“A horse walks into a bar....” is one way to start an evening of comedy.
“A Soil and Water Conservation District Commissioner walks into a bar...” is one way The Theater of Public Policy starts an evening of comedy.
Masterminds Tane Danger (“My real name”) and Brandon Boat (“MY real name”) created Danger Boat Productions and, within that, The Theater of Public Policy (T2P2). The combination of “Danger” and “Boat” should alert you that what they concoct is both safe container and something potentially tipsy. If their stage is the ship of public affairs, one hopes that Danger Boat is a sort of dingy for democracy. YES, it just might be, AND don’t be surprised if there is still a lot of splashing.
The Theater of Public Policy shows are zany and high concept and animated by a troupe of Improv actors who use language, physical comedy, sound effects, games, and quick thinking to bring a topic to life. Tane and Brandon leverage improvisational comedy (Improv, for short) to pry open the lid of public policy subjects that may seem difficult, dry, or out-of-reach to get to the creamy (and impactful) center.
Most often staged at the Bryant Lake Bowl in South Minneapolis, their T2P2 shows and workshops are also mobile, moving into neighborhoods, corporate settings, public spaces and college campuses around the state. Their ethos is that policy is not a distant, unreachable entity, something “other” or “over there”; rather, Tane stresses, “It’s how we have agreed to live next to each other and have society.”
The impresarios met while at Gustavus Adolphus College. Tane, razor wire thin, with hair that spikes into stalactites across his forehead, and Brandon, muscular with a Sheepdog mop, found theater and Improv first; then, they found each other. Lucky for us, they chose to combine their energies for good (or at least do-gooders), and not evil.
At Gustavus, Tane founded an Improv group called LineUs and Brandon, a class behind Tane, tried out but failed to make the troupe after his first audition. Undeterred, Brandon re-grouped: “I thought, ‘Tane likes organization. I’ll show up next time and show how organized I am! That will impress Tane.’”
The duo clicked and got busy entertaining college audiences in St. Peter. After graduation, each parlayed their improvisational techniques into a variety of odd (but interesting) jobs, including teaching English abroad. One challenge each tutor faced: English-language learners- both youngsters and adults - often so valued perfection in pronunciation that they were paralyzed, or at least tentative, to practice emerging language skills. Brandon recalls, “I had students who were brilliant, who could read and write in 5 languages but they were petrified of speaking in public because they were worried about embarrassment.”
Using Improv games and imaginative exercises helped students loosen up and start talking. The playfulness and spontaneity of the activities sort of tricked them into trying new words or exploring answers to questions the teacher asked. “Fear holds people back when they are afraid they aren’t already an expert,“ Tane offers. “Improv allows you to say ‘Yes!’ and try things in new ways. In our shows now, we say, ‘Here are some basics of this topic; this is complex, you should know that some investigation is required.’”
After time abroad in different spots, Tane and Brandon re-convened in Minneapolis and combined their love of Improv and policy into Danger Boat Productions. Their Theater of Public Policy format invites local experts with “hard, think-y” ideas or jobs to share the stage with the T2P2 Improv team in front of a live audience. The actors listen and react, then re-frame the information in ways accessible and funny to the average person. “The audience might hold some interest in a particular topic,” Tane says, “but they are mostly curious about the car wreck that might happen on stage. We hope they leave saying, ‘That was fun! And I learned something about aquatic invasive species!’”
Entertainment is the primary draw for audiences, but Tane and Brandon refuse to pratfall for mere fluff. Topics The Theater of Public Policy have tackled include multi-modal transit, long range municipal planning, criminal justice, the Minneapolis mayoral race, trash collection, minor league baseball, economics, how we worship (or don’t), and minimum wage. Even death is not too solemn for comedic parsing.
Is there controversy? You betcha! One of the most contentious shows last year involved officials from the (usually Yawnsville) Public Utilities Commission. Shouting and disruption roiled the audience over permits approved, coincidentally, the day of the show for the embattled Enbridge pipeline. The timing on that one was tough. Brandon shrugs. “Reasonable minds can disagree,” he says, nodding. “And these are stories worth telling.”
Improv breaks boundaries with quick wit and silliness, and that can be helpful, especially when approaching serious topics. To arrive at a breezy pace that is both entertaining and relevant, Tane and Brandon put a lot of thought into crafting their shows. “We purposely think about the conversation,” Tane says. “We don’t want a show that has an easy answer.” “We tackle a lot of topics we don’t have expertise in,” Brandon offers. “We want to challenge people, explore the grey areas.
Demystifying issues and soliciting communal meaning-making can only happen if the actors are prepared, responsive, and diverse. And it helps to draw a curious crowd. “We have tried to create a cast that reflects our audience,” Tane explains. “When the audience has a connection with the improvisers on stage, they learn together, in real time. They experience [empathy] in the same space. They figure it out together.” Tane continues, “Science shows that when people come together with different backgrounds, they produce different and better outcomes. You put more ingredients in, and you arrive at more nuanced outcomes.”
Those nuanced outcomes strengthen democracy and challenge regular citizens to partake. But the “experts” need to be coaxed out of their comfort zones, too. “We spend a lot of time in the policy sphere talking to other people IN the policy sphere, instead of to regular people,” Tane asserts. “We say ‘Learn this jargon, or this statistical model so you can talk to other experts.’ We keep people away from the conversation. Dry and complex keeps people away.”
Tane and Brandon are committed to asking the hard questions and modeling civility. Yet offering a civics lessons (even through laughter) in a climate that, at times, feels fractured or fragile could be fraught. T2P2 counters cynicism with their conviction that curated conversations create vital connections. Not every disagreement has to be charged with conflict or result in confrontation. And it’s possible that not every subject is right for the improv treatment. “Picketing isn’t for everyone,” says Tane. There are a lot of people out there “just trying to figure out what is going on” and who want to put a “foot in,” knowing their engagement is necessary and valuable.
Still, many of us feel intimidated by the rancor of social discourse, and the enormity of the challenges facing society. “We lean into, and are happy about, tackling hard topics,” Tane says. “We celebrate lots of civic do-gooders [in our shows]. Not all of [T2P2’s work] is explicitly policy. One goal is to show policy thinkers, even politicians, as just people. If you agree with them, they could use your help. If you disagree, vote them out. Offer a counter proposal. The up-close piece, talking to them as a human being, helps to communicate them to the audience. It humanizes them.”
At their chewy and delicious centers, Tane and Brandon are storytellers. They punctuate their craft with pluck, and are not above tricking viewers into re-framing or even challenging a viewpoint. They expect discomfort to accompany the “ah ha” moments: it’s Danger / Boat, after all. And while their intent for a more conversant, and more compassionate world is serious, laughter helps re-imagine their work: Remember, Tane asserts, “we are bigger together than we are separate. [Theater of Public Policy] is a wonderful mirror for how we should be thinking about policy, and politics, and community.”
And speaking of community, what’s up with a horse walking into a bar? And more importantly, what does the Health Inspector have to say about it?
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Photo credits: Tracy Nordstrom and Danger Boat Productions