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Comedy with a caffeine kick
By Andrew Haeg
Minnesota Public Radio
December 4, 2001
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The stage show Triple Espresso started humbly enough in a church basement in 1995. Since then, the production has become the foundation for a burgeoning business enterprise.

Triple Espresso performers (left to right): Michael Pearce Donley, Bill Arnold and Bob Stromberg with the show's Artistic Director, William Partlan. Triple Espresso has entertained audiences in eleven cities since 1996. As a business, Triple Espresso claims more $3.5 million in annual revenues.
(MPR Photo/Andrew Haeg)

Triple Espresso features a comedy troupe named Maxwell, Butternut and Bean. The show is a sort of vaudeville review set in a coffee house. There's magic, comedy and music, all tied together with a plot.

"We thought that like other shows that have cloned themselves - Forever Plaid, Tony and Tina's Wedding, Sheer Madness, Late Night Catechism - this is a production that if done properly, could clone itself," says Dennis Babcock, the executive producer.

He saw the show at the Cricket Theater in 1996. He quickly realized Triple Espresso was not only good entertainment, but also the seed for a nationwide, theatrical franchise.

The Triple Espresso headquarters are in a one-story brick building on Nicollet Avenue across from the Music Box Theater, where the show is in the middle of its sixth season.

In 1997 Babcock and the performers took the show on the road for the first time when they opened in San Diego. Donley, Stromberg and Arnold performed for about a year. But soon, they wanted to see if they could train other actors to take over the show.

Triple Espresso plays at the Music Box Theater, 1407 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis. Show times are Wednesday 7:30; Thursday 7:30; Friday 8:00; Saturday 5:00, 8:00; and, Sunday 3:00, 7:00. Tickets for the show are on sale through June 30, 2002.

Michael Pearce Donley says they called this "the great experiment. "We decided to leave San Diego because we had another opportunity, and leave it with three other guys. We left and we watched the sales and we watched the numbers continue to be about the same and kept hearing from audience members that they just loved it. That was so exciting to know it could have legs without the three of us," Donley said.

Triple Espresso is now the longest running show in San Diego history.

In four years, actors trained in the so-called "Triple Espresso school" have performed the show in 11 cities. Triple Espresso - the corporation - claims more than $3.5 million in annual sales.

With success have come challenges common to any business venture. One is quality control. The staff of Triple Espresso spend a good bit of their time ensuring shows in other cities are meeting their standards.

Much like a shop floor manager would call HQ with reports of assembly-line glitches, Triple Espresso's stage managers e-mail Minneapolis each evening with reports of what went wrong.

Bob Stromberg remembers one such missive about an actor who had a small flaw in his shadow animal. "We had an e-mail yesterday from San Diego which said that Bobby Bean, which is my character, his shadow monkey has a hole in his head. So I know what the problem is. I know what the shadow monkey is because my shadow monkey has had a hole in his head too sometimes. That would be the kind thing where either he has to fix that himself tonight for the show, or we'll have to talk on the phone and find a way to fix that," said Stromberg.

As a business, Triple Espresso has flourished because of a deliberate attempt to appeal to as wide an audience base as possible.

The show's success is based on a formula tested and proven by predecessors like Tony and Tina's Wedding and Forever Plaid.

Each was light, interactive, group-oriented entertainment that spread quickly across the country.

Graydon Royce, a theater critic for the Star Tribune, agrees that Triple Espresso is good comedy, but he also contends its popularity could be yet another sign that modern theater is sliding inexorably toward movies and television.

"It does say something about the willingness of people to have a theatrical experience. And I think it's much less now than it has been," according to Royce.

But Royce also says Triple Espresso and shows like it bring people to theaters who wouldn't normally go. "The challenge is to get them to the next step, and say, 'OK, if you like that, take a chance on the Guthrie, or the Guthrie Lab or the small theaters, that do great work.' But it's not going to be the same thing."

Executive Producer Dennis Babcock says he's not sure yet where the road leads. "People say, 'Well, what can you do with it?' I don't know; 10 cities, 12, 15? I don't know. We're still shaking our head that we're still in business," says Babcock.

Triple Espresso will launch in Portland in January, and maybe someday, Great Britain.

More Information
  • Triple Espresso Web site