HUGE Improv Theater’s latest season kicked off November 4, with several shows making a return to the stage alongside new experimental productions.
When most people think of improv, the word that naturally follows is comedy, but the shows at HUGE illustrate that a dedicated cast can improvise just about anything. This season, The Provettes are opening the Saturday night set with “Remix,” an improvised dance performance. The show begins with a choreographed dance, followed by a series of high-energy improv games based on audience input that all incorporate dancing.
“From the moment that people walk into the theater and take their seats, we try to get them into the headspace that this is going to be a party,” said “Remix” cast member Alicia Wheelock.
The Provettes came together in 2019 because they saw an opportunity to use their love for dance and movement to experiment with a new style of improv.
“Improv is about finding a relationship or a situation in a scene that you want to explore and compound upon,” Nora Neisen, a performer with The Provettes, said. “Dance is such a unique and beautiful way to explore emotions and heighten things. It allows us to do more in scenes and follow the shiny object than if you’re just talking to each other.”
Highlights of the current season are the Queer & Funny Improv Festival on November 20th and the annual Improvathon fundraiser, which runs for 28 straight hours from November 16-17.
Weekend performances feature new shows from the Bearded Company and The Mess, both frequent performers on the HUGE stage. The annual production of Family Dinner—the story of a holiday gathering gone hilariously awry—makes its return, and the aptly named Holiday Happy Fun Time Variety Show Extravaganza celebrates the Christmas spirit in all its gaudy glory.
They/Them/Theirold, a company of all trans and nonbinary players makes its debut as part of the HUGE Wednesday lineup with a sports-themed comedy show. Also on the Wednesday ticket are original shows from Babe Town, Ice Cream Social Club, and Oddly Now.
HUGE is on its way back to full capacity after being closed for 15 months during the pandemic shutdowns.
The rebound has been slow, said Jill Bernard, the theater’s co-founder and current education director, although the process of returning after such a long break provides its own opportunities for reinvention.
“It feels very much like we’re going into a new golden era of improv for the Twin Cities,” Bernard said. “This really cool thing happened where all the people who started doing improv online during the pandemic came out of it so excited to be physically together that their shows just have a buzz. Their sheer joy at being together fills the room.”
Neisen said that the forced break from live shows recalibrated everyone’s priorities. The break “recontextualized improv to say that this is something we’re doing for fun, to bring life to ourselves and each other,” Neisen said. “It’s not as important as our health or emotional wellbeing.”
Wheelock added that with that feeling of pressure for perfection being lifted, the performances can reach a new level of unbridled silliness.
“I have never been less stressed the day before the opening of a show ever,” Wheelock said. “At this point I just want to invite people in.”
In addition to its genre-pushing shows, HUGE has increased its equity initiatives over the past few years to try to bring improv arts to anyone with a creative mind and a willingness to experiment.
Bernard said that the Me Too movement especially jump started a shift in how theaters like HUGE operate.
“For my generation of women improvisers, we had an attitude of ‘I’m up for anything, I’m game, I’ll play along,’” Bernard said. “And having younger women teach us that the world doesn’t have to be that way, that you don’t have to ‘suck it up, buttercup’ has been so inspiring.”
Alongside Fair Play MN, a group “claiming equitable space for all women/trans/femme/nonbinary comedians,” HUGE tries to counteract patterns of discrimination and harassment through creating a standard for discussions of boundaries before classes and shows and through the Amplified Voices track, which are classes reserved for women, nonbinary, queer, and trans students.
Through the leadership of John Gebretatose, founder of Blackout Improv, the theater is also attempting to push past the racial bounds that have historically confined the industry by offering jams for people of color and the annual Black and Funny Festival.
“The more experiences the more perspectives you bring into the room the richer the art is,” Bernard said. “To stay alive improv is going to have to be more. You can’t just have a group of 25-year-old white guys forever.”
Bernard said she made her career in Minneapolis because “it feels like the kind of place where if you have an idea, you can say to some friends, ‘Hey, do you want to do this?’ and there will be a way to do it, no matter how unusual or experimental your idea is.”
In 2009, Bernard and four others started HUGE Improv Theater on Lyndale Avenue to build a theater space dedicated to long-form improvisation: the comedic, the emotional, the spooky, or the just plain weird. For the past 13 years, Bernard and the team at HUGE have built out a neighborhood mainstay with improv performances and classes for improvisers and appreciators alike.
When the group was scouting locations, Bernard said that there was no doubt that Uptown was the place to do it. In its early days, HUGE was in good company with the Brave New Workshop and ComedySportz both running improv shows blocks away on Hennepin Avenue. The neighborhood was well known as an arts hub, but Bernard says that has changed during their years in the space.
“I feel like as the condo buildings go up there's less space for scrappy art projects to exist in this neighborhood,” Bernard said. “I’m never giving up on Uptown. I think it’s a beautiful place, it just needs more fertilizer.”
In September 2023, HUGE will say goodbye to its current home and move a few blocks north into the Art Materials building. It will be a larger space with multiple theaters.
The final holiday season in the old theater features a slate of classic shows. HUGE is also running its annual 28-hour Improvathon fundraiser from November 16-17 and the Queer and Funny Improv Festival on November 20, bringing improvised stories and off-the-cuff antics to audiences through the end of December.