Something in the civic life of Minneapolis changed when The Theater of Public Policy debuted on the stage of LynLake’s HUGE Improv Theater in 2011. It got funnier.
It is now almost a rite of passage for our local public figures to sit down for an interview with T2P2 host Tane Danger and then watch as the theater’s spontaneously humorous cast riffs on their conversation. Past guests include the current and two former Minneapolis mayors, three of the candidates seeking the DFL endorsement for governor and dozens of other politicians, public servants, academics and journalists.
The Southwest Journal recently caught up with Danger as he was preparing for a May 14 performance with meteorologist and author Paul Douglas at Bryant-Lake Bowl, where the show has run since 2013. Danger is co-founder of the theater with Brandon Boat, a fellow Gustavus Adlophus College alumnus.
T2P2 wraps up its spring season at Bryant-Lake Bowl with shows on May 21 and May 28. A grant-funded series of five shows runs every Tuesday in July at Amsterdam Bar and Hall in St. Paul. For more information, go to T2P2.net.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Southwest Journal: Your guest tonight on The Theater of Public Policy is meteorologist Paul Douglas. What kind of research do you do to prepare for a guest?
Danger: A lot. Obviously, I read up on the guest’s background and anything they have written or talks that they’ve done. In Paul Douglas’ case, he does a lot of public speaking.
I will touch base with a guest before a show and say, OK, if we only were able to get to three things that we were going to talk about on stage, what would you think the three most important things for us to get to on stage are? That usually is clarifying for me, and (it gives me) a sense of what the guest thinks is the most important few things.
You’ve covered a lot of topics in The Theater of Public Policy, so I’m wondering if there are aspects of our civic life that proved unexpectedly humorous — or, to flip that around, difficult to joke about?
One of things we didn’t expect when we started the show, and tonight will probably be a good example of it, is that science-related topics end up being some of the best shows. They’re so fun for some reason. And so funny.
My best theory is that there’s something about the right brain-left brain connection that has to happen in order to take what might be a very sciency topic and translate it to improv comedy on stage that ends up producing something that is just very surprising and unexpected from everybody. Those shows, we’ve definitely found, end up being really good.
I have been surprised at how hard it is to do shows around education topics. Those are the shows where literally people will call me at home before the show and tell me all the things that we’re going to do wrong and all the ways that, you know, we’re not engaging the issue the way we should or we don’t understand what we’re doing.
We do shows about gun violence prevention and gun rights. We’ve done shows about women’s health and abortion even, and people are just sort of like, ‘Oh yes, those are interesting for you to talk about.’ But when we get anywhere near education, those are the ones I just sort of have to brace myself for people being really — engaged is a polite way to put it.
In addition to hosting T2P2, you’re also regularly called on to host forums for local political candidates. Since this is an election year, I’m wondering if you have any advice for running a successful candidate forum?
That’s a great question. I actually have in my drafts folder an op ed that I’ve been trying to work on of advice for running better candidate forums.
The first candidate forum we did, we actually just did it as a Theater of Public Policy (show). Nobody asked me to do that one.
Was this the mayoral forum back in 2013?
Yes, exactly. We did that because I thought: Man, most of these are terrible, so why don’t we do one that would be less terrible?
This is why the op ed is only in my drafts folder, because it’s hard to narrow down exactly what it is, but I think one of the big things is thinking about this from the audience’s perspective. For legitimate reasons, moderators or organizers think about a lot of this from the candidate’s perspective, because that’s who maybe they’re interacting with, and that’s who they have to convince to do this thing. But what that often ends up meaning is we set up a forum where we’re going to make sure everyone gets exactly two minutes to answer the exact same question so that it’s hyper quote-unquote “fair.”
If we’re doing a school board forum, all of the candidates up on stage are going to say, We need to have strong schools. Yes, most people will agree with that. So, what is it you are going to do that is different from somebody else who is up on stage? And what is it that you actually can do that is different from somebody else on stage? Because I think a lot of times we don’t correlate what a candidate is promising to do with whatever office they’re in.