The board of directors of a Minneapolis nonprofit has gathered together for its meeting. The lights dim, the audience applauds, and the members of the board step out onstage. After bringing the meeting to order (the theater doesn’t own a gavel, so they shout “gavel, gavel, gavel!”), they begin taking suggestions from the audience for a long-form improv scene. With that, “The Board,” an improv performance from HUGE Improv Theater’s board of directors, is under way.
At HUGE, board membership involves more than just the usual committee and development work – it also requires the willingness to perform improv with fellow board members.
“It’s the ultimate in transparency,” says Jill Bernard, HUGE’s education director.
Along with board members Butch Roy, Molly Chase and Nels Lennes, they’re performing a three-night run of a show that begins by asking the audience to present the nonprofit organization’s board with an issue they would like see resolved. In the past two years, topics have included human resources, the financial crisis, world peace and itchy hats.
“That hat issue, it was divisive,” says Roy, HUGE’s executive director.
The June 7 meeting (the first night of a run that includes June 14 and June 21) opened with a series of projected charts showing, among other details, that the 100-seat theater space, which opened in December 2010, is now operating debt-free, having paid off construction costs and institutional debt.
The board members then asked for an improv topic, an audience member suggested “poverty,” and the HUGE helmers were off on a wacky 40-minute odyssey that included zombies, African relief, and questionable summer-camp romances.
“We’re the only nonprofit board in town that does something like this,” says Bernard, who left a corporate life in human resources to become one of HUGE’s founders. “We think it’s important for us to be accessible as artists as well as theater management.”
While Roy and Bernard work full-time for HUGE, the other board members have non-theater day jobs. Nels Lennes works in IT support for Nelnet, and Molly Chase, described as a “corporate escapee” by Bernard, worked in Atlanta for Turner Broadcasting and Cartoon Network before moving to the Twin Cities. Now the managing director of Springboard for the Arts, Chase says that while she doesn’t improvise as a profession, she joined the HUGE board last year, and participated in the most recent performance of “The Board.”
Plaques on the chairs
Asked if being a board member affects her improv performance in any way, Bernard shares this thought: “Our chairs have plaques on the back, each with the name of a donor. Whenever I grab a chair during a performance and notice that name, I’m humbled.”
Roy chimes in, saying, “When you’re performing, it’s sometimes hard to take off that board member hat. I had been noticing that one of the flats on our set kept popping out, and then I was performing onstage with Nels and saw that he grabbed and shook the side of the set wall during a scene in which he was supposed to be freaking out. He didn’t believe me until I showed him a video of the performance. I told him to stop doing that, since I was the one who had to hammer the wall back into place every time.”
Small and mighty
The small size of the organization’s board is intentional, says Bernard.
“We don’t have meetings, we have ‘doings,’ ” she says, adding, “Our small size has contributed to our ability to be effective.”
Chase points to the recent retirement of the theater company’s debt.
“It’s a model that’s working,” she says.
This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.