By Anya Shukla
Mario Orallo-Molinaro loves all things improv. He first immersed himself in the art form during his time at Western Washington University, where he performed with the Dead Parrots Society, and has since acted all over the city. Then, in 2020, Orallo-Molinaro replaced his "performer hat" with that of an arts administrator: he is now the Executive Artistic Director at Jet City Improv. I sat down with him to learn more about his past in theater and plans for Jet City’s future.
Q: Just out of curiosity, why improv?
A: Improv is revolutionary. You’re the actor, the director, the screenwriter, the creator all within seconds. And improvers speak secrets out loud so we can heal together. We bring the funny and then we give you some truth.
But at the same time, who are the people who determine what funny is? Who are the authors? They tend to be white. A lot of the people who are making the rules are white folks. So at Western, I would find myself not saying something—I was scared it would be stupid—because I wasn’t a funny white dude. I always questioned my power. Because there weren’t a lot of people who looked like me, and if they did look like me, they were also struggling.
Q: Does that mindset ever affect your current work at Jet City?
A: I try to convince myself that I’m worthy of these spaces. For some people, it’s easy. But some people who have always had to fight to be at the table question themselves.
I come from a community where the people who are being celebrated often aren’t people of color. I never had certain resources. So as an administrator of color… I think, am I doing this right? But then again, if people like Michelle Obama can have imposter syndrome, then I’m okay with my insecurities. (Laughs.)
Q: And going back to what you said before, do you think that there are rules regarding what is funny?
A: I’m adamantly against that: everyone has a unique kind of funny. And once you start creating space for people of color… not only is that funny, but it’s just a whole new level of storytelling that frankly, people want. At Jet City, I believe that I’m redefining, rewiring what improv is all about. It’s going to take a long time. But improv needs to be available for everyone. Because everyone wants to be funny in some way.
Q: Going off of that, what does your racial equity work at Jet City look like? How are you redefining improv to be more accessible for communities of color?
A: We’re constantly investing in BIPOC communities. Oftentimes in theater, if you’re not showing up, we don’t cast you. That’s one way to think about it. Another way is having auditions in communities of color. Go to South Seattle. Go to Ranier Beach. It won’t happen overnight. But I think through that investment, you start inviting folks in. Then they start teaching classes. Then they’re onstage. They start inspiring audience members, who think, if she can do this, I can do this. Maybe I can take up that space. Personally, just seeing BIPOC onstage makes me feel like I have ownership versus me looking around and making sure I’m fitting in.
When you get diverse stories and storytellers and they’re passionate about what they do, it’s always going to hit home… though it may not hit home for our current audiences.
Q: Can you say more about that?
A: I’ve seen the same excuses with theater companies ever since I was a teenager. We have to do “Oklahoma!” because our clientele is mostly white people; they’re the ones that bring in the money. I’m done with that.
If I start bringing in multiracial communities and stories, hopefully, my current audiences will say this is really good. And if they don’t, I say, “It’s time for you to bounce!” (Laughs.) That’s bold and harsh. But I think that’s how you do it. On the local scale, it’s people like us who are constantly demanding something from those higher entities. We’re holding them accountable.
Q: How do you think teen artists of color can keep advocating for themselves and their stories?
A: Just thinking back to my time at Western, I always felt I had to fit in. I was always told to not make so much noise. Tamper down my voice so I won’t ruffle too many feathers. And sometimes I felt complicit: we would do productions that I felt weren’t necessarily hitting my values, and I just hated the product.
Well, my advice is to ruffle feathers. You need to stand tall and take up that space and just say your truth. Create your own voice in this work. Celebrate your work.
I’m just one person in this art form, but I am demanding unapologetically that we change. If we continue to celebrate each other, if we continue to demand different storytelling, I think we’re going to be a better community and society.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.