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If you’ve seen the current batch of national Sonic commercials (all of which involve two characters in the front seat of a car, sitting at a drive-thru), then you may have noticed the young desi woman who stars in three of them. That’s Chicago actress, improvisor, and writer Sayjal Joshi.

Sayjal is one of a small but growing class of artists: the working improvisor—the actor who is making a living primarily through improvisational acting.

Sayjal is currently an active member of the following Chicago-based improvisational comedy ensembles: Chicago Comedy Company (a short-form improvisational theater company); Emperor (a long-form improvisational troupe at iO Chicago, formerly ImprovOlympic); International Stinger (an improvisational troupe that’s a member team at The Playground); and Stir-Friday Night! (a touring Asian American sketch comedy and improvisational troupe).

Sayjal recently performed with Stir-Friday Night! at the first National Asian American Theater Festival in New York City. Stir-Friday Night! was one of 12 groups from across the country that were selected for this festival.

Sayjal is an understudy for The Second City Touring Company. She is also an alumnus of ComedySportz Chicago, The Chicago Bobs and THE BEATBOX, and The Idiot Box (a short-form improvisational theater in Greensboro, N.C.).

In addition, Sayjal has numerous theater credits including The 365 Plays Festival, Into the Woods, The Vagina Monologues, and Tartuffe.

Sayjal grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina. She has a B.A. in Drama from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She has studied improvisation at The Idiot Box in Greensboro, and at ComedySportz Chicago, iO Chicago, and The Second City Training Center (Chicago).

I interviewed Sayjal a few days after she had closed her most recent project:Premature Infatuation, a two-person sketch comedy show with Steven Yeun, a fellow member of Stir-Friday Night! The show, directed by Lillian Frances, with musical direction by Shane Shariffskul, was a hit. Every night sold out except for opening night. On the night I saw the show, Sayjal and Steven received a standing ovation from a sell-out house.

What are your thoughts on the Premature Infatuation

run now that it’s over?

That was probably the most work I’ve ever put into any one production in my life! I had never done a two-person show of any kind and had never had to facilitate every aspect of a production from writing, to acting, to selling tickets, to booking space, to hiring a pianist and director, scheduling rehearsals, everything. It was one of the most exhausting and rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. I would compare it to having a baby, but I probably can’t since I’ve never had a baby.

I guess what amazes me the most is that Lillie, Shane, Steve and I did this for and with little to no money, and with what little extra time we had. Lillie was in the process of buying the Chicago Comedy Company, Shane was and still is in grad school at Northwestern and works a full-time corporate job, and both Steve and I are in numerous other performance projects and both have part-time jobs on top of that. It really comes down to the fact that these were stories and experiences and songs that had to come out and live, and there was no way we were going to stop them no matter how busy we were.

The show basically told us what to do and when.

How did you end up attending UNC-Greensboro and studying drama?

I was originally supposed to be a veterinarian. Just about everybody in my family is a doctor or an engineer. This may be an Indian stereotype, but in my family’s case it’s true.

I did theater in high school and I loved it, and I thought it would be great if I could do this with my life. But I was also very good at chemistry.

When I graduated from high school I felt a lot of pressure to go to N.C. State, which is an agricultural and technical university. I ended up attending N.C. State and majoring in zoology.

How did you end up leaving that program?

I remember one moment in particular: I was sitting in my freshman biology class with about 200 other students. We were in a stadium-type classroom with a huge screen in front. The teacher was writing on a projection screen. My seat was an uncomfortable chair with a little eight-and-a-half by eleven piece of plywood that you pull out of the chair, to write on. I looked around and thought, “This is not where I belong.”

So at the end of freshman year, I decided to just drop out and move back home to Greensboro and see what would happen.

The fact that I’d left school was kind of crazy for my dad, but I had a leverage point and that was that he had always wanted to be a doctor but ended up being an engineer.

My grandfather passed away when my dad was young. So from that point on, my dad was supported by his mom and other relatives. And he did not want to impose the financial burden of medical school on them. So he chose engineering instead. He knew what it was like to not be able to do what you want, and my mom kept gently reminding him of this.

Eventually I declared a Drama major, and today my parents are very supportive of what I’m doing. But they still worry about whether I can support myself.

How much are you supporting yourself through acting now?

I do still work a day-job, part-time. It’s at a call center—seriously.

But right now most of my money is coming from acting, and this is the first time it’s been that way. But I’ve worked really hard to get to this point, and I know that at any moment this house of cards could come tumbling down.

Did you perform a lot as a kid?

I was always super-outgoing as a kid, but I didn’t really perform until high school. I did my first play in high school. It was You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. I played Snoopy and they built me a human-sized doghouse for me to lie on. It was awesome.

When did you first improvise?

Even though I majored in Drama in college, I didn’t take a single improvisation class there.

In 2001, I saw an audition for a new improv group in Greensboro. I had never improvised, and the notice said the audition would last for two hours, and I thought, what are we going to do for two hours?

I went to the audition, and for two hours we played games and improvised scenes and it was as much fun as I’ve ever had at an audition. And it was my first time doing any of it.

And somehow, I got cast!

I ended up playing with that group for three years. We were the founding ensemble of the Idiot Box Theater in Greensboro and it’s still thriving today.

That’s pretty amazing that it’s still going today. Most comedy groups don’t last beyond a few months.

The four people who started it really knew what they were doing. They were from a ComedySportz in Chapel Hill that had closed. They moved to Greensboro to start a new short-form improvisational company and these were their first auditions. There was no club, no shows, no classes, no audience, nothing—just a group of people. But it was fun and we came into it just hoping it would work out.

So they taught us short-form games and exercises and how to do scenes. I was awful for the first two years, but for some reason I kept doing it.

Eventually we got a deal to do shows at a restaurant and get paid in food. Very glamorous.

What spurred your move out of Greensboro?

In 2003 the Southeastern Theatre Conference was held in Charlotte, N.C., and my good friend and a fellow actor, Jimmy Tunstall, suggested we go. Jimmy is someone I consider to be a performance mentor. He’s 10 years older than I am, he’s lived and performed in New York City for years, and he’s one of those people who’s been everywhere and done everything.

The SETC is a conference that’s held in a different city in the south every year. A bunch of theaters from all over the United States converge on one city and have mass auditions. They give you a number and you get 90 seconds to do either two monologues or a monologue and 16 bars of a song.

Each theater rents a hotel room (all at the same hotel) where they hold their callbacks.

What did you do for your audition?

I did a monologue and 16 bars of a song. The song was “Take me or leave me” from Rent.

On your sheet music, you write the last line from your monologue, so as soon as the accompanist hears that line, he starts playing. You get exactly 90 seconds. They have so many auditioners that they won’t let you go over.

They herd you into groups of 20, and as soon as the person in front of you is done, you come out and say, “Hi, my name is Sayjal,” and go right into it.

My monologue was a comedic one and the last line was kind of like a punchline. The last line was “Will you just eat the hot dog?!” And when I said that, everybody laughed and so I didn’t hear the accompanist starting. By the time I could hear him, he was already a couple of bars into where I should have been singing. I laughed, and cursed out loud. I’d been improvising for three years so I thought it was pretty funny.

There was no way he was starting over. So I just picked up where he was and I did an extremely big finish with jazz hands to try to distract from the fact that I had totally messed up the beginning.

I walked back thinking, I completely blew it, let’s eat. But one of the guys in my group said I was great. He said he didn’t think he could have done it. And I said, “Well you didn’t have to do that, because you actually did yours right.”

Did you get any callbacks?

I got callbacks to a couple of companies.

One company that had called me back was a children’s theater company in New Hampshire. The company photo on their door had actors in full costume—in furry suits with big heads like mascots—somebody was a fox, another person was a bunny.

As I was signing my name to the callback list, Jimmy grabbed my wrist and said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m signing up for the callback.” He said, “Did you see the picture? … Look at the picture.” I said, “What about it?” He said, “They’re wearing heads.” I quickly scratched my name off the list.

Then, what did come of that conference?

Well, nothing, at first. One of the companies that had seen me at the conference, but hadn’t called me back, was the American Family Theater—a children’s theater company from Philadelphia. They called me five months later and asked whether I wanted to tour with them on a production ofCinderella. I asked one question: “Do I have to wear a head?” They said no. I said yes.

How long did you tour with that show?

For four months. I played one of the wicked step-sisters. It was awesome. We did over a hundred shows in about 30 states. We played in large theaters where schools would bus the kids in. We played for thousands of kids. We would do meet-and-greets afterwards and sign autographs as our characters. It was awesome and hilarious. We were like rock-stars for fifth-graders.

When it was over, I was basically homeless—all my stuff was in storage. A friend in Philadelphia wanted to sublet her apartment, so I stayed there for a few months.

Then I moved to Chicago to jump into the improvisation scene here. And I’ve never done children’s theater since. And I’ve only had to wear a head once. When I played the Easter Bunny at a ComedySportz event.

How did you get the Sonic commercials?

So far I’ve done three of them, and it’s a great gig. Even though it’s a national, all six of the people they use are Chicago improvisors, which works out well for me!

Most of the other auditioners were actors from New York or Los Angeles—straight theater people who had very little improvisational training.

979afe97f0cf1e7165410528ba125f11-3 (1)They had us work in three ways: (1) We’d read the scripts. (2) They’d give us a scenario and have us improvise. And (3) They’d say, here’s the product, there’s no scenario, no anything, just say and do whatever you want.

I ended up auditioning with Katie Rich, the other improvisor in the group. She’s a Chicago improvisor and I actually had known her before these auditions.

We had a blast. Most of the other actors had a lot of trouble improvising, because I think they were used to doing only scripted material. So I think we had a big advantage, and we both got cast and now we’ve done a couple of the commercials together.

It’s very difficult for an actor to get a national commercial. So for two actors who know each other to get the same national and do it together is extraordinary.

Yeah, it is pretty amazing, and it’s really all because of our improvisational training.

Improvisation is probably one of the most important tools that I’ve learned for audition situations, because it prepares you for anything. As an improvisor, you are constantly creating something from nothing.

Where are the Sonic shoots held?

All three so far have been in Las Vegas. And it’s so much fun. They always put us up at an amazing hotel, and they treat us like gold. Also they use the same crew each time, so it’s kind of like a reunion every time we do a shoot.

I know that you once improvised at Boom Chicago. [Note to reader: Boom Chicago is an improvisational theater in Amsterdam, formed in 1993 by a group of Chicago improvisors who moved to Amsterdam.]

Another Chicago improvisor named Dave Omuro goes to Amsterdam frequently and knows the people at Boom Chicago. He and I used to take classes together at ComedySportz.

Boom does a short-form competition called Battle Jam Amsterdam. And they had never had a team from outside of Amsterdam compete. Dave got a group of us together: Kate Cohen, Jay Olson, Dave himself, and me, with Bob Ladewig coaching. We rehearsed a few times and then went to Amsterdam for the competition.

Boom also does an improvised show on Fridays called Heineken Late Nite. We flew in on a Friday and played with them for Heineken Late Nite—jet lagged and all. It was insane fun.

We stayed for four days, and we ended up actually winning Battle Jam Amsterdam.

It was a whirlwind, and they were great to us.

Do you have plans to move to New York City or L.A.?

I love Chicago. Everywhere else I’ve lived, I’ve always wanted to move. This is the first time that I feel I’m home. I don’t see myself leaving Chicago unless I really have to, in order to further my career. Chicago is where you need to be if you want to do improvisational comedy.

On one of the nights of Premature Infatuation, James Kyson Lee [from the television show Heroes] showed up. He happened to be in Chicago to speak at Northwestern University, and he heard about our show and came to see it. After the show, he and I spoke and he was great. He told me that he loved the show and he asked why we weren’t in Los Angeles. And I told him that I love Chicago. I would love to make it all happen right here.

Ranjit Souri (rjsouri [at] gmail [dot] com) teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, and creative non-fiction in Chicago.
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