don’t have access to the performing arts. She is increasingly approached by those who provide services to youth in underserved communities, in the system and to LGBTQ children.
“LGBTQ kids are likely having people judge them, making their lives harder. They should know it’s OK to let your freak flag fly; you are enough,” she said. “Improv is a confidence builder for them.”
Gray believes people can be transformed through improvisation, made happier as they invite more challenge and risk into their lives.
“I am fulfilling more of my purpose to make a difference, one person, one day at a time.”
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