Funny Business

In the growing local improv scene, everyone's a comedian

The couple got their long-form training in Chicago, the improv capital. To get to Chicago is to make it in the world of improv comedy. Sweeney went there with the personal recommendation of one Dudley Riggs, tons of press clippings, and years of experience on the BNW stage. He was told he could audition to be in the first level of classes.

"There are about 300 improv-ers in Minneapolis," says Sweeney. "There are 4,000 in Chicago. The Second City training program has 850 students. If you tried to do a ComedySportz game there, people would throw stuff. It's a culture. These people all hang out and talk long-form talk... There's this whole vocabulary that not many people have heard of here."

Right now, improv at BNW exists mostly as a tool for the resident company (five to seven members) to develop their shows. ("The title is Viagra, it's about what's fashionable now. Improvise for a while, and show me what you've got.") But BNW's new owners are slowly trying to make improvisational theater a spectacle in itself. Their goal is to introduce a long form act developed in Chicago and known as a "Harold." The structure of a Harold begins when group members riff on a given theme for a while, then two members of the group improv one scene, then two others launch off into another, then another. Eventually the stories begin to overlap--until ideally, magically, all the threads come together. Voilà, Harold ends. (For a more polished example, think of Seinfeld: coffee shop gathering; subplots; another coffee shop gathering; subplots come together in unexpected ways; roll credits.)

But Seinfeld has a script. There's a problem with long-form: While at times the result is fresh, it can also be sloppy. At the BNW's midnight Harold featuring the resident company, scenes meander, and one gains a definite, frustrating sense that there are rules here we don't know about. (Which, in fact, there are.)

Of course, all this improv is free--the Brave New Improvisers aren't looking for financial gain here. Yet. "I don't expect the audience to laugh every 30 seconds," says Lilledahl. "I want to take them along for a ride. In Chicago, you will pay as much as $10 to see a Harold. We want to educate our audiences as to what this form can do. You can see our regulars catching on, and really enjoying it." As this midnight Harold progresses, we do slowly figure out the rules. As Margi Simmons and Joshua Will's demon baby (a blue line means positive; a red X means you're pregnant with the Antichrist) joins with Eriq Nelson and Kim Schultz's Bluebird of Happiness/Vulture of Despair riff, we nod and smile: I see, I get it now.

This doesn't mean that BNW has totally eschewed games, but they do deride them. Games sell, and the company uses the format for the 100 corporate shows it does each year. Sweeney plays in many of these performances, and as he gets up to demonstrate what game scenes look like, he oozes self-hatred. "If my goal is to make someone laugh, what I'll do, because I have a very small brain, is go back to the stuff I know works. When I do the corporate shows, one thing I do is prepare a lineup of as many vice presidents as I can because I know that if I say their name in a sketch I will get a laugh and that's my really shallow whorish goal for that show. And it's the opposite of what I believe in as an improviser, but that money keeps us going."

This fierce will-to-profit has not gone unnoticed by other groups: In an interview, one competing improv actor reads bitterly from an August '98 Corporate Report article about the new BNW, in which Sweeney says, "We're running this company as a business first; the artistic side comes second."

As a business, it has been seriously successful. The Workshop has recently announced plans to open up a new 300-seat theater in Calhoun Square. And they have signed a contract with Disney Cruise Lines to be the Mouse's exclusive comedy provider. So what is the Brave New Workshop? An improv troupe? A playpen for intense performers? A training regimen for dull Edina dentists? A spoof-spewer with a fondness for feeble sex jokes? A drooling capitalist machine? A self-help program for aspiring comedy stars?

Yes.

ComedySportz's game style and Brave New Workshop's long-form improv stand at opposing sides of the improv debate, but there are other players here. Off the Top Improv might be called the hired hands. The group, run by local actor/director/10-year improv vet Zach Curtis, sends four players to gigs around the Metro: businesses, colleges, retreats. There they perform games similar to the ones offered by ComedySportz.

The setup allows OTT to escape the burden of rent. Without that obligation, the business has done well enough for Curtis to quit his day job--and pay his troupe handsomely for their efforts. Perhaps because the company is new, perhaps because they don't have obligations, Off the Top has the easiest repartee with their audience of any of the Twin Cities groups. They banter back and forth, get to know specific audience members based on their suggestions. There's a certain lightness and specificity to their performance, and a real connection with the people in the seats.

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