“Using comedy to reframe hard, thinky stuff” is probably the best way to describe what The Theater of Public Policy does, and I’m glad they put it on their website for me to swipe.
The Theater of Public Policy, or T2P2 as it’s colloquially known, has been performing interview-improv shows since its inception in 2011. Created by Tane Danger and Brandon Boat, the T2P2 concept premiered inside HUGE Improv Theater.
Its 2022 summer series kicks off tonight at Bryant Lake Bowl with NPR “Marketplace Money” host Chris Farrell as the guest expert.
The current T2P2 show’s format goes like this: usually Danger, and sometimes Boat, interviews a guest about their expertise: economics, land use, global diplomacy, affordable housing, you name it. Then, a cast of trained improv comics performs a show around the themes of the interview.
“We can talk about economic inflation and what that means in numbers terms but actually seeing an improv scene dealing with cost of living going up and doing it in a way that’s fun, makes it relatable and human-centered,” Danger said. “It’s fun. We talk about real substantive stuff.”
And it’s accessible. Audience members don’t need to know a lick about the show’s topic to follow along with the interview and subsequent improv performance.
For example, a discussion around a statewide worker retention plan can turn into an improv skit about headhunters trying to track down workers in North Dakota who promised to work in Minnesota in exchange for a tuition reimbursement. A mix of fact (work in Minnesota for tuition reimbursement) and fiction (the use of headhunters to track down workers) reflects what the audience learned and exposes some flaws in the plan.
Of course, this format could easily sour in front of audiences. Given the complex and downright depressing topics at hand sometimes, laughing about an issue such as housing affordability may feel wrong. But there’s precedent for morphing difficult topics into comedy bits, in a way that educates and doesn’t trivialize.
Danger honed his improv and comedy crafts during Jon Stewart’s heyday. In the 2000s, “The Daily Show” was required viewing for young adults trying to make sense of the George W. Bush presidency, life after 9/11, and a seemingly endless war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite the bleakness of the news, day after day, “The Daily Show” viewers were encouraged to learn and laugh about it.
And that’s exactly what The Theater of Public Policy seeks to do: make people laugh about the hard stuff.
“We need to be able to talk about these things and learn how to find joy and laugh about them when it’s hard,” Danger said. “The show is not a roast. It’s not there to make fun of a person or an issue. It’s really that it allows us to go at an issue from a very different angle. Oftentimes…it humanizes an issue.”
After tonight’s show, the next T2P2 show is June 21 with Keith Mayes, the Executive Director of Reconnect Rondo.
“It is an intersection of all kinds of different stuff at once,” Danger said. Danger’s discussion with Mayes will touch on St. Paul history, racial justice, and urban planning. Danger is looking forward to talking with Mayes about the optimistic piece around the Rondo neighborhood, severed when I-94 was constructed through Rondo in the 50s and 60s.
The work being done by Reconnect Rondo is “a chance to do something that’s very positive,” Danger said. The audience will learn about the land bridge planned to reconnect the neighborhood during Danger’s interview with Mayes.
Danger said the T2P2 format makes “the most wonderful improv comedy show if you can figure out how to bring those pieces together.”
An important part of the T2P2 puzzle is a heterogenous cast.
“We know heterogeneous groups create more creative interesting things than homogenous groups,” Danger said, citing “data and research.”
“We very purposefully have a diverse cast in the broadest sense of the word,” Danger said. Racial identity, socioeconomic background, and a person’s profession all “bring something different to this experience and conversation.”
Bryant Lake Bowl, who is hosting the T2P2 summer series, exemplified this. “How many places in the whole world are a restaurant, bowling alley, cabaret theater in one?” Danger said.
And the best part about seeing a show at Bryant Lake Bowl? You can order food and drinks from a server and get them delivered to your seat. “Make a whole date night out of it, for just yourself or with someone else,” Danger suggests.
Buying tickets ahead of time is suggested, but tickets will also be available at the door if the show isn’t sold out. Danger recommends showing up early to nab a seat and order your drinks and food.
And you get to break the childhood rule of no eating on the couch, too. “The shows are intimate and fun. We are all sitting together in a living room,” Danger said.