Art beat: Improv, Minnesota style

Huge Theater hosts the fifth-annual Twin Cities Improv Festival

LYNDALE — The Twin Cities Improv Festival’s move, for its fifth annual installment, to HUGE Improv Theater from Brave New Workshop is a homecoming, of sorts.

OK, so maybe “homecoming” isn’t completely accurate, considering HUGE only opened in September, a few months after the curtain closed on last year’s festival. But, in another sense, it’s totally appropriate, considering the deep ties between the festival, HUGE and a show called Improv-A-Go-Go that has had a big impact on the burgeoning Minneapolis scene for long-form improvised comedy.

We caught up with HUGE Executive Director Butch Roy in late May, about a month before the four-day festival pairing local and national acts was set to open. One of the producers behind Improv-A-Go-Go’s nine-years-and-counting run, Roy described how the weekly showcase fostered local improvisers and built a following after opening in 2002 at Brave New Workshop.

“Once we put that showcase in place, the number of improvisers out there was really astonishing to us,” he said. “People just came out of the woodwork, because suddenly there was a place to perform.”

“That’s what gave us the inspiration to start the improv festival,” he continued. “And the improv festival verified for us a lot of the things we were looking at when wondering if we could sustain a stage for improv in the Cities.”

The long and short of it

That stage is HUGE, the city’s first and only theater dedicated to long-form improvisation. That’s your cue to ask: So what is “long-form improvisation?”

To which Roy, who gets the question a lot, responds, “That is my favorite and least favorite question, because it’s in everything we do.”

“It’s just theater with no script,” he continued. “… It’s really just that simple, that we are going to create a theatrical experience that has not been planned — planned or scripted or rehearsed in any way.”

And, importantly, it should make you laugh.

It’s not sketch comedy, like you see on “Saturday Night Live” or at the Brave New Workshop. It’s also less structured than game-based short-form improv familiar from TV’s “Whose Line is it Anyway?” and exemplified locally by ComedySportz.

“There’s always a hook to the scene,” Roy explained. “People have to speak in alphabetical order, or whatever it is.”

That last comment shouldn’t be mistaken for a jab at short-form practitioners. In the Twin Cities’ buddy-buddy improv scene — much of it centered on HUGE, ComedySportz and Brave New Workshop in Southwest — performers flit from stage to stage, sometimes hitting two venues in one night.

Minnesota style

That collegiality may be one defining characteristic of the Twin Cities scene and what Roy called the “Minnesota style” of improv.

First, though, here’s what the Minnesota style of long-form improvisational comedy isn’t: It isn’t like L.A., where improv is viewed as a stepping stone to more lucrative acting gigs, an atmosphere not necessarily conducive to community building; and it isn’t like Chicago, “the center of the improv world,” as Roy put it, the home of nationally recognized theaters like Second City, as well as a highly informed and avid audience for improv.

To hear Roy describe it, Minneapolis’ scene feels more homegrown, stocked with performers who do improv for the love of making people laugh and not for the chance they might impress a talent scout. Passion is a necessity, because the scene is still maturing.

“We, as a community, were so focused on just doing [improv] because we enjoyed doing it that I think that aspect of the performing style was nurtured really well,” he said. “So, when you see groups going on here, it’s so completely evident that they really love doing what they’re doing.”

Citing a Minneapolis style definition he credited to HUGE co-founder Jill Bernard, Roy said, “I believe it is characterized by a very joyful kind of performance.”

“I feel like Chicago is in our evolutionary future,” he added. “I hope so. And I hope we can handle it when we can get it.”

The lineup

The Twin Cities Improv Festival is a chance to both familiarize yourself with the local scene and get a taste of the best improv happening around the country.

At the top of many people’s must-see list will be TJ and Dave, the Chicago duo of T.J. Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi, whose awe-inspiring improv skills were recently captured in the documentary “Trust Us, This is All Made Up.”

“They are the best improv duo there is,” Roy stated, definitively.

Visiting performers from Chicago, New York City, Austin, Tex., and Oklahoma City are paired with local improvisers — including cast members from Brave New Workshop, ComedySportz and Stevie Ray’s — for most of the one-hour sets.

Said Roy: “We try to have a terrific variety of styles so everybody can find something.”

Go see it
The Fifth Annual Twin Cities Improv Festival runs June 23–26 at HUGE Improv Theater, 3037 Lyndale Ave. S. Individual performances are $10, and multi-passes are available. Purchase tickets at the HUGE box office. 412-4843.