We Come From Humble Beginnings
Story by Kathleen Weber
“True story, a psychic told me I needed to change my name,” said Jessica “The Jester” Levity.
When Levity first moved to Reno in 2008, she went to have her Akashic Records, a file cabinet of the history of one’s soul, read.
“In numerology, a name is broken down into a number, and my name was a number that was not matching my ‘soul’s purpose’ number,” Levity continued. “ [The psychic] suggested I change my name so my name’s number and my soul’s purpose number matched; she said this would aid me in achieving my dreams.”
Levity, whose real surname is Levatter, took the psychic’s advice and visited a numerologist to find her new name that matched her soul path’s number.
“We started messing with different names and he started laughing,” Levity said.
In numerology, there is a concept called ‘alpha and omega’, where the first three letters of one’s first name are taken, the alpha, and the last three of one’s last name are taken, the omega. Together, they create a new name. For Jessica Levatter, the “Jester” was born, along with the new last name of Levity.
“I started crying,” Levity said. “I have always related to the archetype of the jester...who uses humor and satire to bring about change in his or her community.”
Levity took her new name and used it to her advantage in her new life in Reno, Nevada.
Originally from Ohio, Levity went to college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and studied abroad in the Netherlands during her last semester. When she arrived back to Wisconsin, she realized she was living in a very college-orientated town, and not being a student anymore, she needed a change.
“My brother was randomly living in Reno during that time and he suggested I move here with him,” said Levity. “We were just going to figure it out.”
In January of 2009, Levity did figure it out with her improv team, “The Utility Players”.
“I have this insatiable need to entertain myself,” Levity said as she laughs. “I was obsessed with improv and the original ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’.”
While in Europe, Levity said she developed a desire to create her own troupe of “something.”
“I did not know what I wanted to create, but I just knew I wanted to create it,” said Levity.
Levity was in Reno when she woke up one day with a name stuck in her mind. That name, “The Utility Players”.
“I just remember thinking, ‘what a perfect name for a comedy troupe,’” Levity said. “I grew up playing baseball, and in baseball a ‘utility player’ is someone who can play any position; so, I thought if someone is trained in improv, they can do anything. Improv is the infinite possibility.”
The name, plus the tremendous need for improv comedy, was Levity’s motivation to create the troupe.
Not knowing many people in the area yet, Levity went to an open mic night at Java Jungle one night where she met a young local comic and a 'stoner kid' who made her laugh.
“It started with just the three of us, but we really needed a fourth before our first show,” said Levity.
Ian Sorensen, principal player, was their answer.
“I was two years into college and had no artistic outlet, which was debilitating,” said Sorensen. “Then a high school friend contacted me and said she was in a show with a few like-minded funny people, but one of them had dropped out and would I like to fill the spot. I said yes, went to the Studio on 4th and met Jes. We improvised a bit and hit it off immediately.”
Studio on 4th was these three players’ initial home from 2009 to the end of 2010. Initially called “The Comedy Cabaret,” every Wednesday night, they would perform a variety show all centered around a theme with new sketches, musical bits, improv, and game shows.
“Our shows consisted of the three of us up on stage and even less people in the audience,” Levity said. “But we loved what we were doing. There was also something charming about The Utility Players. Audience or no audience, we were content playing improv.”
2010 was a new year for The Utility Players and their show. By this time, both their cast size and local following had grown. When it came time to leave Studio on 4th, they also decided to leave behind many production elements.
“We were in ‘survival’ mode because we were homeless, essentially,” said Levity. “We did not want to stop doing shows while we looked for a new home theater because we had developed a small following.”
Oliver X of Reno Tahoe Tonight Magazine booked The Utility Players a gig with Se7en on West Street Market, which brought in a whole new show.
“It was a tiny stage, so we dropped the other elements of our show and only played improv,” said Levity. “Also, we went from a weekly show to a monthly show; the show got simpler and funnier at the same time.”
By this time, Levity had created a following and very was well networked. Levity developed a friendship with the people who ran Good Luck Macbeth Theatre, which, originally, was a small blackbox theater that seated 40. Levity moved The Utility Players to GLM’s new theater in downtown Reno. Still at once a month and with no marketing, The Utility Players began selling out their shows at the door. Another change was charging people money.
“Around 2011, our shows were selling out,” said Levity. “Turning people away from our show was the most bittersweet experience. We started charging people five dollars to see the show and I was so scared. I did not think people would want to pay.”
People did want to pay and every show, people were still lining up, hoping to get one of the 40 seats. Levity began to think bigger. Coincidentally, a company called Reno Tahoe Comedy had just opened a new theater, Pioneer Underground, which seated 175 people, and this became the new stage for the Players.
“We were absolutely terrified to book a venue that was four times the size of what we knew we could handle,” said Levity.
In May of 2011, The Utility Players became Reno Tahoe Comedy’s first sold out show at Pioneer Underground.
The high success was not consistent, though. Their first show at Pioneer Underground sold out with standing room only. However, with little marketing, the next few shows, still at once a month, only saw an audience of 30-50 or so people.
“We were pretty hit-or-miss,” said Levity. “Our show was good, and getting better, but the audience would grow and then it would shrink.” Despite the uncertainty, The Utility Players continued with a monthly show at Pioneer Underground for three years. Slow and steady, their local following began to grow.
April 2014 brought another new chapter for The Utility Players when a local casino approached them with an opportunity to move their show into their own theater, called “Jester’s Theater,” at the Sands Regency. They also went from monthly to weekly shows at their new venue with the launch of their 8th Season in September of 2014.
“I am from the Bay Area and I come to Reno often with my husband who loves to gamble,” said Teresa Young, an audience member at one of the shows. “We have seen this show twice now and both times I laughed just as hard. You cannot get this kind of comedy in the Bay.”
With nine “players” total, Levity says it is their undeniable chemistry that makes this show a success.
“We are constantly challenging ourselves during rehearsals,” said Levity. “We do not want to get into ruts and go the easy route. We care about our art; we're like jazz musicians, except we jam via comedy.”
As for The Utility Players’ future, it is ever-changing. After their season with the Sands is up, their future there remains unknown at the moment, but they hope to be back. That does not stop the players from thinking about their ultimate goals, though.
“My ultimate goal for The Utility Players, which I feel is slowly but surely happening, is to be a self-sustaining improv machine that can perform anywhere: cruise ships, colleges, company retreats, television shows, and stages, both giant and small,” said Sorensen. “That's the beauty of improv—you don't need a set or costumes or anything particularly complex. Give The Utility Players a stage and an audience looking at us and we can create anything.”
Levity believes Tahoe would be a great place to take up residency.
“At the end of the day, all I want to do is come into a room with my players, sit down and just say, ‘OK, what are we creating today?,’” said Levity. “I just want to play with my band.”
Levity also believes she has a true, spiritual calling speaking the religion of New Thought, and is working on a project called Alchemist Theatre.
“I believe that is what I am supposed to be doing,” said Levity. “I am hoping to bring comedy and New Thought together. I want to raise vibration through laughter.”
A Brief History
Season 1: The Comedy Cabaret, January 2009 - September 2009, Studio on 4th, Reno, NV
Season 2: The Comedy Cabaret, October 2009 - December 2009, Studio on 4th, Reno, NV
Season 3: The Homefield Adventage Tour, January 2010 - July 2010, Se7en on West, 5 Star, Reno, NV
Season 4: The Growing UP Tour (Our Experimental Phase), November 2010 - July 2011, Boogity's, Goodluck Macbeth Theater, Reno, NV
Season 5: The Field of Dreams Tour, September 2011 - July 2012 Pioneer Underground, Reno, NV
Season 6: The One Night Stand Tour, September 13th, 2012 at Pioneer Underground in Reno, NV! Every 2nd Thursday of the month through July 2013.
Season 7: Back to Basics, Every Second Thursday of the month, September 2013 - July 2014 at Pioneer Underground in Reno.
Season 8: Live at the Sands!, Every Saturday night, September 27th, 2014 - December 20th, 2014 inside our own Jester's Theater at Sands Regency