Improv Olympics have been steady force in Renegade's growing realm

There's something funny about an improv comedy theater group, where no performance is ever the same and just about anything can happen on a given night, becoming the consistent Old Faithful for a local arts nonprofit organization.

There's something funny about an improv comedy theater group, where no performance is ever the same and just about anything can happen on a given night, becoming the consistent Old Faithful for a local arts nonprofit organization.

But that's what has happened with Renegade Comedy Theatre's Comedy Olympics.

"They've pretty much done every Friday and Saturday since the end of January 1997," says Brian Matuszak, artistic director at Renegade. The group is approaching its 700th show, and it's on a rare hiatus as the space it occupies at the Renegade Center for the Arts gets a little remodeling.

Matuszak said even now, as Renegade has expanded into essentially three companies running on two stages, there are still gaps between the children's (Tugboat) productions and Renegade plays and revues that have become a hit in the Northland.

But the Olympics are steady. Because of them, there's something going on every weekend and there's revenue coming in.


The Olympics are improvised comedy in the vein of the hit television show "Whose Line is It, Anyway?" starring Drew Carey. A group of actors plays games with names like "Laugh & Die," "Chainsaw Death" and "Yo Mamma." The frequently-changing Olympics lineup has also made up some of its own games.

In each case, the actors are making up the action and dialogue as they go along. In "Oxygen Deprivation," for instance, one of the actors dunks her head in a tub of water for as long as possible while a scene is going on around her. When she comes out of the tub, she has to integrate herself in the scene, dripping wet and unaware of what has come up to that point.

Often, the acting is also based around audience suggestions. In "Blindline," the audience fills out lines from, for instance, a famous movie on slips of paper that are given to the actors. They act out a scene, but at random moments must pull the slips out and integrate the lines into the scene.

"The weirder the audience is, the more fun the lines are," Matuszak said.

The Renegade version of improv comedy has its own twists. Each night's event is a competition between two teams, complete with a referee equipped with penalty flags. A penalty box -- brainchild of the current Olympics director, Tony D'Aloia -- awaits for those whose jokes elicit groans.

The effort had humble beginnings. As Renegade was getting its start, Jim Young, a local actor with a background in improv, contacted the fledgling group and proposed an improv troupe.

Matuszak liked the idea. Although improv is a different kind of skill and discipline than the traditional theater the group was doing, Matuszak had seen improv and liked it.

"(Improv) theater wasn't this hifalutin thing," he said. "It was a lot of fun."


The Olympics started long before Renegade had a space of its own, staged first in the then-newly-reopened Norshor Theatre downtown. The casual atmosphere, with a bar nearby, was just right.

When Renegade moved to space in the Holiday Center, the Olympics stayed for a while at the Norshor but eventually moved. Then, when Office Depot came to town, Renegade went looking for space again, finally ending up at the current location at 404 West Superior Street.

But the very nature of the Olympics, which requires little in terms of technical sound and lighting, makes it portabl. Renegade has staged the Olympics in nearby communities and at UMD, but it works best in an intimate space, because of the audience participation, and that's why its home stage has worked out well.

The new location, an old gymnasium, has two stages. For the past year, one has been primarily for the Olympics and the other primarily for other shows and revues.

"That's the neat thing about this space -- it's so flexible you can do a lot of different things," Matuszak said, after showing how two current productions are sharing the main stage and how the Olympics stage will be remodelled.

The changes to the Olympics stage are only part of future remodelling plans, but they will add seats, make the seating more stadium-style and also move the stage itself to what was once a side wall. The stage will also become deeper.

While the previous configuration could seat 90 cramped people, the new configuration is expected to seat about 100. The hiatus will last the month of December, with the reopening of the stage coming Jan. 3 and a grand opening celebration Jan. 24-25 on Renegade's anniversary.

The Olympics has been a boon for Renegade audiences and actors alike. Some regular audience members have liked it so much they auditioned and joined the cast. Casts at regular Renegade shows have joined the Olympics cast, and vice versa.


"At its core, the attraction is the performers," Matuszak said.

And the show itself has evolved. Matuszak said that the Olympics used to have an early show that was family friendly and a later R-rated variety. Now, it's audience-to-audience, with a sensitive cast and referee determining how "blue" things should be.

The cast has undergone some recent changes, notably the return of Renegade veteran Jody Kujawa, who Matuszak likens to John Belushi's early work in terms of his energy level. And during the hiatus, Renegade is putting out a call for new cast members. Those interested in auditioning should call D'Aloia and Kujawa at 722-6775.

A few other minor changes are possible -- Renegade may do more cross promotions with other shows and the Olympics. But starting again in December, the always unpredictable mainstay of Renegade will keep on going strong.

Renegade Comedy Olympics takes place Fridays and Saturdays at 9:30 p.m., starting up again Dec. 6. Cost is $7, with students and groups of five or more getting in for $5. Call Renegade at 722-6775 for schedules and details.

News to Use

While the Olympics are in hiatus, other shows are still going on or coming up at Renegade Comedy Theatre in December:

"You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," put on by Tugboat Children's Theatre to close its season, starts this weekend, Nov. 23, and runs through Dec. 15.


"Laughter on the 23rd Floor," a Neil Simon play, started earlier in November and runs through Nov. 30.

The annual "Holiday Comedy Revue" by Renegade starts Dec. 5 and runs weekends through Dec. 31.

And next year will open with Gilbert and Sullivan's "Mikado" in January.

For information on Renegade's offerings, call the theater at 722-6776 or visit its Web site, .

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