A HUGE Stage for Improv

Writer and performer Britt Aamodt profiles the artists behind HUGE Theater, the Twin Cities only mainstage for long-form improv and now beginning its second year of acclaimed performances by the area's best players in the form.

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HAVE YOU SEEN THE TRAILERS FOR THE LATEST REESE WITHERSPOON FLICK? It’s called This Means War and, I guess, it’s meant to be a revamp of a tired genre, the romantic comedy. Based on what I’ve seen in the promos, the romance is still there, but gussied up for a sophisticated 2012 audience: our doe-eyed love interest, Witherspoon, is pursued by good pals and intelligence agents, Tom Hardy (not to be confused with Thomas Hardy, the dead novelist) and one of those young male hottie actors I’ve seen around but won’t go to the trouble to Google. All I know about the second guy is he’s not one of the hotties who has made a career out of playing vampires or werewolves.

Or is he?

Anyway, the movie’s big idea is that these intelligence agents with a surprising lack of intelligence have fallen for the same girl — oops. And rather than confront said girl or take their fight for her affections into the proverbial back alley, each deploys all the skullduggery, high-tech wizardry and arsenal available to them as spies to outdo the other and win the girl.

Puuhhleeease! Every time I drive by the billboard advertising This Means War, I wince.

It occurs to me, though, that hackneyed premise and all, HUGE Improv Theater could really do something good with this. I say that because romantic comedy, in the Twin Cities at least, doesn’t get any better than Rom Com: The Improvised Romantic Comedy, one of the shows currently sharing the stage at HUGE.

If you haven’t heard the buzz by now, HUGE is the Twin Cities’ first long-form improv theater. It opened December 5, 2010 to a sold out audience — and the next weekend got pounded by the biggest snowstorm of the season. Curse you, weather gods! But business has been brisk at HUGE the past year, because, says HUGE education director Jill Bernard, “We have a very devoted and supportive improv community in the Twin Cities.” What’s more, adds HUGE artistic director Nels Lennes, “When we opened HUGE, there wasn’t a consistent venue for long-form improv.”

Yet the reason HUGE is still selling out most Saturday nights is not just because there’s a supportive community or a need for a consistent venue, but also because the audience likes what it sees. “I’m going to say 80 percent of improv is bad. But when you get good improv, it’s really, really good,” says Hannah Kuhlmann, member of improv group Splendid Things and director of HUGE’s breakout hit Star Trek: The Next Improvisation.

The improv at HUGE is good. A lot of that has to do with the sheer number of improvisers living in the Twin Cities and the length of time they’ve been doing improv. Speaking of just those quoted above, Bernard has been performing since the early ’90s; Lennes started improvising in high school; Kuhlmann has logged ten years on the stage. And the list of other seasoned performers in town goes on. 

“Sure, there are natural improvisers. But improv is like anything else, the more you do it, the better you get at it,” says Bernard. And if you’re an experienced improv performer living here, you’re likely performing on HUGE’s mainstage — the theater’s only stage. Because that’s the whole point: to make long-form improv a mainstage attraction six nights a week.

“We’re lucky in the Twin Cites, because we have a long tradition of comedy,” says Bernard. Dudley Riggs brought Brave New Workshop to Minneapolis in 1958. ComedySportz and Stevie Ray’s are both celebrating 21 years in 2012, “which is an amazing accomplishment for any theater, let alone a comedy club.”

Before HUGE, if you wanted to see improv theater, you could go to Brave New Workshop, where Butch Roy, HUGE executive director, ran the successful Improv-A-Go-Go before moving it to HUGE. Before the theater opened, you could find improv groups sporadically performing at Bryant Lake Bowl or other theaters. ComedySportz specializes in improv, but it’s a short-form or game-type variety similar to Whose Line Is It Anyway?

If you wanted to see long-form improv, it was catch as catch can until HUGE hung out its shingle. The theater produces its own shows and curates performances by groups like Bearded Men Improv, Splendid Things, the Minneapples, the Mustache Rangers, and Poivre. “Space Jam” is open mic night at HUGE, providing a stage and audience for new and up-and-coming improvisers, many of whom have gotten their start through HUGE’s education program. The theater offers four levels of improv classes, with new classes starting in April.

Long-form improvisation, just to give it a definition, “is unscripted theater,” says Bernard. Long-form is often funny, but it doesn’t stand or fall on the tools of the standup trade — i.e. fast-paced humorous stories, bits, and one-liners. Rather, it’s a humor based in chance and surprise. And unlike traditional theater, of course, improvisers don’t work from scripts. Instead, they’re given a basic premise or genre — like comic books (HUGE’s Ka-Baam!!) or film noir — and they riff from there. The characterization, scene work, and three-act structure are worked out on the fly.

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Long-form improv operates with humor based in chance and surprise. Unlike traditional theater, improvisers work without scripts. Instead, they’re given a basic premise or genre — like comic books or film noir — and they riff from there, with characterization, scene work, and a three-act structure all worked out on the fly.

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And audience members are asked to participate in the concepting process. Take, for example, a recent Saturday night performance of Rom Com. The improvisers asked the audience for a title (“That’s What She Said”) and a location (Brooklyn). From those bare beginnings and the improvisers’ previous research into ’90s romantic comedy tropes, emerged a highly original comedy unique to the evening, complete with a heroine in search of a dream, a feel-good best friend, a slow-mo musical interlude, a lover, a complication, another complication, and a happy ending.

What’s better, the improvised romantic comedy was really funny. (Not to belabor the point, but the same cannot usually be said for This Means War and its ilk.) Our heroine is a circus performer who gives up the dignified carnie life to become — gasp! — a concert cellist. Her mother, expertly played by Bernard, is a gravelly-voiced gypsy trapeze artist, whose preferred mode of highway transport is the unicycle. The love interest is Dr. Todd, fellow concert performer hopeful AND full-time obstetrician AND champion pro golfer. (And cocaine addict, one would guess, to keep up the hectic schedule.) The impromptu and absurd choices made by the actors in the moment were genuinely hilarious.

Most shows at HUGE run for a two-month engagement, but no two iterations are exactly the same; every week presents a different take. When Hannah Kuhlmann helmed the sold-out Star Trek: The Next Improvisation, she says, “Every week was like a different episode.” The characters may have been the same, but they were provided a different location and mission for each performance by the audience. Michael Ritchie, also a member of Splendid Things, played a wise spaceship captain given to quoting grocery store romance novels and other pulp fiction . “I think at one point he called Stephen King America’s answer to Chaucer,” says Kuhlmann.

The “Data” character is a cloud of nanobots; there is a politically correct, big-haired counselor, and a Wesley-type character, played by Taj Ruler, who in the first season of the show was just a smart kid allowed to rub shoulders with Starfleet brass. In the upcoming season of Star Trek: The Next Improvisation, beginning May and running through summer, her character will be a recent graduate of Starfleet Academy, “which means she gets to wear the uniform,” says Kuhlmann — a blessing and a curse because the uniforms look great but “the zippers keep breaking. I tell the actors they’re not allowed to zip the uniforms themselves. They have to have someone else help them.”

HUGE Improv Theater has had success, yes, but still not quite enough — yet — to stockpile Captain Picard smocks or pay staff salaries and performer stipends. “Right now, all the money is going into things like rent and taxes and insurance,” says Bernard. “I don’t think I would’ve [co-founded HUGE had I not] been hopelessly na├»ve at the beginning. But it’s worked out.”

Like a number of others in town, HUGE is a nonprofit that runs on the energy and passion of staff, performers, and volunteers — people like Matthew Pitner, founding member of Bearded Men Improv, who, along with his fellow bearded men, helps run HUGE’s bar. While still a student at Moorhead State University, he says he used to caravan to the Twin Cities to see Improv-A-Go-Go, when it was still headquartered at Brave New Workshop; lots of other improvisers in town have mentioned they found the show similarly formative. So, when Roy, Bernard, and Lennes founded HUGE, Bearded Men Improv were on board.

“What’s nice about HUGE is that you don’t have to pay to rent the theater for your show. You don’t have to worry about making enough money. You don’t have to sign contracts,” says Pitner.  Another benefit of a having a home for this sort of long-form improv is that it gives the artists an incentive to come up with new material.

Bearded Men Improv are currently working up a Dungeons & Dragons-themed show. Says Pitner, “I would say a lot of the improv shows you’re seeing this year wouldn’t have happened if HUGE Theater wasn’t here.” I say, Dungeon Master, let the improv begin: Gimme an Evil Fighter Elf on a quest to the Misty Realms for the annual bake off.

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Related performance information and links:

Keep track of all the shows on stage at HUGE Theater by visiting the venue’s website and performance calendar.

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About the author: Britt Aamodt is the author of Superheroes, Strip Artists & Talking Animals. She is a performer and writer for stage, page, and radio.