Minnesota political comedy troupe takes its show on the road

Originally published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 21, 2018

Sami Haeli, Darwin Smith and Jim Robinson during a performance by the Theater of Public Policy at Tennessee State University in Nashville. Photo by Tane Danger.

If there’s one term that makes mainstream audiences warier than “improv comedy,” it’s “local politics.” By all logic, the Theater of Public Policy should have been doomed as soon as it began. Instead, the politically focused improv company quickly cemented itself as one of the Twin Cities’ most distinctive and visible comedy institutions.

Founded in 2012 by local comedians Brandon Boat and Tane Danger, the troupe — T2P2 to its fans — brings an unorthodox mix of political chat and long-form improv to venues all over the metro. A typical show involves Danger interviewing local political figures (recent guests include Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, Star Tribune Washington correspondent Maya Rao and LGBTQ leader Charlie Rounds), followed by an audience Q&A session and two sets of improvised comedy inspired by those conversations.

It’s a format that’s proven both durable and influential. “I’ve had two political campaigns just in the last week message me to say, ‘Hey, you should do a forum where you have our candidate and our opponent on your show together,’ ” Danger said.

Now its influence has started to expand to the national stage.

In 2015, the group ran a successful GoFundMe campaign to perform a week of shows in Washington, D.C. That engagement caught the eye of a patron who worked for the Charles Koch Institute, a prominent arts-funding nonprofit established by the CEO of Koch Industries. She suggested that Boat and Danger apply for a grant to take their show on the road. The $98,000 grant was approved late last year, and the troupe recently spent three months playing colleges in Minnesota, Michigan, Missouri, New York, California and Tennessee on a 10-stop tour.

Although Koch’s name may have raised eyebrows because of his prominence as a donor to conservative causes and candidates, Danger said his group and the schools chose all the topics.

conversation on police and community relations at the University of Central Missouri, for instance, drew a 200-strong crowd in a state where the issue has loomed especially large after the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer.

With a panel consisting of a college professor, a police officer and a Black Lives Matter activist, the discussion could easily have become contentious, or worse, felt like a rehash. Instead, Boat said, it emerged as one of the group’s most productive and engaging performances.

“Even when an issue is difficult, or has been talked about a lot already, we’re helping people see it from a different angle.”

They make ‘extra credit’ fun

Introducing its unique brand of political comedy to new audiences came with some challenges.

“Not everybody always got what we were doing,” Danger said. “For example, we did a show here in Minnesota about urban versus rural issues. [Some people] thought we were there to train them how to go and advocate at the Legislature or something like that.”

Still, the response was positive. Improviser Darwin Smith, who joined the Theater of Public Policy just before the tour, was surprised to see how much the performances got through to the college crowd.

“They were coming up and saying, ‘Man, you made that look so fun. How did you get into improv? I came to get extra credit for my class [but] this is really cool!’ ”

By design, Theater of Public Policy shows often dig into controversial and uncomfortable subjects. “If we’re doing a show about a really sensitive or explosive issue … [cast members] need to be hyper-aware of who the potential victims are, the folks who would be adversely affected one way or another depending on how this goes,” said Danger.

In fact, unlikely subjects for comedy often ended up being the most productive improv fodder.

“Some of our topics are very heavy,” said Smith. “But I have a good time deconstructing that stuff and finding something I can use to connect with the audience — a genuine connection rather than just saying, ‘Hey, this is how I feel about the topic and I’m gonna express my viewpoint!’ ”

That connection seems to have reverberated with audiences throughout the tour. Danger said that audience surveys and general feedback were overwhelmingly positive.

“The Theater of Public Policy has to be one of the most significant and successful educational experiences that has visited our campus in the last decade,” said Jack E. Rogers, director of the debate and forensics program at University of Central Missouri. “Our students were engaged, enthusiastic and cannot stop talking about it. As soon as the show had concluded, my inbox was inundated with e-mails asking when they could return to campus and suggesting future topics for performances.”

Despite its deep dives into politics, Theater of Public Policy explicitly aims for a neutral point of view.

“I don’t want the audience to know how we feel about a particular issue,” said Danger. “I don’t want people to walk away from a show thinking, ‘Oh, now I know how I’m going to vote on Proposition 14.’ I would much rather people walk away and think, ‘Oh, there’s more nuance to this than I thought there was.’ ”

Improviser Heather Meyer, who joined the company last December, said it can be tough at times to approach topics “from an unbiased place. But it’s our job in T2P2 to listen and not attach our personal or political beliefs to what we are hearing. Honestly, working with T2P2 has challenged some of my own biases when hearing guests and audience questions from both sides. It’s the most challenging and rewarding improv I do.”

The tour also gave the group an opportunity to push its own boundaries. Along with the usual interviews and panel discussions, T2P2 began experimenting with an “Improv Cafe,” in which performers broke up the audience into small groups for frank conversations on the topic at hand.

“It’s more challenging than our flagship show,” said Meyer. “The audience isn’t all hearing the same conversation and the improvisers aren’t even all hearing the same information. … This makes the improvisers’ job of being clear with our work on stage even more important, because it needs to connect with not just the small group we talked to but the entire audience.”

The group’s next venture will be a Tuesday night residency in July at Amsterdam Bar and Hall in St. Paul, with guests including St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter and St. Paul Saints owner Mike Veeck.

There are plans for a second college tour in the near future. And next spring Danger will begin teaching a course at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design on how designers can apply the principles of improv to their work.

As T2P2’s influence continues to expand, Danger is reflective about the work the group has done to both elevate political discourse and to spread the gospel of improv.

“Folks who come to a show of ours about the farm bill, or the bonding bill at the Legislature — they’ve never come to an improv show before and probably never would have thought of coming to one.

“This is a way for people who wouldn’t normally tune in for public policy conversations to engage on some of these topics, and find a way to like it and have fun. It turns out the alternative is also true: that people who are already really interested in public policy are like, ‘This is so fun!’ ”

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