The swingingest mayoral debate in the history of Minneapolis went down last October at the Bryant-Lake Bowl.
Perched on stools on the tiny stage, six of the leading candidates took questions from a bow-tied young moderator whose earnest demeanor couldn’t hide his whip-smart political savvy. At one point, candidate Bob Fine stripped down to a Superman costume, but the real laughs came when a group of improv comedy actors popped out from behind the curtain to create spontaneous skits about the issues just discussed.
If CSPAN had this format, it’d get much better Nielsen ratings. At a time when Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are more popular than straight newscasts, the Theater of Public Policy, which begins its sixth season Monday at the BLB, is ready to be taken amusingly.
“What sticks with people are stories, not policies,” said co-founder Tane Danger. “So we reframe political conversations into narrative.”
“You want people to tune in for 90 minutes to your ideas on a farm bill?” said Brandon Boat, his partner in bureaucratic hilarity. “This is the way to do it.”
T2P2 — as the theater is known for short — has staged fall and spring seasons since 2011. Guests range from “public-policy rock stars” like Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie to experts in civic affairs, education and science. They also take their act on the road to such cities as St. Cloud, Rochester, Duluth and Grand Rapids.
The duo, both 28, met as students at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. Boat tried out for LineUs, a still-active improv group that Danger founded. He got rejected, but came back the next year, and it was fate that two guys with born-for-drama surnames would go on to form a partnership dubbed Danger Boat Productions. Danger is the show’s director, onstage host and interviewer; Boat improvises in most shows and takes on the administrative roles of an executive producer.
“‘He’s more of a tree person and I’m more of a forest person,” said Danger, who grew up in Florida as the son of a journalist mother and Lutheran minister father. He has landed an impressive variety of jobs since graduating six years ago, and all have informed his current situation. As an intern on Rep. Tim Walz’s campaign for Congress in 2006, he launched one of the first candidate Facebook pages in the country. He was the communications director for Minnesota’s sesquicentennial celebration in 2008. He also taught English in Korea for a year, where he used improv games to help his students learn.
T2P2 aspires to more than merely amuse audiences a la the popular D.C. comedy troupe the Capitol Steps, Danger said: “We want people to leave knowing more about the issue than when they came in, but it also needs to be fun. Learning about government and politics doesn’t have to fit the Theater of the Oppressed school of thought.”
Troupe member Jim Robinson, a veteran of Brave New Workshop, called what T2P2 does unique, satisfying — and challenging.
“Tane knows how to get good information out of a person, so every answer is a gift for us to work with,” Robinson said. “The trick is not to get didactic and boring. So if the topic is agriculture, and they mention sugar beets, you might cook up a romance between a beet and a soybean.”
Going off script
Danger said that it’s been “an uphill struggle” to book guests with conservative viewpoints. “They think: It’s in Uptown, a liberal neighborhood, they’re just going to make fun of me,” he said. “But we don’t take potshots at people or their points of view, just the issues. Some of the best, most interesting shows have included conservative guests.”
He recalled a 2012 forum with a right-leaning crowd at the Civic Theater in Rochester, where topics such as single-payer health care and legalizing gay marriage drew audible groans. But when two performers acted out a stereotypical scene of a married couple running late, with one driving the other crazy by being really slow to get out the door, the audience was in stitches.
“It was the most trite template imaginable, but the couple happened to be two men,” Danger said. “Folks weren’t laughing at the expense of same-sex couples or at the expense of those who thought gay marriage should be illegal. The comedy was in recognizing in this fictional gay couple a minor crisis that felt deeply familiar, a shared experience that made the people at the core of this debate relatable. Humor can loosen us up enough to give someone else’s point of view a fair hearing.”
One upcoming guest from the Republican side of the aisle is Rep. Pat Garofalo of Farmington, who recently made headlines for a tweet about the NBA that was roundly trashed as racist, causing him to make a public apology.
“Politics today is so scripted,” Danger said. “If a politician speaks off script it makes national news. We take ourselves so seriously about everything, and take umbrage at the slightest comment.”
Upon being told he wasn’t going to be the butt of jokes, Garofalo quipped, “What? That’s the only reason I’m coming.” He said he’s looking forward to a broad-ranging discussion of hot issues at the Capitol, including the state budget and minimum wage. Asked if he’s had any prior improv comedy experience, Garofalo said, “Only if you count the floor of the House of Representatives.”
It’s getting easier to book experts as T2P2’s reputation grows. Community leaders now have the theater on their radar. Danger and Boat were artists in residence at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts last year, and Danger was named a 2014 fellow by the Bush Foundation.
Hodges is one participant whose career certainly wasn’t hurt by gamely agreeing to the unusual interview format. During her campaign for mayor last year, she twice was a featured guest. “It’s an effective way to get a point across,” she said. “If you can get people relaxed and laughing, they hear and understand better.”
It’s also a chance to get feedback from a range of voters, particularly the under-40 set, said Secretary of State Ritchie, another two-timer on T2P2. He is scheduled again April 14 to discuss one of his favorite topics: making government data more accessible to the public.
“You hear elected officials say young people don’t vote,” Ritchie said. “But my impression is there’s a very high consciousness among millennials about things that affect their lives, like transportation and health care.”
Though audience demographics include both younger and older adults and the occasional teen, Boat said their approach has special appeal to millennials.
“Our generation expects organizations to reach us on our own terms, not because it’s the thing you do when you reach a certain age, like join the Lions Club,” he said. “They like that we take these dry issues and sort of turn them on their heads.”