At the just-opened Huge Theater in south Minneapolis, improv actors are making up laughs as they go along.
"Ladies and gentlemen, you have one minute to put your superhero names in the severed Spider-Man head bucket."
So began last Saturday's performance of the superhero improv show "Ka-Baam!!" at Huge Theater. As directed by the voice on the P.A. system, audience members scribbled made-up superhero names onto scraps of paper and dropped them in the Spidey Halloween bucket onstage. The three winning names would be portrayed by a group of actors -- improvising their lines over the course of two hours.
For people who enjoy their performance art polished, this scenario may sound like a disaster in the making. But if you like a little edge in your entertainment, Huge would like your business.
Huge Theater opened quietly in December near the corner of Lake and Lyndale. Its founders call it the only dedicated stage for long-form improvisational comedy in the Twin Cities. They'll celebrate with a true grand opening party on Friday.
Improv is often treated as "an ugly stepchild" in the Twin Cities theater scene, said Huge co-founder Jill Bernard. The easiest way to describe long-form improv is probably to say what it's not. It's not stand-up comedy, although that's the most common assumption. And it's not "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" That's short-form improv, where games and a greater amount of audience participation dictate the stage antics (you can see that at Comedy Sportz in Uptown).
For the most part it's unscripted theater. In the case of "Ka-baam!!" the actors are creating a brand-new superhero comedy right before your eyes. The cantankery on Saturday began with these three would-be heroes: Banana Boy, the Indomitable Ooze and Captain Jesus. The messiah, in this case, played by a woman.
Michael Ritchie, the narrator for "Ka-Baam!!", is an 18-year veteran of the improv scene. He said there were only a few Twin Cities venues willing to support long-form improv, including Bryant-Lake Bowl, Brave New Workshop and the Fringe Festival.
"It's something that's been long overdue," he said. "It's wonderful that we have a forum now, instead of being shoehorned into other places."
From clothing store to comedy
Huge started small -- as a five-person theater troupe in 2005. After producing shows around the Twin Cities and organizing the annual Twin Cities Improv Festival, three of the members thought it was time to go all in and open their own place.
One problem: "The improv community does not have a lot of money," Bernard said. Her co-founders in this nonprofit endeavor are Butch Roy and Nels Lennes. The three spent most of 2010 furiously raising money to open the theater in the former Lava Lounge clothing store.
Roy, whose tribal ink and red mohawk make him look more like a tattoo artist than a theater geek, characterized the past year as "amazingly frustrating." Banks weren't exactly enthused to hand out loans to fledgling theater companies, he said. Still, supporters rallied around Huge. You can see this community spirit in the form of tiny brass plaques on each of the space's 120 seats, naming someone who donated $100 or more to the theater's creation. (Several luminaries, such as Dudley Riggs and Stevie Ray, have honorary plaques.)
'Never be seen again'
Huge has opened ambitiously, booking shows six nights a week.
There's something called "The Mustache Rangers" on Thursdays. Bernard performs a solo improvised musical, "Drum Machine," on Saturdays. Then there is "Overheard in Minneapolis," a show based on the website of the same name, which features awkward conversations overheard in the city. (Woman at Costello's Bar: "You can't even see her cervix in that picture anyway, so who cares?!")
Huge reserves Tuesday nights for classes, which are a large part of an improv actor's progression.
"You have to train for a long time before you can make [stuff] up," said Hannah Kuhlmann, who played Captain Jesus in "Ka-Baam!!" last week.
When there are a half-dozen actors onstage -- especially in a show like "Ka-Baam!!" -- Kuhlmann said, the group has to be in rhythm. "You want to get into a zen kind of mind," she said. "It almost gets sort of spiritual. I think that's why people get so passionate about improv."
In the second act of "Ka-Baam!!", Kuhlmann and her compatriots were introduced to the night's supervillain: The 50-Foot-Tall 30-Year-Old Hipster. He came from outer space, riding a massive bicycle, and demanded that Earthlings give him Joy Division tapes (not CDs). As Captain Jesus, Kuhlmann and her fellow actors defeated the giant by wrapping him in Ed Hardy T-shirts (a terrible death for a hipster).
This probably all sounds a lot less hilarious than it actually was. But that's the thing about improv, you have to see it to believe it. As Roy put it: "Yes, I have to cop to that fact that I can't absolutely promise that each show is going to be great. But I can promise that this will be the best version of the performance, because it will never be seen again."
By far the most popular night at Huge is Sunday's "Improv-A-Go-Go." It showcases troupes that sign up and are picked by a lottery. Think of it as an elaborate open mike for improvisers. The night was started by Roy at Brave New Workshop in 2002. He took it with him to Huge, where it routinely attracts a sell-out crowd. It's a good place to see rising stars and acclaimed veterans.
In the future, Roy said, they hope to get a beer-and-wine license and expand the crowds from "Improv-A-Go-Go" to other nights.
The Huge crew admitted: With snowstorms galore, December probably wasn't the best month to open a niche theater that relies on a niche audience. A recent Wednesday show had only four people in the audience. But Bernard joked that births are always ugly.
"It hasn't exactly been a cakewalk," she said. "But we make mistakes and we learn from them instantly. We're improvisers: We roll with the punches."