Local $1 comedy night helps build city's improv community
Cheaper than a cup of joe at a coffee shop and just as stimulating, the Brave New Workshop's Sunday night comedy show Improv a Go-Go recently celebrated its second anniversary.
The two-hour Lowry Hill East show costs just $1 and, primarily through word of mouth, has garnered a strong cult following. Some even consider it the premiere improvisational comedy night in the Twin Cities and the hub of a growing improv community.
A Sunday evening at the 2605 Hennepin Ave. S. venue usually features several improv troupes, each with two to 10 artists. With names like Q, Unitard, The Ted Experience, The Drunk Baby Collective, the Corduroy Rogers and Ferrari McSpeedy, the comedic bunches (many of whom include Southwest residents) look to the audience for direction -- "OK, we need a place," a member of the troupe will announce inviting a verbal barrage of city- and place-names -- then wrap their extemporaneous skits around the first audience suggestion heard.
In an early May show The Ted Experience rolled from one embarrassing situation to another. One minute, a man is trying to stay composed as he seeks to understand why his boss, a robot, is firing him. The next, a woman is outraged that her boyfriend is dumping her -- not because of the loss of love, but because she is "always the one who does the dumping first."
And so it went, mixing surreal situations with the seemingly sincere thoughts of just-believable characters to hilarious (and, once in awhile, flat) conclusion.
The weekly cabaret is the brainchild of Butch Roy, technical director at the Brave New Workshop (BNW). The Edina resident and senior at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, 2501 Stevens Ave. S., convinced BNW's owner John Sweeney that a rotating line-up of improv artists would fill the venue. Since he already had keys and knew how to work the lights and sound, Roy said it was an easy sell.
In addition to being the evening's producer and master of ceremonies, the charismatic Roy is an improv artist in his own right, performing with three-person troupe Five Man Job.
Roy's improv interest stemmed from 14 summers working at the Renaissance Festival just south of the city. When he began playing a Renaissance street character, he enrolled in BNW improv classes to improve his interaction with the festival public. Now, on top of his other work and studies, the 28-year-old teaches BNW improv classes himself.
Considering that public speaking is often said to be the number one fear in the nation, most people would go catatonic if you stuck them in the spotlight and took away the script. Yet Roy breaks down the improv rules clean and simple: "To be good at improv you have to shut down the [logical] side of the brain. The basic rule is 'yes' and . . . the answer to everything is 'yes.' Your partner throws out a line and you affirm it and add to it no matter what."
Roy said there's a burgeoning improv community in the Twin Cities and characterized Improv a Go Go as its cornerstone. Between 100 and 200 hundred people show up for the 8 p.m. Sunday show (which seats 200), giving the troupes a chance to promote their genre while honing their skills. Even with a full house, though, entertainers are lucky if they walk out the door with gas money.
Something from nothing
Jill Bernard often performs in Improv a Go Go and lives in "the smallest apartment in Whittier." She's been working in improv for 10 years, both as a teacher and a performer.
She lives an improv life -- earning as much as $1,000 teaching improv skills to corporate execs one day and then surviving on Ramen noodles and shoplifted summer sausages for weeks.
Roy said Bernard is a top professional improv artist. In turn Bernard says Improv a Go Go is "really where I cut my teeth . . . You can do things [there] that wouldn't have a place anywhere else."
Besides being an affirming art -- performers go with the flow, the cheap comedic shortcut of making fun of another's spontaneous act is not allowed -- Bernard said improv thrives on being real.
"The funny things are the things that are true, which is a tough lesson to learn because most people get in theater to wear costumes and hide who they are. But audiences want you to unzip your skin and show them what's inside. That's what they love to see," Bernard said.
She said that over the years she's gotten better at showing the audience her true self, rather than "just doing impressions of wacky characters."
Bernard often contributes such observations to columns on improv Web sites, home to an international cyber-community of improv fans and artists. However, she also noted that the local improv community is growing, thanks in part to Roy and Improv a Go Go, providing more opportunities for face-to-face discussions.
As for Roy, he said he'll know improv has arrived when Microsoft Word's spell-check stops trying to correct it to "improve."
Improv a Go Go shows are Sundays, 8 p.m. at the Brave New Workshop, 2605 Hennepin Ave. S. Admission is $1; beer, wine and some snacks are available. For more information, check out www.improvagogo.com.