Another cup of coffee

Triple Espresso will open for its 20th consecutive season.

Jackie Renzetti

In 1995, Michael Donley, Bill Arnold and Bob Stromberg met for a cup of coffee.

By the end of the visit, they had decided to create the show that became Triple Espresso, which is opening for its 20th season in Minneapolis on Friday.

The comedy ran continuously for 13 years before switching its stretch to holiday seasons. Donley, Arnold and Stromberg will appear along with Brian Kelly, Paul Somers, Patrick Albanese and Dane Stauffer throughout its run.

 “Now I know this sounds crazy, but this is the way we were thinking about it. Our goal was to write the funniest play that there is,” Stromberg said.

Originally, the trio planned to create a show for a small performance at a church.

Because the playwrights cut themselves short on time, they decided to include sections from their own individual performance acts to save time. As a result, the characters are largely based on their comic characters and real personalities.

William Partlan, artistic director of Cricket Theatre at the time, came to see the first show.

“I laughed from beginning to end,” Partlan said. “And that very night, I offered them a slot in my upcoming season.”

Partlan worked with the trio to develop the one-hour show into a two-hour production, which became the most successful show of the now-closed Cricket Theatre’s history.

During its run at the Cricket Theatre, the cast invited Dennis Babcock to see it. Afterward, he agreed to produce the show for them and now serves as the executive producer and president of Triple Espresso LLC.

With Babcock’s help, the show ran in multiple cities across the country, and at one point, four other countries at the same time. It ran in San Diego for 11 years, appeared in six countries and became the longest-running show in Iowa.

To accommodate the demand, the actors set up “Triple Espresso Training School,” Babcock said. Each new actor assimilated into their roles by taking turns rehearsing with the original caffeinated comics.  

Stromberg said that despite its carefree feel, the play requires a strict script so that different actors can create the same effect. He said that in the case of an illness or emergency, instead of using understudies, they’ll fly in an already trained actor to perform.

However, they continue to tweak things in the script each year.

“The wonderful thing about this particular show is that because the guys that wrote it perform it, we always have permission to change it,” Partlan said.

The luxury of a legally flexible script allowed the show to succeed in various places, where they’d swap Minneapolis references for those of different U.S. and international cities.

The show knocks down the fourth wall and involves frequent audience interaction. One of the characters designs a sing-along for a college freshman orientation, and audience members find themselves as those freshmen. The magician character requires audience volunteers to help complete his tricks.

“We make sure that the people we are making fun of are us, not them. It’s pretty safe to come up onstage,” Partlan said.

Loyal audience members have contributed to the show’s continuous runs.

“People come and they see it, and then they come back 15 or 20 times and bring everyone they know. … It’s clean comedy, you could bring your child of 6 years old to it; you could bring your grandmother of 106 to it,” Babcock said.

Partlan said the team gets letters and emails from audience members thanking them for giving them much-needed laughter during or after a rough time.

Keith Wander, band director and theater director of Hawley High School, said he brings a group of junior high and high school students on a four-hour drive to Minneapolis to see the show every year.

“One way or the other, we decided to go because it was such a good show,” Wander said. “It’s relatively inexpensive as far as shows go, [and] it’s very family friendly.”

This year, the group has 86 students.

 “I think they love us there,” Wander said with a laugh.

He also that he’s looking into bringing the show to their school.

Though the show only runs in Minneapolis this year, Babcock said there are plans to tour the show starting next fall, and they’re aiming to take it Off-Broadway sometime in 2015 as well.

 “We’ve played for over 2 million people since we’ve started,” Babcock said, “and we’re not done yet.”


What: Triple Espresso

Where: Music Box Theatre, 1407 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis

When: Nov. 21-Feb. 15

Cost: $31-36