Inside a tiny LynLake storefront, converted nearly a decade ago from a clothing shop into a 100-seat black box theater, novice and professional comedians share the stage as they barbecue imaginary snakes, act out episodes from audience members’ middle school diaries and improvise songs about the Tuskegee Airmen or the life and times of Jesus Christ.
Six nights a week of live performances are just some of what HUGE Improv Theater offers in the 3,900-square-foot building it leases at 3037 Lyndale Ave. The theater has expanded its programming in recent years to include jam sessions tailored to aspiring comics from marginalized communities — such as a Latinx jam, an LGBTQ jam and a “worn treads/new roads” jam for people over 40.
These and other courses have brought a surge of interest to the nonprofit theater. HUGE’s winter Improv 101 workshop had an 80-person waiting list.
“With this many shows and classes, we’re overspilling the building,” said Jill Bernard, a co-founder of HUGE.
The theater is launching a $3.2 million capital campaign to buy and renovate a Lyndale Avenue building that was used as a creamery for more than half a century and is currently owned and occupied by Art Materials.
Bernard said one of the factors driving HUGE’s move was the revelation two years ago that the theater’s landlord, Julius DeRoma, had donated $500 to former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s campaign for U.S. Senate in Louisiana. (HUGE responded at the time by denouncing Nazis and the KKK.)
Bernard said that HUGE’s focus on creating an inclusive community spurred the theater to change spaces more quickly than it otherwise would have. “There’s a door in the basement that goes to his storage, so we’re so connected,” Bernard said. “His name is on the building.”
Plans for the Art Materials building would more than quadruple HUGE’s size, adding 40 seats to the theater and providing space for a total of seven classrooms — five more than what exists in the current building.
“We want to offer more classes exclusively for people of color,” Bernard said.
She said purchasing a building in LynLake is a way to keep “a real foothold” in the community in a time when property values are soaring and arts organizations like Intermedia Arts and Theater Garage have closed up shop.
“To be able to lose these spaces is terrifying,” she said. “This neighborhood is getting snapped up for development.”
A former creamery
Art Materials has had a storefront along Lyndale Avenue since its launch in 1956, and it has sold easels, paintbrushes and other art supplies at its 2724 Lyndale Ave. location since the 1990s. Owners JoAnn and Larry Brown, who paid $575,000 to buy the building in 2001, know a lot about its history.
Constructed in 1922 to house the Isles Dairy Company, a concrete garage was added 11 years later. The creamery’s tile floors slope down toward a central drain, and the porcelain brick walls are 16 inches thick and stuffed with insulated cork, designed to keep cheese and ice cream cool.
“It’s built like Fort Knox, pretty much,” JoAnn Brown said. “The art store was the garage where the horses came with buggies and dropped the cream off to the creamery.”
The creamery and the attached garage were bought by Norris Creamery in 1975 and, seven years later, the building became a machine shop for prosthetic limbs. In 2011, the Browns almost sold their building to a developer who wanted to put in a Trader Joe’s, but the City Council nixed the deal.
The Browns said about half their store’s business now comes from online orders, and they’ve found success selling to the art departments of big advertising firms and Fortune 500 companies like General Mills and Best Buy.
If HUGE Theater ends up buying the building, Art Materials would rent it back until December 2020 as the Browns look for another place in the area, according to the terms of the purchase agreement. JoAnn Brown said they don’t plan to leave the neighborhood. “This is where the art people are,” she said. “This is where our customers are. This is where the foot traffic is.”
Shelter Architects’ $1 million plan to turn the former creamery into a theater would remove the art store’s facade and replace it with arced panels of glass. “The architect looked up and saw the curve of the roof and was very inspired and decided to just tear off the front,” Bernard said.
In order to secure a loan for the $2.2 million purchase of the building, HUGE needs to raise $640,000 by Sept. 1. The theater is holding bake sales and food truck fundraisers and asking visitors to put their “cold hard cash in a plastic bucket.”
“The plans are beautiful,” JoAnn Brown said. “We’re excited for them, but I don’t count my pennies until I have them.”
When Uptown resident Alexis Camille first walked into HUGE Theater in early 2017, she was feeling vulnerable.
“I had just moved to town from Oakland,” she said. “My father had gotten sick, and he was my mother’s caretaker. I needed some self-care.”
It didn’t take long for Camille to feel like she had found a “a space to heal and grow.”
HUGE hosts weekly pay-what-you-can improv jams where anyone can come, warm up as a group and then perform on stage. A jam for people of color is one of five monthly jams HUGE hosts for members of specific marginalized communities.
“When I came into the POC space, I was like, ‘Woah!” Camille said. “It blew my mind a little. It was a little more familial. We all got to share our experiences as people of color and use improv as a tool to bring levity to the things that come up in those conversations.”
John Gebretatose, HUGE’s director of diversity and inclusion and co-founder of the Black and Funny Festival, said his job is to “make sure our stages reflect the city that we live in.”
“The majority of improv is a young person’s game — people out of college or in college, usually white, or they come from a certain socio-economic background,” he said. “If we walk out the door of the theater, and it looks a certain way demographically speaking, why can’t we have that on our stage?”
Most of HUGE’s performers are amateurs, and the heart of HUGE’s efforts toward inclusion is a theatrical model that seeks to get as as many improvisers on stage as possible and empowers novice comics to pitch and produce their own shows. “Directors come to us with an idea and we say, ‘Yes, use this space, we’ll help you cast it,’” Bernard said.
“There’s this scarcity mindset that’s usually imparted into theaters or places where there’s some sort of competition,” Gebretatose said. “This kind of challenges the idea that there may not be enough shows. … We’re trying not to silence straight white men but to amplify other voices.”
Pam Mazzone said that when she’s performed improv elsewhere there’s been a sense of hierarchy — a feeling that “you haven’t been doing it as long, so you’re not as good as me.” At HUGE, she said, the atmosphere is more “eclectic and accepting.”
“Doing improv can be a very scary idea for people who have never stepped foot on stage,” she said. “Nobody feels entitled in this community.”
HUGE’s inclusive model has inspired an almost evangelical fervor among its students, its box office volunteers and its mostly part-time staff — all of whom say the theater has built up their skills and confidence while making them feel connected, celebrated and secure.
Breanna Cecile quit a job in Albertville because it wouldn’t give her time off to attend classes, while Emily Lindholm decided to move to Whittier because it was walking distance from the theater.
“It is my life; my entire community and all of my best friends I met through HUGE,” said Lindholm, who now teaches classes and leads the “We Can Jam” for people who identify as women, transgender, femme or nonbinary. “You’ll see improvisers walking all around this part of town.”
Bernard said that adding rehearsal and class space to match demand is an essential part of HUGE’s mission.
“When we’re talking about seats at the table, it really helps to have a bigger table,” she said.