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Those People You Didn’t Recognize on the Kennedy Center’s Red Carpet? Probably Improv Performers

The performing arts center brought them in to loosen up the DC crowd before Sunday's Mark Twain Prize ceremony.
Denny Johnson, Jaci Pulice, Kate Symes, and Aaron Mosby from Washington Improv Theater at the Kennedy Center on Sunday. Photograph by Tracey Salazar, courtesy the Kennedy Center.

The red carpet at the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize ceremony this past Sunday was a bit of a snoozefest at first, at least for those of us covering it: Some celebrities appeared to be late; others, like Keegan-Michael Key, Lisa Kudrow, and Tina Fey blew past the pen holding print media reporters. Luckily, Jaci Pulice shimmied over to introduce herself, ask us about where we were from, and try to keep us jazzed about the event to come. Pulice wasn’t an attendee here to pay tribute to Julia Louis-Dreyfus, mind you: She was a local improvisational performer, and she was part of a new Kennedy Center initiative aimed at loosening up the Washington crowd.

This weekend’s ceremony was the first time the Kennedy Center engaged local improvisational performers to stroll down the red carpet and mingle with guests inside. Think Academy Awards seat fillers who are charged with entertaining the press and the public during the long lulls between arrival and showtime, chatting up the people who congregate early in hopes to catch a glimpse of the evening’s top-billed celebrities.

The idea came from Kennedy Center fellow Jasmine Jiang, a graduate student at American University who felt that the Mark Twain awards could use a little freshening up. “We wanted the night of the Mark Twain Prize to feel appropriately fun and light-hearted,” Jiang tells Washingtonian. Jiang hoped that placing trained improvisers from Washington Improv Theater around the Hall of Nations would ease tensions and cure boredom: “I think the DC crowd, especially in a prestigious, historical venue like the Kennedy Center, can definitely  be a bit buttoned-up and formal, so we wanted to send the message right away that Twain should feel like a night off.”

Organizers at the Kennedy Center went through several rounds of ideas—including a Madame Tussauds-style wax sculpture of Louis-Dreyfus, a Mark Twain character photobombing people, a flash mob of dancers doing the “Elaine dance”–before they landed on local funny-people. Partnering with WIT—where Jiang has taken classes—felt like a toe-dip the storied venue could afford to take. And according to several parties involved, the risk paid off.

“It was nice talking to both the press and the public,” Pulice says. “I felt it was really cool in terms of showing locals there’s a side of DC that’s interested in comedy and celebrity. In general, bringing more awareness to that there is live comedy was such an exciting return on the event that we didn’t even expect.” And, she adds: “I also didn’t mind having my picture taken on the red carpet. That was fun.”

The improv performers were not paid: “Compensation for working artists is an important topic,” says Kennedy Center spokesperson Michelle Pendoley. “WIT was given the choice between cash compensation or tickets to Twain, which as you know is a major fundraising event. WIT opted for the tickets, which actually had a lot more value since they were sold publicly. But I think we’d all agree that the real value was in working together. We all feel like we made new professional friends, and want to work together again.”

Jiang says several patrons, including those who had been red carpet regulars for the last decade, told the Kennedy Center that the live twist added to their experience. There was, she says, even emotion “from some members of the press corps who aren’t known for laughing easily.” (Note: That group does not include me.)

Jiang says there has  been very preliminary talk about  to extend the improv performances or similar stunts to other Kennedy Center red carpets. So should patrons expect live talent on the floor at the Kennedy Center Honors? “That will be a larger conversation for the future,” Jiang says.

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Brittany Shepherd joined Washingtonian as a staff writer in June 2018. She previously covered the White House for Independent Journal Review. She currently lives in Navy Yard.