Art beat // This improv festival is a HUGE deal

Lyndale theater hosts the sixth-annual Twin Cities Improv Festival

LYNDALE — HUGE Improv Theater was just six months old last June when it hosted the annual Twin Cities Improv Festival for the first time.

It was a critical period for the young venue, Minneapolis’ first dedicated to long-form improv. HUGE was still struggling for name recognition as it prepared for what would be its biggest event of the year.

“It was absolutely important to establishing HUGE’s survival,” said Butch Roy, a HUGE co-founder and board member.

Lucky for HUGE, the house was packed all four nights of the festival and, afterward, “it was noticeably less of a fight to get the word out” about the theater, Roy recalled. Which isn’t exactly saying it’s been easy, either.

The sixth-annual Twin Cities Improv Festival returns to HUGE later this month with more than 30 improv groups from Minneapolis and around the country, including several popular acts from last year’s festival making a return visit to the Twin Cities. But in the land of the Brave New Workshop, Roy and his cohort of comedic actors still spend a lot of time explaining just what long-form improv is — often starting with what it isn’t.

It’s not stand-up, it’s not the sketch-based comedy of the revered Brave New Workshop and it’s not the game-based improvisation practiced at ComedySportz, where performers riff, Mad Libs-style, off of audience suggestions. From the audience perspective, experiencing long-form improv feels more like watching a short play or an hour-long television drama, with recurring characters, a sustained plot that develops over a number of scenes and a dramatic arc.

Roy likes to call it “unscripted theater,” and it’s the comedic equivalent of a high-wire act: the potential for spectacular failure adds to the thrill of the performance.

HUGE is gaining traction with Minneapolis audiences as a fun and cheap date-night spot, especially on weekends when several groups perform back-to-back. There are still occasional nights when the people on stage outnumber those in the seats, but Roy said he was hopeful HUGE was building an audience for long-form improv in the Twin Cities.

That’s been HUGE’s mission since its founding, and Roy sees signs the theater is having an impact.

“We did notice a new surge in local improvisers going to other festivals,” Roy said, noting HUGE acts like the The Minneapples and Bearded Men Improv are in particularly high demand. “… I think and I hope that some of that is due to our support.”

The format for the Twin Cities Improv Festival pairs local favorites like those two groups with out-of-town guests. The Minneapples are scheduled to share the stage with Pimprov, four improvisers from Chicago who, in a kind of meta-performance, play pimps who have gone to improv classes and are now on stage.

“It’s very layered and strange but, man, is it fun,” Roy said.

He predicted another Chicago-based group, APHASIA, would be a big draw for their Saturday night pairing with the local Brave New Workshop cast. Another of Roy’s favorites was SCRAM, a duo featuring HUGE co-founder Jill Bernard and Chicago’s Joe Bill in what he described as a “personal, kind of emotional, very theatrical performance.”
“I see improv all the time, I know it’s improv and I know they’re making it up … and still it blows me away,” he said.


GO SEE IT

The sixth-annual Twin Cities Improv Festival runs June 21–24 at HUGE Improv Theater, 3037 Lyndale Ave. S. Tickets are $10 per performance. Multi-show passes are also available. 412-4843. twincitiesimprovfestival.com

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A trio of Jerome residents
THE WEDGE — Each year the Jerome Emerging Printmaker’s Residency gives three Minnesota artists the opportunity to spend nine months in Highpoint Center for Printmaking’s world-class print studio on Lake Street, and the results of the 2011–2012 trio’s efforts are hanging now at Highpoint.

Gwendolyn Comings’ prints of professional football players exploit the dissonance between her subject and her technique. Comings uses blind embossing to create a raised, inkless impression of the athletes’ twisting bodies, applying a technique more familiar from wedding invitations to her depictions of on-field violence.

A series of screen prints by Jonathan McFadden combine bits of overlapping found imagery in intentionally chaotic compositions marked by flower-like bursts of color. If they resemble the backstop at a paintball range, that’s because McFadden’s prints are his reaction to the full-on information assault of modern media.

Graham Judd’s black-and-white relief prints read like visual parables, although whatever morals there are to be found in the stories acted out by Judd’s grotesque figures remain largely ambiguous. What’s clear is the appeal of his scratchy, expressive mark-making, which gives these stark scenes a sense of immediacy.


GO SEE IT

The Jerome Residency 2011–2012 exhibition runs through June 30 at Highpoint Center for Printmaking, 912 W. Lake St. 871-1326. highpointprintmaking.org