Before they took to the Bryant-Lake Bowl stage earlier this month, the cast of “An Unscripted Minnesota Holiday” had two other stops on their itinerary: Bedford Falls and Whoville.
Director Tane Danger made “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” required viewing for his actors, a few of whom appear regularly in Danger’s ongoing improv project, The Theater of Public Policy. This is Danger’s first stab at a holiday show, and he wanted it grounded in the classics.
“We very purposefully start with a very classic, very well known setup for a holiday story so that then the improvisers, when they take their liberties with it, when they go off in different directions and play with the format and structure, that’s where the fun comes from,” he said.
That means “An Unscripted Minnesota Holiday” will have its own version of a Mr. Potter or Grinch, the rich (like the former) and unaccountably spiteful (like the latter) villain, performed each night by a rotating guest improviser. His Grinch-y plotting to ruin a tiny Minnesota hamlet’s holiday festival sets him against the town’s George Bailey-esque hero.
That’s the idea, at least, but the very nature of improvised theater means the plot is likely to zig and zag around that barebones script. The audience has a role, too: They name the town, come up with a theme for its mid-winter festival and even pick which cast member plays the hero that night.
Did we mention there’s singing, too?
Yes, “An Unscripted Minnesota Holiday” is a musical, which adds a degree of difficulty to the proceedings. From the audience’s perspective, one improv performer nudging another to come up with rhyming lyrics on the spot can seem a bit antagonistic, like tossing some juggling pins at the tightrope walker. In this case, Danger’s crew knows what they’re in for, and they’ve been practicing enough that songs are even starting to pop up more frequently in The Theater of Public Policy’s performances (including the improvised mayoral forum it hosted in October).
“An Unscripted Minnesota Christmas” is one of a few new additions to a Bryant-Lake Bowl calendar packed with returning holiday favorites, including Lorna Landvick’s “Party in the Rec Room,” the Scrimshaw brothers New Year’s Eve show and the annual screening of “Star Wars Holiday Special,” the 1978 geek-schlock classic. Danger’s betting that, during a busy month for the local theater community, the show without a script will stand out.
“We hope — we don’t really know in the end because it’s improvised — but we hope that it ends up that the good guys win in the end and that the festival is saved,” he said.
Holidays at HUGE
Of course, it’s all improv (nearly) all the time over at HUGE Improv Theater, where The Theater of Public Policy just wrapped up its latest season in November. The theater is only nearing its third anniversary, but it’s already developed holiday traditions of its own.
Among them is “Comics Come Home for the Holidays,” one of the first shows to hit the HUGE stage back in December 2010. The theater had just opened near the Lyn-Lake intersection when Executive Director Butch Roy got a phone call from Casey Feigh of the Upright Citizen Brigade’s Los Angeles outpost: Could HUGE host a showcase of Minnesota-born comics flying in from both coasts?
“Right away, we were stunned,” Roy recalled. “Like, how in the world did word get out that quickly?”
Feigh is back this year, joined by Dave Theune and Kristen Rozanski, also of the Upright Citizens Brigade. The show will include standup from comedians Hugh Moore and Johnny Pemberton.
Family members and former high school classmates snatch up the tickets each year, so buy early.
“Family Dinner,” a show created by Michael Ritchie of ComedySportz, actually predates HUGE by a few years, but it’s found a comfortable home on the theater’s black-box stage. It features a rotating cast of local improvisers playing family members reuniting around a holiday meal, with real food provided by Keys Café.
The audience suggests a secret for each character — someone won the lottery, or lost a job, or achieved pop-stardom in Japan — and those secrets leak out as the meal progresses.
“All the things that have been building in act one blow up at the dinner table,” Roy said.
On any given night in December many in the audience will have just left such a dinner, so expect sympathetic laughter.
An Unscripted Minnesota Holiday
WHEN: Dec. 12, 13, 14, 19, 20, 21. All shows start at 7 p.m. (doors at 6 p.m.).
WHERE: Bryant-Lake Bowl, 810 W. Lake St.
INFO: byrantlakebowl.com, 825-8949. Tickets are $15 at the door/$13 in advance.
Comics Come Home for the Holidays
WHEN: 6:30 p.m., Dec. 27
WHERE: HUGE Improv Theater, 3037 Lyndale Ave. S.
INFO: hugetheater.com, 412-4843. Tickets are $15.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturdays through the end of December
WHERE: HUGE Improv Theater, 3037 Lyndale Ave. S.
INFO: hugetheater.com, 412-4843. Tickets are $10.