It’s hard to present the ruse of a serious interview when your subjects joke with you so much. Stationed at Grounds For Coffee at 10th Avenue and Alma Street for a good hour and a half, the improv duo Virginia Jack does just that: they joke with — not at — me.
The duo, comprised of Nicole Passmore and Briana Rayner, are pretty good friends. They riff on everything each other says and even playfully rag on the formality of our meet-up. Numerous times throughout our discussion, Passmore goes off on a tangent, only to end her point by exclaiming, in her best vaudevillian voice, “Put that in your article and smoke it!”
Virginia Jack has steadily built itself into one of the top improv acts in the city. The duo, winners of both the Vancouver CageMatch Tournament of Champions as well as the Vancouver Improv Fight Club Tournament of Champions, describes themselves as artsy, theatrical, and cinematic. They define their style as quaint and tell me that at one of their first shows, they baked cookies, made drinks for people, and even did a raffle.
“We almost feel like we’re inviting people into our living room for a really fun party, and then we do a show,” says Rayner.
“Really?” replies Passmore. “I just treat it like a show with cookies and a raffle.”
“Well, I treat it like cookies and a raffle with a show,” says Rayner, as they both laugh.
Their performances are very unique. They do a form inspired by the movie Amélie where they’ll both narrate the characters, noting their likes and dislikes, and then proceed to do one story in one setting, exploring everything to its fullest.
“Every character we create onstage, we both play. Any narration is both of us. So anything that gets created, the other person is fully accountable for it as well,” says Passmore.
This symbiotic relationship Passmore and Rayner have created translates easily and necessarily onstage. The two can never take a break, as they’re always in the scene. “The thing about being in a duo is that it’s physically taxing, especially when we’re playing everything,” says Passmore. “And the great thing is there’s sometimes this connected moment where she’ll be like, ‘Oh, you’re brain dead right now. I’m going to take over,’ and that’s really nice for me.”
“It’s always nice to have somebody to be like, ‘Can you just do the thinking for a second? Because I’m out,’” says Rayner.
The duo will have been performing strong for three years this January. Looking back, they remember one of the first times the two realized their duo would work out, noting, however, the uniqueness of the venue.
The duo, describing performances they have given at their show, Sex is Funny:
Passmore: “I had a piece of erotic fiction I wrote about Kevin Costner. Because I love Kevin Costner. It’s a piece that mentions all his movies. You know, a lot of puns, a lot of jokes. When I say Field of Dreams, I’m referencing a certain body part.”
Rayner: “One of my favourites was ‘The Internet’ so I could claim to know everyone’s search histories. So I was wearing a suit, because I decided that the Internet is all business, and then proceeded to put sexy outfits on over my suit, just in the instruction of how to put on sexy outfits. And it was incredibly challenging to put some of them on over a blazer.”
“We got hired to do improv at a prison and I genuinely don’t remember why,” says Passmore. “But they wanted to pay us to go do improv there. When we checked in, we had to give them all our personal possessions and our bobby pins.”
“We never got those back,” says Rayner.
“It was their Christmas party,” says Passmore. “It was really nerve-wracking for me, because somewhere in my brain I was thinking, ‘They’re never letting you out. You’re stuck. You’ll have to be here for the rest of your life.’”
Despite the anxiety, they clicked. The group performed their high energy, narrative-based set well and even gained some unexpected respect from the crowd.
“At one point, the crowd was getting rowdy, starting to yell a bit louder, and this one woman, with really short hair, kind of tough-looking, stood up and just very slowly turned to the crowd and said, ‘Quiet.’ And everyone shut up. Every single person,” says Passmore. “And we just thanked her and then kept going. She basically shut up an entire room of grown women with one word. And I thought, ‘Oh, you’re in charge here. Glad you’re cool with us.’”
“It was the rowdiest sober group of people I’ve ever seen,” says Rayner.
Nowadays, when the duo isn’t performing their signature Amélie-inspired set, they’re working on producing their own show, Sex is Funny, where the two “take the piss out of being sexy.”
“If you wanted real sexy, there’s other places to go. You’re not coming to us,” says Passmore. “If you want real funny, with that added element of sexy, yeah, come our way, because we got it.”
In the meantime, Virginia Jack will continue to perform their form around town, charming audiences with their wit and their friendship. And should you go to a Virginia Jack show, expect grounded, yet zany jokes, expect a three-dimensional story, and expect cookies.
Virginia Jack will be debuting a “femme fatale” improv form (inspired by Orange is the New Black) November 25th at the Havana Theatre.