Improv from Detroit to Hollywood

Marc Evan Jackson ’92


Winter 2013

Just a day after Marc Evan Jackson ’92 graduated from Calvin with a philosophy degree, he was employed—though the placement wasn’t exactly in his field.

As his first job out of college, Jackson served as a deckhand on the schooner Malabar in Traverse City, Mich. The Buffalo, N.Y., native would later take on positions as a waiter, an advertising salesman and a radio host. But in the back of his mind, Jackson knew he would ultimately end up acting.

The desire was planted after Jackson’s roommate was asked to play piano for River City Improv, Calvin’s alumni improv troupe. His roommate turned down the gig but recommended Jackson, who had played piano since he was 6 years old.

“I was at that first rehearsal for maybe 10 minutes before I thought, ‘We need to find somebody else to come play the piano because I want to do what you guys are doing for the rest of my life,’” Jackson said.

Jackson became a member of River City Improv, later headed to the east side of the state to join The Second City troupe in Detroit, and eventually moved to Los Angeles, Calif. He believes the skills he developed in the troupes helped him to land his biggest roles.

“My success in Hollywood is directly attributable to improvisation and to my time with River City and my time with Second City,” said Jackson, who currently holds a recurring role as attorney Trevor Nelsson on NBC’s Parks and Recreation. Jackson finds that improvisation gives depth to his characters, adding, “Everybody is looking for you to find the humanity and not just read the words that are on the page.”

Jackson’s extemporaneous side has been especially fitting for Parks and Recreation. “[The producers] put some of the best writers on the planet together and write hilarious scripts, and you go in and record a take or two of that,” Jackson explained. “Then [the directors] go, ‘Make it better, improvise.’”

The versatile performer recently filmed the coming-of-age comedy Kings of Summer alongside stars Nick Offerman and Megan Mullaly—actors whom Jackson counts among his friends. “I get to work with the best people in the world,” he said.

In addition to his roles in films and television series, Jackson also maintains a working mix of live theater, voice-overs and television commercials. And Jackson recently collaborated with like-minded creatives to launch a nonprofit, the Detroit Creativity Project (DCP).

The early stages of DCP began in 2011 when Jackson and his wife, Beth Hagenlocker, were looking for a way to spark change in the declining city of Detroit. The pair found their answer as co-founders of the organization, which currently offers complimentary improv classes in Detroit public schools. Jackson said he soon hopes to expand the project’s vision—sending a variety of artists into schools to help students explore improvisation in other art forms such as fashion, music and photography.

“The skills necessary to improvise well are great skills for citizenship,” Jackson explained. “In order to improvise well you have to be positive, you have to listen to others and respect others, you have to be accepting, you have to play as a team and come with energy.”

For some of the students, Jackson said, exercises in improvisation might seem scary. But as a person who believes “you have to do something scary every day to remind yourself that you’re alive,” he would never consider those fears insurmountable.