Onstage at HUGE: An evolving improv scene

Twin Cities Improv Festival returns to HUGE Theater

The cast of Poivre, an improvised noir with a jazz soundtrack. Credit: Submitted image

LYNDALE — A history of the Minneapolis improv scene could be divided into two eras: B.H. and A.H.

That’s before and after HUGE Improv Theater opened in late 2010 near the busy Lyn-Lake intersection. The host of this month’s five-night Twin Cities Improv Festival, HUGE was and is the city’s only venue dedicated to long-form improvised comedy, and in just over two years it has already changed the equation for local performers.

Butch Roy, a veteran of the Minneapolis improv scene who is both a founder of HUGE and ones of the festival’s producers, ran the numbers recently. Roy figured an improv troupe had about 56 chances a year to perform in front of a Minneapolis audience before HUGE opened its doors.

“Two years ago, if you had a group, you might get on stage once every couple of months … so your development curve was really long,” he said.

Last year, HUGE hosted nearly 600 improv shows, and the tenfold increase in performance opportunities quickened the development of both the local improv scene and the many performers drawn to that style of seat-of-your-pants theater. The Wünder Kidz, a youth improv group made up of Minneapolis high school students, are a prime example of what could be called the HUGE effect.

The group was founded in 2011, and last year they earned an invitation to Chicago’s Teen Comedy Fest. When they returned to Chicago this April, it wasn’t for another teen festival; they played alongside adult improvisers in the Chicago Improv Festival, a warm-up for their Thursday-night performance during the Twin Cities Improv Festival.

Their coach, Hannah Wydeven, the youth improv director at HUGE, said the group meets twice a week for practice, and they currently hold a regular Wednesday-night slot on the theater’s schedule. That stage time — an opportunity basically unavailable to young people before HUGE opened — dramatically shortened their learning curve.

“For them, they’ve just learned to do so many types of improv they never would have had a chance to do,” Wydeven said.

She said a couple of Wünder Kidz who graduated from high school this spring are now planning a move to Chicago, home to Second City and a storied improv scene.

Jordan Bainer of M4W, another local group taking the HUGE stage during this year’s festival, just made the move from Chicago to Minneapolis about 18 months ago — not necessarily for the comedy scene, but for a new job and relationship. Still, Bainer said he’d visited HUGE a couple of time before moving and was drawn to the “community vibe” shared by Minneapolis improvisers.

“It’s just a smaller, more tight-knit community here,” he said.

Bainer recalled that Roy gave his two-man improv group a slot on the HUGE stage sight-unseen, based only on a description, something he said “would never happen in Chicago.” Both he and Wydeven said one of the non-profit theater’s strengths was a willingness to experiment and take risks.

Take a show like Poivre for example. Slotted for the festival’s Friday night, Poivre is an improvised crime noir performed to a live, improvised jazz soundtrack. The show isn’t afraid to take its audience to a dark place, because that makes the funny moments shine even brighter.

Performer Sidney Oxborough said part of the idea behind the show was to create something as different as possible from short-form improv, the kind of hyperactive, game-based improvisation most people are familiar with from shows like the recently revived “Whose Line is it Anyway?”

Ever since it opened, HUGE has made an effort to explain the difference between the two species of improv. But like the performers on the theater’s stage, Minneapolis audiences have evolved since HUGE opened, too.

“That helps so much, to have an audience that understands what you’re doing and is onboard and is ready to go along for the ride,” Oxborough said.

This year’s festival also includes some high-profile out-of-towners, including festival headliners 3 For All from San Francisco and Los Angeles’ Squalid Gold, a group with roots in that city’s legendary improv company, The Groundlings.

Roy, who’s in his seventh year or organizing the festival, said in the early years the visiting acts were almost always the biggest draws, and that he’d schedule them alongside a local improv groups to “almost trick” Minneapolis audiences into checking out the homegrown talent. But that, like almost everything else in the local improv scene, is quickly changing.

 Twin Cities Improv Festival runs June 26–30 at HUGE Improv Theater, 3037 Lyndale Ave. S. 412-4843. twincitiesimprovfestival.wordpress.com