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Improv group riffs on Minnesota music, monthly at the Bryant-Lake Bowl

by Colleen Cowie

January 18, 2018

What do hats, Godzilla, beards, and church bells have in common? They were all sources of inspiration for improv comedy sketches performed this month at the Bryant-Lake Bowl by a group called the Local Music Scene.

Every month, the Local Music Scene invite a different musician to perform alongside them in a music-comedy variety show. The Local Music Scene's performances alternate between musical performances and improv comedy sketches inspired by the content of the songs. The program from this month's show announced, “All of the scenes will be made up on the spot. Like you, we don’t even know what songs the musical guest will play. Whatever the songs invoke in us will influence the scenes we create in front of your eyes.”

This month, the Local Music Scene's musical guest was Iowa-raised, Minneapolis-based singer-songwriter Ben Cook-Feltz. He kicked off the show by performing his version of the Local Music Scene's theme song, plucking away at the keyboard and singing, “This is not improvised — but the rest of the show will be!”

After the theme song, the members of the Local Music Scene took to the stage to ask Cook-Feltz a few questions. Because the Local Music Scene take inspiration from the performer's music, they don't ask for suggestions from the audience for their skits. However, before the show starts, they do invite audience members to write down questions that the performer will answer between songs. Local Music Scene member Philip Simondet read aloud some of the audience's questions for Ben Cook-Feltz, including, "Favorite Simon & Garfunkel Song?" ("The Boxer"), "Can you hear color?" (yes), and "Where did you get your beard?" (from his dad).

Cook-Feltz delved into his next song, "Full Moon," followed by improvised sketches. The improvisers quickly crafted skits inspired by the lyrics of the song, as well as the questions from the audience, weaving together a myriad of subjects that ranged from Cook-Feltz's beard to the moon. Next month, it will be Katy Vernon's turn in the hot seat.

The Local Music Scene formed in 2014, when a fellow artist asked Simondet about putting together a group of improvisers for a show of music and improv comedy at her art gallery in Minneapolis. After performing there for a couple months, in 2015, the Local Music Scene began hosting monthly shows at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. The group's members have changed over the years; the current lineup consists of Laura Berger, Breanna Cecile, Liz Council, Jeff Gallen, Nathan Kelly, Erik Ostrom, Shea Roberts, and Philip Simondet.

Everyone in the Local Music Scene has a background in improv, and some are musicians as well — including Simondet, who performs in the Minneapolis band the Tire Fires. "My initial thought was to only have improvisers who are also in bands," says Simondet. "That's never fully happened, but I like to have at least a few."

When the Local Music Scene formed, Simondet also hosted an open mic at the Chatterbox Pub in Minneapolis. He explained that this connection put him in contact with musicians who he knew might want to get involved with the group. “A big part of the show when I started it was — hey, these are these musicians that only these people at this open mic ever hear. I want to do a show and have all my friends come and hear this person that I really like.”

Now, Simondet says that some musicians are starting to contact him about performing with the group, and he is excited about including a wider range of local musicians in future performances. “For a lot of the time it’s been showcasing these musicians that I like, and now it’s starting to turn the corner where I’m getting exposed to musicians, which I really like.”

Creating improv sketches inspired by music can be challenging. In addition to inventing scenes on the spot, members the Local Music Scene must also seamlessly string together material from lyrics, a song's mood, and questions from the audience. “You may or may not directly see the connection," said Simondet, "but it’s all from the ether of the night.”

While music and improv comedy might seem like two completely different realms, there are some similarities between the two. For example, improv sketches often utilize a "chorus scene," which functions like the chorus of a song. Simondet explained that, a chorus scene is something, “that we can bring back throughout the show, just like [how] the chorus of a song comes back. So comedy is full of call-backs, and building on what’s already been built.”

In addition to adding a new twist to improv, the Local Music Scene provides an opportunity for different arts communities to interact. “In Minneapolis, I really feel like all of the arts communities are kind of in their own bubbles," said Simondet. "There’s really great people in all these communities, and there’s no reason that they can’t meld."

Colleen Cowie is a student at Macalester College. She hosts the show Locally Sourced on WMCN.

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.