The Theater of Public Policy: The women who use improv to spark conversation

L-R: Maggie Sotos, Shanon Custer and Joy Dolo at the Bryant Lake Bowl theater (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

Comedy and politics: a natural combination. Many comedians and comedy troupes are political; many politicians are funny (sometimes intentionally). But comedy and public policy? 

“Politics” evokes the horse race, the attack ads, the soundbites and the deal-making. Public policy is the position papers, the blue-ribbon panels, the 12-point plans. Or, as The Theater of Public Policy (T2P2) calls it on their website: the “hard thinky stuff.” 

The theater company, which performs at Bryant Lake Bowl, was founded in 2011 by Gustavus Adolphus grads Tane Danger and Brandon Boat. The Town Hall-style format features a different guest speaker/expert each time. 

“Tane interviews them, and then we improvise,” says cast member Shanan Custer. “It’s our job to have fun with the material.” 

The assignment might strike many of us as daunting. Some topics may seem esoteric: at one show, former Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie discussed his quest for St. Paul to host the World’s Fair; another evening featured the University of Minnesota scientists who developed the Honeycrisp apple. Other topics are more high-profile or controversial: for example, then-candidate Betsy Hodges appeared during the 35-candidate race for Minneapolis mayor in 2013, and Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds spoke last year about the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Cast member Joy Dolo says T2P2 offers “a way to have conversations on highly charged issues while also having fun.” 

“Laughter is the best medicine – it really is,” she adds. “You can get through anything with laughter.” 

So how do you make the wonky stuff – or heavy, uncomfortable subjects – funny? 

“I think of the human aspect of it,” Custer says. “If it’s a sensitive topic, then that sensitivity is potentially funny, the fact that we’re all paralyzed because we don’t know what to say – the vulnerability and humanity of that.” 

Another strategy: transplanting an issue into a totally different context, like “taking matters of state and putting them into the setting of a bake sale or a third-grade classroom,” Custer says. 

Cast member Maggie Sotos emphasizes “punching up” – humor at the expense of powerful people and institutions, not aimed “down” at those who are marginalized or oppressed. She notes that many comedians successfully address topics like sexual assault in their acts because the target is not the victim – instead it might be, for example, Congresspeople who minimize the issue.

“A Women’s Thing”

In comedy, as in politics, women still have a harder time being taken, well, seriously. Only a year ago, Sotos says, “I was telling a guy about my all-female Jane Austen improv show, and he actually said: ‘I just don’t think women are funny.’ And that is not unique to him.” ore likely to be judged by their appearance. “Look at Louis CK: he’s overweight, balding, sweats a lot. By Hollywood standards he’s unattractive – and he owns it,” Sotos says. “I love to listen to him, but if a female comedian looked like that, critics would be hyper-focused on her appearance.” 

The Twin Cities are “a great community for the arts in general,” says Custer, who started out in improv 20 years ago with the Brave New Workshop. But the issue in any community, she indicates, is that “when women – maybe especially in comedy – create, produce and perform something, it becomes a ‘women’s thing,’ with everyone asking if the show is about ‘women’s issues.’ I don’t see the cast of ’12 Angry Men’ being asked, ‘Is this a men’s show? Do you talk about men’s issues?’ I mean, do we stand around and talk about our periods – is that what you’re asking?” 

Custer was once told by a director, “Oh, two women on a stage? I’ve seen that.” 

Dolo has worked in improv less than five years. “When I started there were already a lot of women [in improv],” she says. There were and remain, however, very few people of color. 

Sometimes, a lack of cultural competency on the part of white directors and producers comes out in their stereotypical expectations for black actors. “People will say things they don’t even realize are offensive,” Dolo says, “like, ‘Can you do that [scene] a little more hip?'” 

Dolo is a co-founder of Blackout, Minnesota’s first all-black improv comedy troupe. 

L-R: Maggie Sotos, Shanon Custer and Joy Dolo (Photo by Sarah Whiting)Photo by Sarah Whiting

Mission: Conversation

Like politics, comedy can be used as a means of making change. But The Theater of Public Policy, whose cast members have varying points of view, has no policy agenda of its own. 

“The only change we want to consistently be part of,” Sotos says, “is to get people to talk.” The adversarial tone of campaign rhetoric, she adds, often shuts down dialogue, while T2P2 aims to foment it. 

“With any change or revolution,” Dolo says, “you need to have conversations.” 

T2P2 finds that even supposedly shy Minnesotans are happy to engage. Once, for example, Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith had to cancel and reschedule her appearance on relatively short notice. 

“It was amazing,” says Dolo. “People who had come expecting to see a show were willing to stay and have a conversation instead.” 

FFI: The Theater of Public Policy,