Improv, public policy, and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Why is an improv group that normally riffs on issues of public policy taking up residence in an art museum?

That’s the question that led me to pay a visit to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts the other day to meet with Tane Danger, one half of the “The Theater of Public Policy.” He and his cohort Brandon Boat have found a new home in the labyrinth of MIA offices sequestered behind the museum gift shop.

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Brandon Boat (left) and Tane Danger are the two halves of The Theater of Public Policy

Photo by Dan Dennehy

For the past two years Danger and Boat (Tane swears those are their real names) have been putting on shows at HUGE Theater that mix local politics with, well, comedy.

While they are enthralled by public policy and political history, Tane says they recognize that they are a bit of a rare breed.

A lot of people our age don’t believe in the political system; they’ve divorced themselves from it. And yet they are still involved in volunteering, or trying to do good in other ways. So politics had become so jaded, that people with energy and interest in doing good were putting their energy elsewhere.

The two improv artists decided to put their comic talents to the test. Could they make public policy more accessible through humor?

Danger says a typical show starts with an interview with someone who’s passionate about a particular aspect of public policy. Then in the second half, he and Boat use the interview as the fodder for a round of improv theater.

Policy seems boring, but it affects people lives. We’re trying to pull back the curtain and reveal that the system isn’t necessarily rigged.

The show has earned such a reputation for intelligent humor that it’s been able to line up some high profile guests. The duo have a show in this year’s Minnesota Fringe Festival which will include appearances by Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, former gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner and MPR’s Chris Farrell, among others.

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Brandon Boat brings the painter Rembrandt to life for MIA audiences, and makes his feelings for American still-lifes painfully clear.

Photo by Tane Danger

Katherine Milton, MIA’s Director of Learning & Innovation, saw one of their shows, and was immediately hooked:

After their show, I thought “if these guys can make me care about issues surrounding the power grid… I wonder what they could do with Picasso!” (and I care deeply about Picasso.. but how do I bring others along?) I brought my entire division to see them, then the leadership team of the museum. We all concurred – The Theater of Public Policy works the sweet spot that dances with content, learning, wit and irony in a way that is memorable, engaging, and respects the topic and the speaker.

And so The Theater of Public Policy’s residency was born. Danger and Boat have been working with the staff for two months, and they’ve managed to insinuate themselves into museum life in some interesting ways.

In conjunction with the museum’s high profile Rembrandt exhibition, one of them occasionally dresses up as the 17th century Dutch painter and strolls the halls, chatting with visitors and critiquing work by other artists on view.

They’ve also taught some improv games to museum docents to use on tours, and injected humor into training sessions by turning them into a sort of murder mystery, giving each docent a role to play.

Danger says public policy and high art are not that dissimilar.

If you can take public policy and make it fun for people who normally don’t like it, can you take high art and make it fun for people who don’t normally consider themselves art people? It’s very easy for people to say ‘oh that’s a sticky issue or that’s such a hard topic, I don’t want to bother.’

Improvisers are not joke-tellers; improvisers are listeners. Improv is about being open to new ideas, and being willing to build upon them. Part of the reason it works in this setting is that it’s taking ideas in the moment and riffing on them. And that’s how we make sense of the world anyway. In this case it just happens to be funny, too.

This Thursday The Theater of Public Policy will be sitting down with MIA curator Tom Rassieur to talk about Rembrandt. But perhaps the harder performance will come that afternoon, when they deliver an abbreviated round of improv for the MIA members’ annual meeting.

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