The rest is still unscripted: Minneapolis’ distinct improv comedy scene

The Twin Cities Improv Festival celebrates its 11th year with a five-day event.

Left Improv actors Hannah, and Taha perform an act based on a audiences annoyance with her phone not updating Saturday, June 17, 2017.

Easton Green

Left Improv actors Hannah, and Taha perform an act based on a audiences annoyance with her phone not updating Saturday, June 17, 2017.

Katie Lauer

Long form improv is not “ComedySportz,” “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” or “Saturday Night Live.”

The style moves away from games and skits, and features shows of multiple unscripted scenes, created from either initial audience suggestions or performers’ instincts on stage. Starting Wednesday, a five day festival on Lyndale Avenue South will celebrate Minneapolis’ unique improv scene for the 11th year running.

Butch Roy, HUGE Improv Theater’s executive director, said shows are free to become literally anything — and that’s the whole point.

“Improv is basically the science fiction of theater,” Roy said. “As an audience, we understand [the performers] are people just like [us], but for some reason they live in a world where the rules are slightly off.”

Shows can be “off” in many ways: they can feature a laser show about pizza, a recreation of a wildlife documentary or even two people simply exploring salt and pepper’s relationship.

“The finished performance is not ‘the thing,’” Roy said. “It’s the danger. Watching people go into the unknown is the show you see, not the finished words or the scenes that happen.”

Twin Cities talent

While the Twin Cities may not be an improv “hub” like Chicago, L.A. or New York, Roy said the lack of competition to “make it” helps better the local talent.

“If someone does 20 years here,” Roy said, “It’s because you know they want to be the best improviser they can be. We’re really pushing and exploring what you can do with this art, instead of just thinking, ‘This could get me to Saturday Night Live.'”

Casey Haeg, a frequent player at HUGE who recently moved to New Orleans, agrees.

“[The Twin Cities] is not a destination scene,” Haeg said. “But the people who are doing improv, their end game is to do improv for our audiences, for our community and to flourish in the community.”

No matter where she is, Haeg continues to perform because of the relationships improv creates.

“When I do scripted theater, I always miss the connection with the audience,” Haeg said. “They know that you know what you’re about to say. There’s something different with them knowing you don’t know.”

“And you can’t recreate it — even if you tried.”

Creativity meets criticism

While improv relies on invention, Roy said some still question its authenticity.

“People literally want us to prove it,” he said. “They think, ‘People can’t be this liberated and unafraid of looking dumb. This has to be a trick.’”

Roy likens improv to sports; players can’t rehearse a game, but they can practice picking up cues, learning strengths and honing skills.

But this still doesn’t satisfy some critics.

“At some point, you have to take it as a compliment, because what they saw was so well done that they thought there was no way it was real,” Roy said.

Despite naysayers, HUGE Theater’s managing director, Molly Chase, said the festival will provide improv for everyone with over 30 performing groups.

“There are as many kinds of improv as there are music,” Chase said. “There’s some world-class improv happening in the Twin Cities that many people are not aware of, but we also bring in some groups that you otherwise might not get a chance to see.”

Roy agrees.

“It may be the least risky time to test [improv] out,” he said. “But I think surprise is the best thing about it.”

What: Twin Cities Improv Festival

When: June 21 – 25

Where: HUGE Improv Theater, 3037 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis

How much: $8 – $18