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The Theater of Public Policy: Entertaining and educating audiences

The Theater of Public Policy is an improv comedy show that uses various politically charged issues as fodder for comedy.

The Theater of Public Policy builds stories around what might appear to be technical issues, and that may be their greatest strength.

The name “Theater of Public Policy” might sound like a sardonic jab at the goings on inside capitol buildings across the country. In reality, The Theater of Public Policy is an improv comedy show that uses various politically charged issues, from the costs of health care to the use of biofuels, as fodder for comedy. But not with the intent of make light of serious issues. T2P2 uses the material for the dual purpose of entertaining their audiences and breaking down politics in an engaging and educational way, all while deftly remaining as nonpartisan as possible.

“We’re not proposing legislation or any particular view,” co-founder Brandon Boat says.  “Essentially we’re trying to reach two groups of people: the people who have never heard of a particular issue before, and can now engage with it in a fun way, and the people who have been banging their heads against the wall for years about said issue, and suddenly can look at in in a new interesting way.”

This requires them not only to be funny, but to be wise to the various perspectives stemming from the issue.

“There’s inherently a level of interpretation to everything we do, as opposed to a speaker just saying ‘here are the statistics, this is what they mean.’ We want the audience to listen, and then to formulate their own opinions as we explore the issue on stage,” co-founder Tane Danger says.

The show works in three parts. First, they conduct an interview with an expert in the field of that night’s topic. Then Boat and Danger, along with a rotating cast of local improvisers, riff on the ideas and challenges presented in the interview. Finally, they allow a question and answer session for the audience before finishing with another improv session, culminating on everything that has transpired. They intentionally explore the issues from a layman’s standpoint as to not alienate anyone who isn’t already familiar. Their no-expertise required approach is one of the key factors of the show’s success.

“We feel that one of the of the barriers to public policy is that people feel that they don’t know enough about something to talk about it, or participate. So we try not to over prepare for a show, gleaning most of our knowledge of the subject from the interview. We want to show the audience that the guys on stage are just as new to these subjects as they might be,” Boat says.

T2P2 builds stories around what might appear to be technical issues, and that may be their greatest strength. Their strategy involves conversation that goes beyond dialogue, because it pulls from multiple voices, “I’m a big believer that the way people understand the world is through stories,” Danger says.

“A lot of the time when we think about public policy, we think it will be data points or pie charts, but these things often leave out the human aspect to an issue. Because the show is story based, created in tandem with an audience,  there’s a lot of back and forth and imagination that allows the audience to discover things in a way that isn’t really possible with singular narratives or data sets.”

Danger and Boat have proven that their show works conceptually as enlightening entertainment, but they have higher aspirations for their brand of improvisation than single events. The two have recently taken their bridge-building approach to improv into an entirely unexplored sector; Danger and Boat are now serving as official improvisers in residence at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. And they’re bringing the same strategies that engage audiences in public policy to challenge and enable an entire organization to better understand itself and its goals, and then to better understand and serve its customers.

“We hope to bring in people who aren’t generally art fans,” Boat says. “Because we’re trying to get people who aren’t already into art to come, it’s helpful that we ourselves aren’t from the museum world. They can have a reputation for being a bit stuffy, so we’re trying to change that attitude, and remove some of the intimidation factor.”

What an improviser in residence actually does wasn’t really known from the start, neither by the MIA or Danger and Boat, but that open endedness has become the crux of their role.

“There’s a lot of this kind of talk in the business and leadership world about being comfortable taking risks and trying new things, knowing that some things will work and some won’t. That’s very easy to say, but I think the MIA did just that in a very real and brave way,” Danger says. “They were willing to let us come and see if we guys could inject some creativity into their internal processes, and also bring some external ideas to work with. Part of what we do is just to act as a pot stirrer in some sense.

Their role is not unlike that of the fabled role of the court jester, wherein the jester has license be a raving madman who waxes brilliant, occasionally getting away with undermining the king. In allowing them to be foolish, the MIA invites in a perspective they would likely never entertain on their own.

“Because we’re artists in residence, completely new to the organization, we can try and do things and possibly fail in a way that’s harder for someone who’s been here for ten or twenty years to do,” Boat says. “So we might do an improvised museum tour that’s themed like a murder mystery, or given by a Bond villain, or told by an unreliable tour guide, just to get a completely new take on what a museum tour is. It might completely bomb, or it might go over really well.”

Internally, the duo coaches staff members on improv skills, from tour guides to ticket takers to everyone who works behind the scenes of the museum. 

“I’m a really big advocate for the value of improv exercises for non performers. The tools and strategies that improvisers use in order to be very good listeners and to be creative and come up with ideas on the spot are valuable across virtually any industry or occupation. I think that is especially true in a large institution like this, with many moving parts, where individuals need to be constantly keeping up with their co workers and their company as in changes and grows,” Danger says. “I believe Creativity is like a muscle, it’s something you have to constantly use in order to have it at your disposal when you need it,” Danger says. “So whenever we do any sort of improv training with staff, we’re not just taking their minds off work, but we hope that we’re indirectly preparing them to deal with a variety of unforeseen situations they might encounter at work.” 

Otherwise, staff from all departments use them as a resource when they encounter a problem that doesn’t seem to have an ordinary solution.

“People from different departments will come to us with blank slates, saying I’m working on this, I don’t know how you can be involved, but what do you think you can do? Could you come to a few meetings and figure out how you might be able to contribute? We get a lot of unusual and unexpected tasks,” Boat says.

The nature of Boat and Dangers unchartered role with the MIA requires a certain fluidity on their part in order to stay useful. The lack of specific boundaries within the organization allows them to nurture creative connections across departments, building a culture ripe for innovation.    

“Innovation has become such a buzzword in the business world these days, but it’s not always clear what it means to innovate. You can’t just say, ‘turn on the innovation switch,'” Danger says. “We’ve gotten to a point where there are too many big problems to have just a handful of people at the top thinking about them while everyone else just does what they’re told. I think people on all levels need to be creative for real innovation, and to do that you need to inspire people to be creative on a regular basis, and build a culture for it.”

The Theater of Public Policy will be holding a performance on August 30 at the Minneapolis Art Museum, with special guest Marianne Combs, who does the State of the Arts blog for MPR. They’ll talk to her about how arts journalism is different than news journalism.

Want a taste of T2P2? Here ya go:

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