50 years of social satire at Brave New Workshop

Political satire
Brave New Workshop is known for finding much of its material in the world of politics. Recent years have provided the theater company with no end of creative fodder.
Image courtesy of the Brave New Workshop

Long before there was Saturday Night Live, there was the Brave New Workshop.

Former circus clown and founder Dudley Riggs started the theater in New York City in the mid-1950s, and toured with it until he found a home in a coffee shop in Minneapolis.

Dudley Riggs
Brave New Workshop founder Dudley Riggs started the theater in a coffee shop on University Ave. in northeast Minneapolis. Boasting the "first espresso machine west of the Mississippi," the Brave New Workshop also presented original comedy year round.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

"We were running this little espresso shop over on University Ave. and we were evicted. We went around the corner and opened another place and eventually were evicted from that," recalls Riggs. "The espresso was really only kind of a front for having a subversive theater."

The Brave New Workshop eventually settled down in its current home on Hennepin Ave., where it became a forum for social satire.

It produced the show "The Future Lies Ahead" in the wake of President Nixon's re-election, just months before the Watergate scandal broke. It challenged the Vietnam War, and got a brick thrown through the front window.

Its bread and butter was, and continues to be, comedy built around the things we don't like to talk about at a dinner party -- sex, religion, politics, race and class.

Young comedian Al Franken
Comedian and now politician Al Franken got his start at the Brave New Workshop before moving on to become a lead writer and performer for Saturday Night Live. He's shown here with fellow BNW alum Tom Davis.
Image courtesy of the Brave New Workshop

Over the years, the workshop has spawned a few big names in comic talent -- Al Franken, Louie Anderson, and "Naked Gun" writer Pat Proft, among others.

In 1997, Dudley Riggs retired and sold the theater to husband-and-wife team Jenni Lilledahl and John Sweeney. Lilledahl says while the Brave New Workshop may seem small compared to other Twin Cities theaters, its reputation is quite large.

"In the comedy industry we're sort of seen as the Guthrie of comedy in a way," says Lilledahl, "so I think the perspective depends on who you ask."

Like the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, the Brave New Workshop lives in what's popularly called "flyover land."

Brave New Workshop turns 50
The Brave New Workshop has had a few different homes in its 50 year history, but since 1965 it's lived at 2605 Hennepin Ave. in Minneapolis, in a former auto repair shop.
Image courtesy of the Brave New Workshop

Kelly Leonard, vice president of Second City comedy theater in Chicago, says a comedy theater is often only considered as good as the comedians who have left it, which ignores the ongoing value of satirical theater in a healthy democracy.

"Dudley left behind a really rich legacy of political satire, and of saying sometimes things that people don't want to hear," says Leonard. "And that couldn't be more important. If you don't have that, you don't have anything."

The Brave New Workshop does its best to have a show on the stage every weekend of the year, and has managed to stay afloat for half a century without applying for grants or other major funding.

Under Jenni Lilledahl and her husband's direction, the improv theater runs side businesses, offering classes and corporate seminars as another means of balancing the budget.

Dudley Riggs old coffee house
Dudley Riggs started Instant Theater -- what was to become The Brave New Workshop -- in a coffee shop. Riggs says the theater was shut down by authorities, for reasons he believes were founded on a fear of "beatnik activities."
Image courtesy of the Brave New Workshop

That's become harder to do over the years. While Lilledahl credits TV shows like Who's Line Is It Anyway? with creating a bigger audience for improvisational theater, at the same time cable programming like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are now offering witty social satire that doesn't require hiring a babysitter or paying for parking.

Lilledahl says the competition just pushes the Brave New Workshop to work harder and be funnier.

"I would put our actors up against anyone on the planet as not only just quality performers, but quality people. I think it goes back to what Dudley started with his circus background of 'The show must go on,'" says Lilledahl. "And I think that kind of spirit, in the sense of, 'Hey, no matter what happens we're still going to put on a show,' and the fact that we're still doing that 50 years later, that's the thing that I'm most proud of."

The Brave New Workshop's 50th anniversary show, subtitled Old Enough to Know Better, runs through May 17.

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