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Theater of Public Policy “Let’s Talk (and Improv) about Sex” review: take the panel, leave the improv

On April 10, the Theater of Public Policy (T2P2) came to my Educational Studies class. As a member of Cujokra, Carleton’s improv comedy group, I was excited to see professional improv. I was especially interested because T2P2’s claim to fame is their use of comedy to tackle social issues. Members of T2P2 listened as the class discussed the question of whether K-12 students should have a say in education reform, and then they brought the discussions to life through improvised comedy. 

At the end, the class was unimpressed by T2P2’s performance, but we also gave them the benefit of the doubt, acknowledging that the topic was not really conducive to their style of improv. So I wanted to give them another shot. 

On Wednesday May 15, T2P2 came to campus again to perform an event entitled “Let’s Talk (and Improv) about Sex,” part of the Center for Community and Civic Engagement’s (CCCE) “Sexploration” series. The event aimed to bring the conversation on sex education to life through improv comedy. Northfield Public Schools Superintendent Matt Hillmann, Dylan Karsten of Planned Parenthood, and Erica Staab of The HOPE Center participated on the panel. 

The event was an important opportunity to get experts into a room together to talk about comprehensive sex education in an engaging way, and was successful at promoting discussion and comfort with an often-uncomfortable topic. Each panelist brought valuable insights and anecdotes to the table. Hearing a school superintendent speak about the flaws and benefits of local sex education was fascinating. However, I took issue with a lot of parts of the T2P2 performance, and I thought they gave a flawed performance—from unfunny jokes to a bothersome host to a fundamental misstep in which they trivialized child abuse. 

The event was formatted so that the host first facilitated a panel discussion with the three panelists, while the improvisers sat behind the panelists, listening to their conversation and picking up words, phrases, and ideas they could use in their scenes. Then, they performed a series of scenes based on the panel discussion. A woman sat at a keyboard to the side, playing music during the scenes that seemed in no way necessary and, in fact, quite distracting. Then, it all repeated, and they had another conversation followed by a series of scenes. 

The improv only made the discussions less meaningful, and was simply not funny, making the whole experience less pleasant. I would much rather have just listened to the panel discussion, perhaps instead facilitated by a Carleton student or professor.

Tane Danger (his real name!), one of T2P2’s founders, hosted the event, loudly. Imagine this: the mixture between a circus clown and a John Mulaney impersonator bounds onstage wearing a salmon button down, tan blazer, bow tie, sky blue pants, striped pink-and-navy socks and magenta converse. He proceeds to explain improv, which he then does at least five more times throughout the show (it’s not scripted, did you know?!). He makes some cheesy jokes and then talks and talks, dominating the conversation and inserting his own ideas and huge personality into a relatively serious, sensitive conversation. And wow, do the members of T2P2 love making Faribault jokes! These jokes were simply not funny the first time, meaning they definitely weren’t funny the eighth time. 

And then they moved past the annoying, not very amusing improv into the territory of problematic jokes. It could have been my negative attitude coming in, but they made a joke about technical colleges, insinuating that they are subpar and laughable, which rubbed me the wrong way. Then came the most glaringly misguided move. Staab, from the HOPE Center, shared a story about a girl who grew up being sexually abused by her father and did not understand, until she saw an episode of Little House on the Prairie in which the father of the main character comes in and says goodnight to his daughter and then leaves, that what was happening to her was not normal or unacceptable. Staab tried to illustrate the importance of including sexual violence in sex education curricula. 

One of the improvisers then brought up Little House on the Prairie as the punchline of one of their jokes, when it had only been mentioned in the context of child sexual abuse. It was in poor taste and represented one of the pitfalls of their whole process. When you have a group of people listening to a long conversation, they can only pick up on brief snippets of conversation, often divorced from their important contexts. Therefore, their comedy misses the point and only brings in words and phrases so it seems impressive but is quite shallow and uninspired.

I laughed more at certain anecdotes from panelists than I did at the improv comedy. Staab, the director of a domestic violence education and prevention center in Faribault, told a story of a proud mom moment. She explained how her daughter yelled from the other room, “Mom, come wipe my vagina,” and Staab was thrilled—pausing for effect before clarifying that her daughter is three and a half. 

Karsten talked about how he offers to teach all his friends’ children about sex, frequently taking them out for pancakes (because what better food to accompany “the talk” than pancakes?) and educating them when their parents are uncomfortable doing so. 

Ultimately, despite somewhat disappointing improv, the panelists’ authenticity and commitment to their work was evident, and they made me feel lucky that I could attend their event. 

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