Denfeld News

May 25, 2008
Duluth Budgeteer News

Renegade carries on with new artistic director
By Matthew R. Perrine

Renegade Comedy Theatre is moving on. After months of uncertainty, the Zeppa Foundation-funded troupe has annousnced that its interim artistic director, Katy Helbacka, is, as of last week, officially Brian Matuszak’s replacement.

If you’ll recall, Matuszak, who founded Renegade back in 1991, was booted from his position earlier this year after a spat with Zeppa about who would manage the box office at Teatro Zuccone, the newly minted theater that now houses the group.

We spoke with Matuszak earlier this month about his new venture, Rubber Chicken Enterprises; now we’ll hear how Renegade is carrying on post-Matuszak from Helbacka, a Duluth native and University of Minnesota Duluth graduate, in her first-ever interview.

How have things been going without Brian?

It’s been a transitional phase. There’s been some things that have been hard, but ... I think we’re moving in an exciting direction, and I’m excited about where things are headed.

Did a lot of Renegade regulars leave to go to Rubber Chicken?

I’m not really 100 percent sure yet, because I’ve been in Chicago the past four years. I’m not really sure who all the Renegade regulars have been in the past few years, so I think time will tell. And I’m sure there will be people who will go to Rubber Chicken. We hope that eventually people will come and check out what we’re doing here too. So I guess only time will tell, really.

Are there a lot of new people who have signed up for Renegade in the last couple weeks?

Well, yeah, there’s been some new people; there’s been some people who I know have stayed away from Renegade for awhile who are coming back, like Jody Kujawa and Nate Carlblom who are in the Dink Tank show — and they, I guess, used to work with Renegade a lot and hadn’t for awhile. They’re back, and we definitely do have some who I would consider Renegade regulars who are still here and excited to work with us. And then we have some people who are brand new, some people who are involved up at UMD, some people who have never acted before — who are going to be in our FinnFest show. We’re just opening our arms and our doors and hoping that everyone, whether they acted here a lot or they never acted; we’re here for everyone to come out and audition and get involved.

What is Dink Tank?

Dink Tank is a wonderfully named sketch team. It’s kind of a “Saturday Night Live”-style, Kids in the Hall sketch comedy. And it was just the funnest process. The way that we created the show is really fun. We had a group of writers and we would just pitch ideas back and forth. ... It was like writing on a sitcom team, it was really, really fun. ... It’s just kind of like “Saturday Night Live,” so there’s sketches about politics and about pop culture, some character-driven, some crude stuff, some highbrow stuff — there’s kind of something for everybody.

How often do you want to do these types of shows?

Our hope is to do them pretty often. One of the things we want to do is really emphasize the comedy here at Renegade, and we’ll be doing that through our sketch team and through our improv sets — which I know Renegade was really well known for awhile ago with their Comedy Olympics. We really want to bring that back and do Comedy Olympics, but also concentrate on the Harold, which is this long form of improv that I studied in Chicago at Second City and ImprovOlympic. So, through the sketch team and the improv, we’re really hoping to offer Duluthians some late-night comedy, which we haven’t had for awhile.

How long were you with Second City?

I took their improv-for-actors courses. You had to have a B.F.A. to be in it. I did much more with ImprovOlympic, which is right down to Wrigley Field. I was with them for about a year probably. Second City’s a lot more sketch comedy, and ImprovOlympic is all improv, so that’s where I mostly studied the Harold (long-form improv developed by Del Close). It was really exciting because when I was there, Seth Meyers got moved up to “Saturday Night Live.” So I was there for his final performance at Second City. I didn’t know him or anything, but it was really cool to see people from these institutions going up to “Saturday Night Live.” That was really fun to see. It was really cool.

Did you leave for Chicago right after graduating from UMD?

Pretty much. I graduated in 2002 and I moved in 2003.

Is “SNL” something you wanted to do?

Well, I don’t know specifically what I wanted to do. I love comedy, and I really love creating characters. I was a UMD graduate, with my B.F.A. in acting, and quite a few of us went to Chicago. We worked together, we would put on shows together and that was really fun. If we just wanted to do a show, we would rent the space and put it up. That’s mostly what we did when we were out there.

Did you miss Duluth?

I did. I missed the lake, I missed my family. You know, everywhere you go (here) you have a memory. “Oh, there’s the first time I did that.” I just missed feeling home. When I left, I was ready to come back. I was ready to leave Chicago. I just missed the city. I think when you leave Duluth, when you’re from here, you just always want to be back sooner or later. … It’s a special place. The lake and the canal, it’s just really beautiful. Yeah, I’m glad to be back.

Whose idea was it?

It was my idea. It’s just … a form of comedy that I really enjoy. It’s something that I’ve done before in Chicago — not these scenes, but sketch shows. Renegade has done sketch shows before — they did their Christmas revues, and they had summer revues — so this is not a new thing to Renegade; it’s just new writers, new voices, so the material’s very, very different.

One of the new writers said it’s dark, sometimes violent — which is quite a change for Renegade — was that a conscious thing?

It just reflects the voices of our writers, I think. There are sketches I’m worried about, because I’m not sure how the audience is supposed to respond. There are some that are really risky, and there are some that are a little bit vulgar. But I don’t know, I do also think that there is something for everyone in it. Like, for me, because I was involved in the writing process, it’s so clear to me who wrote what sketch — everyone has such a different sense of humor. It’s just very reflective of the voices of our writers. There’s different senses of humor, and everyone pitched in different sketches. And everyone just has a really unique voice, and I think it turned out to be a really well-rounded performance of comedy. We’ll kind of see what people gravitate toward I guess.

Will you be continuing “Out of the Hat”?

No, we’re not going to be continuing with the “Out of the Hats.” I know that’s something that Brian started, and he’s going to be continuing that with Rubber Chicken. So, that’s not to say we’ll never do anything like that — never do a collective festival — but we’ll be doing it from a new angle, something that we create.... We’re kind of at a spot where we are honoring the tradition that made Renegade great, but also moving into the future. We have plans to be a really vital and exciting and professional theater company.

Was it hard to come into this position? With all that was going on, were you a little nervous about it at first?

I was, but I kind of came in naively. I didn’t read any of the articles in the paper because I was in Chicago. I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t even know that there had been any [Uses “air quotes”] “drama” until after I started. I (had only) heard that there was a theater opening. When I moved back to Duluth, I kind of came because my husband got a job. In Chicago I had been performing and teaching theater and I was really involved, and when I came back here I kind of thought, Well, maybe I’m done with that part of my life, because I wasn’t sure what kind of career I’d have in the arts. So when I found out there was a job opening, I was just thrilled that I could work in theater in the city that I love. ... There were parts that were hard, but there were also a lot of really helpful people who made the transition really easy on me. I was lucky that there were a lot of really nice people in this building.... People weren’t afraid to come up and help me out by saying, “This is how it normally goes.” You know, “This is how we normally do this.” I’ve been really lucky to be surrounded by good people.

What do you wish to accomplish in your first year with Renegade?

In my first year, I hope to choose a really exciting and edgy season. ... I hope to really make a strong opening with Dink Tank and with our improv. ... Also, we hope to open an improv training school, much like ImprovOlympic and Second City, because I think that there are a lot of people who want to get on stage but maybe don’t know how to improvise. Because it definitely is a craft that you have to learn. I was a B.F.A. in acting, and when I went to ImprovOlympic I was terrified because that was something I really didn’t know how to do. I think that we need to train people, so that we have a whole bunch of strong improv teams who can perform on our stage. I hope that my first year will be a growing year, and I just hope to create a place that people want to work and want to come and participate.

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