How do you start a conversation around complex issues, like tax reform or designing a comprehensive health insurance exchange, and keep an audience engaged?
What if you infuse a little comedy into the discussion?
That’s exactly what Tane Danger and Brandon Boat, two college friends, decided to do when they started the Theater of Public Policy two years ago.
After graduating from Gustavus Adolphus College, they spent time doing improv alongside their day jobs at different nonprofits and what Boat described as “civic good type of organizations.”
They started asking themselves: is there a way we can bring those two things together?
“Comedy has a long history of being provocative or an agent of cultural or social change. But we weren’t necessarily seeing any of that,” Danger explained.
“It’s kind of dual passions and blending them together trying to make the perfect marriage,” Boat said.
The Theater of Public Policy engages conversation around different issues through live, improv theater. Each week’s hour long show opens with an on-stage interview with a leading expert on a particular issue. Some of this season’s guests have included Richard Carlbom, executive director of Minnesotans United for All Families; April Todd-Malmlov, executive director of Minnesota’s Health Insurance Exchange; and Dr. Marla Spivak, MacArthur Fellow and Distinguished McKnight Professor, Department of Entomology at the University of Minnesota.
Following the interview, a team of Twin Cities improvisers create unscripted theater scenes based on the interview. The second half of the show includes a question and answer session with the audience and the guest followed by a final series of improvised comedy sketches.
“What we do isn’t exactly satire or parody like Dudley Riggs (although we do have Workshop alumni in our cast). We’re not in the business of making fun of issues or belittling them. We want to use humor to explore debates and ideas. We want to make dense, challenging subjects accessible to a general audience without sacrificing the importance or magnitude of the issue,” Danger said. “I honestly didn’t know until it actually was up on stage whether or not it was going to work but I think it does.”
The audience is often split between people involved in the policy world and interested in issues and the other half that is not interested in policy but in seeing a comedy show and learning something along the way.
“There are positive solutions and interesting ways of thinking about these things.
If we can expose people to some of those ideas and people and those thought processes I think that is both short and long term success,” Danger said.
Some guests on the show think they have to perform. But Danger tells them that their role is to play the straight person. They can leave the comedy to the improvisation team.
The guests appreciate the show’s humorous element and it brings in people who might not otherwise listen to a conversation about policy issues. They are sometimes even surprised by the comedy sketches that follow their talk. “Is that how what I said came out?” guests have asked.
“We don’t reward people in the public sphere for doing this and going and talking to people and grappling with issues in real time. It’s not how we normally expect those folks to act,” Danger said.
The audience is also engaged. They hear the guest speak and see the improv. They make the connections. It is an active process in that way. “There’s’ a little bit of silliness, but then they say ‘I get it.’ It makes it click for people,” he said.
According to Danger improvisers are really good listeners and can take a difficult issue, peel it back to the key elements, drop it in a different situation and explore it in a different light.
“It’s not a poking, jabbing type of humor. We try to bring people together and use comedy as a universal bridge we can all find a place to stand on together and see what is happening with this issue. Comedy serves as that thing that ties it all together for everyone in the room no matter which way they come to the issue from,” Danger said.
“It’s sort of the NPR listeners improv show. It’s kind of nerdy and brainy but it’s a lot of fun.,” he said.
One show on invasive species and the Asian carp turned out to be an unexpected success when a man suddenly appeared on stage carrying a 60-pound frozen fish. He talked for ten minutes on the reproductive habits of the fish, all while holding this slowly melting and slowly stinking fish.
“The fish was not in the best condition. This was not its first event,” Boat recalled. “We embraced it. Eventually I thanked him and asked him to retake his seat in the audience with the fish. We (improvisers) used everything that he gave us. Afterwards everyone wanted to hold the fish. They all wanted to get their picture taken with it.”
Danger asked where else could this happen. Instead of being shooed off the stage, people listened and improvisers brought that into their scenes.
“The audience saw this and the improv and it all comes together in a way. It’s very rare that I get to see how anything can happen and yet it all gets tied up in with a bow at the end,” he said.
When their season is over on April 29, the two will keep busy performing at places like college campuses and conventions.
“We have been surprised how much it has grown just in the time we’ve been doing it. Our phone is ringing and people want to do projects with us,” Boat said.
Next month they will be working with Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) to do two live shows on May 8 and 22 at the New Amsterdam Bar and Hall in St. Paul. More details on the May performances will be available on the Theater of Public Policy website soon.