Where can you go for advice in a crisis? Ask an improviser. No, really. Who is better at making things up on the fly? At solving problems with the tools and materials at hand? Who is most willing to try the untried?
Tane Danger, co-founder of The Theater of Public Policy, aka T2P2, is an improviser. He has performed, taught, and directed improv theater since 2003, when he was a student at Gustavus Adolphus. He started T2P2 in 2011 with Brandon Boat, a fellow Gustie alum.
T2P2 is a hybrid of laughs and serious topics. At each show at the Bryant Lake Bowl, T2P2’s theater home, Danger interviews a newsmaker, policymaker or big thinker on an issue that matters: race, education, the environment, gender equity, health care and public safety, to name just a few. (So far, he has interviewed more than 500 people.) Then the show’s cast of improvisers takes everything that’s been said and turns it into unscripted improv comedy theater.
In 2014, Danger was named a Bush Fellow. He used his fellowship to earn a Master’s of Public Policy from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, studying how improv theater can inform and improve politics and public policy.
Never have those skills been more useful than they are at this moment, in the thick of our global crisis. In two short weeks, Danger went from hosting a live show at the BLB to hosting a livestreamed show on Zoom. We spoke by phone on Wednesday evening. This interview has been edited and condensed.
MinnPost: Before Friday, March 13, what did your life look like?
Tane Danger: We opened the spring season of T2P2 on Monday, March 9. It was a great show. We talked about the census and had a good crowd. A lot of our season ticketholders and regulars were there. On Tuesday or Wednesday, I did a fun quiz show – a custom quiz show Brandon and I created – for a Head Start organization in Burnsville. On Thursday, I left for Florida, where my family is, for spring break.
Every day while I was there, the world fell apart a little bit more. Over five days, all of our business for March and April disappeared, walked away or indefinitely postponed. My partner, Eric, kept saying, “We’ll always remember this trip.”
MP: And you had just bought a house.
TD: We were supposed to close yesterday or the day before, but thankfully they let us move the closing up a week so we could get in here. Then stay home, basically. People ask, “Wasn’t it crazy to move right now?” It was, but it’s also nice to have something else to think about.
MP: What else did you have lined up? Because you always have a lot of things going on.
TD: I teach a class at the U of M design school called “Improvisation for Design.” While I was on spring break, we got the notice that all classes would go online. I spent a couple days thinking, “How am I going to teach improv online? Something that is so much about being in physical proximity with other people and connecting with other people?” It didn’t fall apart, but it dramatically changed.
I also host and emcee events. Brandon and I were supposed to host the Minnesota Brewers Guild Awards this Friday. That got indefinitely postponed. I was supposed to do a corporate training for a group that was bringing in people from all over the country. That disappeared.
We do a whole variety of different things, from live theater to events, conferences, workshops and educational offerings, and 95 if not 99 percent of those things involved, until recently, people being together in a physical space. Everything was tied to that. When that came off limits, it was pretty traumatic.
MP: T2P2 has a cast of performers. What about them?
TD: It’s a collection of really talented and amazing artists and performers I care about a lot. While I worried about the organization collapsing, I also worried about a dozen artists who were counting on two months’ worth of gigs as part of their livelihood. All the money they thought they were getting disappeared. So I thought – I gotta do something. We made the decision to offer all of our artists $500 prepaid for work, with the assumption that we will have work someday and they can work it off then.
Over the last few weeks, I have gotten more direct about going to our audiences and partners and asking for money. We don’t often do this. I’m not very comfortable doing it. But I sent an email basically saying, “We have no work coming in, we want to support our artists, so we’re going to put money on the table for them. If you like us and support us, please give to us now.” We put that ask out there and a bunch of people donated. It’s great and I’m thankful, but it doesn’t fill the gap that doing shows and events would. So we’re still figuring this out.
MP: You’re an improviser. What specific skills within that skillset have you called on in the last couple of weeks?
TD: I have taught workshops for years about how improv is a training and a skillset to make you better at being resilient and adaptable and able to respond to whatever gets thrown your way. I will be honest, I’ve never had that so challenged, in terms of a real-world opportunity to put that into practice, as I have over the last two weeks.
There’s the quintessential improv notion of “Yes, and ….” Whatever comes your way, you say, “Yes, this is true, AND what else can it be? Where else can we go from there?” Leaning on that has absolutely been part of what we’re doing.
One thing I always say to folks is “‘Yes’ is easy. You can say ‘yes’ to something and you’re not buying in to it or helping it grow in any way. ‘Yes, and …’ is you saying, ‘Yes, I am here with this idea, and I am going to contribute something to make it even more than it is now.” So now it becomes my thing as much as it is your thing. That’s powerful.
In improv, we try to think about everything we get in a scene as a gift. Even if it’s terrible or it seems like an insult, if you think about it as a gift, you get to unwrap it and be excited by it and explore it in a new way. In our case, we said, “OK, we can’t do shows in physical space with each other.” “Yes, that is true, and what can we do? How is this an opportunity or a gift to do something different, explore some direction we’ve never gone before?”
Another thing I always say is, “Improv is two or more people getting together on stage and doing something neither one of them could do by themselves.” Even though this was something I taught in an intellectual way in workshops, I struggled with it myself. I felt I couldn’t ask someone for help. I had to prove I could do it. I didn’t want to burden other people.
What I have 100 percent discovered over the past two weeks is if that was my attitude right now, we would be nowhere. I don’t have the capacity, the brains or the creativity to do all by myself a third of the things we are doing right now. Asking people with different skills and knowledge to work with you is not a weakness. It’s what we should all be doing.
MP: T2P2 gave its first livestreamed performance on March 30. How do you think it went?
TD: It went surprisingly well. It was on Facebook Live and YouTube. We think between 150 and 200 people watched it live. The show is still online now and has 1,000 views on Facebook. Another neat thing for us is that people tuned in from all over the country, which we don’t normally have.
I would say this to artists: Right now, things are weird for everyone. In our experience, this has meant that people are willing to go along with you on doing something different. If I had said six months ago that T2P2 was going to do a show where everybody was video conferencing into an empty theater, we might have had a dozen people tune in out of sick fascination, as opposed to 150 to 200 who were engaged and responding and enjoying it.
MP: What can we expect from your next show on Monday [April 6]?
TD: It will be a show about disinformation and conspiracy theories. We’ll have two guests. Maggie Koerth has written about conspiracy theories for the New York Times and is now on staff at FiveThirtyEight. Catherine Richert at MPR is leading a project they’re doing, trying to combat disinformation and fake news online in the run-up to the 2020 election.
Once again, it will all be via Zoom. People will see me alone at the Bryant Lake Bowl, Maggie Koerth and Catherine Richert having a conversation, the cast doing improv based on that conversation. Since the first show, we’ve learned some new functionalities in Zoom, so we’ll do some new things. We’ll take questions from people following along online. And you’ll see me drinking a Finnegan’s beer, which is one of our longtime partners and sponsors.
We made the decision that our shows are not going to be about COVID-19 or quarantine or anything like that. People are getting nonstop coverage of all things COVID-19 and the economy in freefall. If we can provide a healthy distraction, I feel like it’s a gift for folks.
MP: What advice would you give other artists who are trying to survive these times?
TD: Definitely ask for help and be open to collaborate. If there was ever a time when we needed each other, it’s now. And it’s weird, because we need each other even when we can’t be together.
Try lots of stuff and be OK with trying things you haven’t done before. Do them quickly and put them out there for people. Right now, my message to my cast and my crew is, “Open the floodgates of ideas, and if you’ve got a concept you want to do, let’s get it out there.” We need to be in front of people because all the ways people normally see us aren’t happening.
Be transparent and honest with the people who support you. Tell people exactly what’s happening. I went back and forth about this, but this is where we are: All of our business has gone away. We have no income coming in, so if you care about us, we need your help.
In fairness, I don’t know if we’re going to survive. I feel a lot different and better than I did two weeks ago, because we are doing new things, and we are getting in front of audiences in different ways. But there is a question I can’t answer: whether audiences will come and support us, like they supported us doing the kinds of things we used to do.
They showed up for our first [livestreamed] show. Will they come out next week and the week after that? Will they follow up with supporting it? We structured the show in a way where you can watch it for free. Typically, a ticket would be $12 or $15. We said, “If you’ve got it, chip in.” Not everybody did. Probably fewer than half. I can try to make the case that people should support it and it should continue. But I can’t make them do it. So we’ll find out.
Ways to support T2P2:
Donate at givemn.org.
Become a patron at Patreon.