One of the great things about living in an environment with such an overstuffed theater scene is knowing that on any given weekend, you’ve got dozens of options in all corners of the Twin Cities. The dark lining to that silver cloud, though, is that the abundance of theater means that a good number of those productions are going to go unremarked upon by the local press. With the exception of a handful of high-profile companies, when you’re mounting a new production, you’re doing it with no guaranteed fanfare.
After spending more than half-a-decade launching roughly 600 brand new shows a year, though, HUGE Theater founder Butch Roy can’t help feeling that there’s more at play than just the luck of the draw. Roy called out the press in a recent social media screed, claiming that in the six years since the theater’s founding, HUGE shows have generated only a handful of reviews, and none from the Cities’ largest media outlets. (For the record, Minnesota Playlist has reviewed HUGE shows sporadically over the years, including a couple of pieces by this author, but we’ll admit it’s been a while.) Roy suspects a big part of that has to do with his theater’s signature format: long-form improv.
“Honestly, we’d given up for years on even participating with print media, which is unfortunate,” says Roy. Early on, he says, the Star Tribune, Pioneer Press, and City Pages all showed some interest in covering HUGE shows. There have been some recent profiles and feature stories written about the theater and its performers, but reviews have been hard to come by. “I’ve heard any number of reasons, none of which I think are acceptable. The most common one, of course, is that you can’t review [improv] because it’s not the same every time. Which is ludicrous... My response is always, then why does the Star Tribune or the Pioneer Press spend so much time, space, and staff reviewing concerts? Not only is it not the same next time, there isn’t a next time.”
Roy feels that some of the reason HUGE shows don’t get the same level of coverage as more traditional productions is a general lack of knowledge about long-form improv. It’s one of the most common complaints in the improv community - mention the very word and the layperson’s mind immediately goes to Whose Line is it Anyway?, the long-running TV show that’s actually a showcase for short-form improv, a fundamentally different entity than long-form. While Roy acknowledges that this is a universal stumbling block, he also feels it’s a problem that could be alleviated by more media attention. “Because there are no reviews and no regular coverage, every feature that we do get still has to include some kind of ‘So what is improv?’ preface. After six years, we could have moved past this by now.”
“I’ve been to cities like Chicago and Los Angeles that have a broader understanding of what improv is, in the general populace. There are reviews all the time in publications, because the arts writers in those markets have learned how to review improv. I would say that the writers and editors in our area have not, and have not taken an interest in doing so… Not to be too combative about it, but it feels like we’re doing everything we’re supposed to do and I don’t feel like the Twin Cities arts press can say the same thing.”
Social shaming and proactive promotion
Tim Campbell, the senior arts and entertainment editor at Star Tribune, agrees with much of Roy’s assessment, but only to a point. “Sure, improv merits more coverage. Of course, some people might argue that even a single story would be ’more.’ I would point out that we did a cover story on Blackout earlier this year, and a piece about Tane Danger and the Theater of Public Policy a couple years back. That’s not a ton, I admit. We could do a better job covering comedy in general. And improv – to the extent it can be defined as comedy at least – is part of that. We don’t give Brave New Workshop as much ink as they deserve either.”
Following what Campbell regards as Roy’s uncalled-for public shaming of him on social media, the two recently hashed out some of their concerns in an email exchange. Campbell says this conversation was the first he’d heard from HUGE since Roy sent him a similar missive in 2015. At the time, theater critic Graydon Royce planned to start writing more improv coverage, but that didn’t come to fruition before Royce’s recent retirement. Still, the recent exchange ended in a pledge from Campbell to look for more opportunities to cover improv shows.
While he understands Roy’s frustration and says much of his disappointment is justified, Campbell also points out that HUGE has not been especially proactive in promoting their shows. He notes that no one from the theater contacted him or his colleagues about this week’s Twin Cities Improv Festival, for instance. “It’s surely something we would have covered if only someone had brought it to my attention,” Campbell says. “An earlier gentle nudge to me would’ve done the trick, to be honest. I meant it when I told Butch that we would cover him.”
Of readers and reviewers
Campbell also cites a tight budget and scarce resources as factors in the paper’s limited coverage, as well as the general tastes of the Strib’s stable of critics. “I think inevitably it’s also tied to what our reviewers are interested in. And scripted theater, for whatever reason, claims their attention. Do they understand improv? There’s no reason why they shouldn’t – but how would I know unless they pitch me a story or review about it?”
Ultimately, Campbell feels that regular improv reviews wouldn’t necessarily suit the needs of the paper’s readers. “Our job is to serve a mass readership that includes the extended metro area and beyond. And our open critic post will necessarily be focused on issues that engage that readership. Bigger venues are the priority – sorry, but true. City Pages, community newspapers and niche websites are often going to be a better fit for HUGE and other improv venues. That said, we’ll look for an occasional opportunity to do something. And, to be honest, I’m more interested in substantial stories about the practice of improv, and personalities on the scene, than I am in a review of a given performance.”
All told, HUGE fans seem to have reason to be optimistic about media coverage in the future. Still, Roy believes that without regular reviews, the long-form community will continue to struggle finding legitimacy in the public eye. “We’re a nonprofit arts organization built to support this community of artists. The print press’s silence about it isn’t neutral. It communicates a pretty clear message that we’re not artists, not doing art. Especially after a long enough time that you just learn to expect that you will be ignored by arts critics.”
HUGE Theater hosts the 11th Twin Cities Improv Festival this week, running June 21-25.