Brave New Workshop expanding in downtown Mpls

The Minneapolis comedy institution Brave New Workshop is expanding its presence downtown.

The company has bought a five-story property at 727 Hennepin Avenue, located just across the street from the theater's main stage, which it purchased in 2011.

It will replace the space it leased for nearly 50 years in Uptown, also on Hennepin Avenue, Brave New Workshop co-owner John Sweeney said.

"It's a perfect fit,"Sweeney said. "It's got a history -- it was a newsreel theater, there was some mischievous behavior when it was the Esquire theater. It's everything that the BNW loves, and it enables us to create a campus feel where we can have our students, our event guests, and our corporate training guests all in the same one block vicinity."

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The Brave New Workshop runs an improv theater, a school and corporate training services. It also rents out its space at 824 Hennepin for events. The new building, formerly the home of Teeners Theatrical Costume Shop, will offer more than five times the classroom space as its previous location. It also has a sizable basement to house the company's archives. First-floor tenant UNBank  will remain and provide an extra source of revenue.

Nicolet National Bank in Green Bay is helping to finance the purchase.

Sweeney said the latest move is part of making good on a promise that he and Jenni Lilledahl made to founder Dudley Riggs when they bought the company from him in 1997.

"He sold it to us because he wanted us to create a sustainable financial model, and a permanent home," Sweeney said. "We now have a financial model that really is sustainable, and we have two pieces of downtown real estate in the heart of the theater district which will ensure that the school and the theater will be around much longer than Dudley or Jenni and I."

When Sweeney and Lilledahl bought Brave New Workshop it had a budget of $250,000; it has since grown to $3 million.

Sweeney says the details of the purchase will be made public in the next few weeks, after the sale is finalized. Then the company will get to work renovating the second, third and fourth floors, with the goal of opening up the classrooms late this fall.

He's particularly excited about the launch of a new "Train the Trainer" initiative.

"It will allow people to come from all over and certify them in improvisational training. They then take our curriculum to Des Moines, or Spokane or Singapore or Galway," explained Sweeney. "We now have the facilities to launch this curriculum - which is really truly our brand - across the globe."

Still, leaving the Uptown building was not easy.

"That's where I did my first BNW show; that's where I changed my life from corporate real estate to being an improv actor," Sweeney said. "There are a lot of wonderful memories in that space - over three million people came and laughed there, so it was a tough decision emotionally."

He recognizes there's a financial risk to the expansion, but says that's nothing new for the Brave New Workshop.

"That's the challenge of being both an arts organization and a self funding entrepreneurial organization -- it's not perfect," Sweeney said.. "And so you expand on faith and expand on mission, add new people and new expenses and then work your butt off to pay for it all."