Brave New Workshop's Dudley Riggs remembers when improv was considered 'shameful'

Dudley Riggs inside Minnesota Public Radio
Dudley Riggs stands for a portrait inside the Minnesota Public Radio Headquarters in St. Paul, Minn. on Friday, March 28, 2017.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Most people run away from home to join the circus.

Not Dudley Riggs. For him, the circus was home.

Born to aerial flyers (Riggs & Riggs), he was put to work as soon as he could sit up. He starred as the tiny "Polar Prince from the North Pole" in the Russell Brothers Circus, pulled in a wagon first by a miniature horse and then later a polar bear.

By age 5, he had graduated to a vaudeville act. By 10, he was flying on the trapeze with his parents.

After he left the circus, he became a pioneer in a form of comedy called improv, founding what would become the Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis.

He's written a new memoir called "Flying Funny: My Life Without a Net" detailing the highs and lows of his career. He spoke to MPR News' Tom Weber about his book.

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'I could still do the act'

Dudley Riggs dangling from the trapeze in the early 1950s.
Dudley Riggs dangling from the trapeze in the early 1950s.
Courtesy of Dudley Riggs and the University of Minnesota Press

To this day, Riggs says flying on a trapeze was among the best experiences in his life.

"There's absolutely nothing that I have ever experienced as exhilarating as ... that moment when you're in space when you're essentially weightless," he said.

He still gets a thrill from being high up. In parking ramps, he frequently looks down from the roof, thinking to himself, "I used to fly from this height." He climbed the Sydney Harbor Bridge. A friend in New York City let him see the views from his 14-floor co-op (this same friend admitted to never going out on the balcony).

"I guess I just hunger for the top of things," he writes in his book. "Not the competitive award-winning trophy top of things, but the sheer fun and ebullience of being up where most people fear to tread."

He adds," I know that if I were offered a booking, I could still do the act."

On how he ended up in Minnesota

Growing up in the circus, Riggs and his family constantly traveled — they'd hit seven towns in a week.

"Prior to Minnesota, I really had no home, no home address because I was always on the road," he said. "I think if you're working in a job where you're in a new town every day, you lose sign of the idea of the hometown."

But eventually, Riggs began putting down roots in Minnesota when he enrolled in school in Mankato, and later, the University of Minnesota.

"When you're on the road a lot, every town you're in, you're looking around and saying, 'What does this town need?' In the case of Minneapolis, I looked around and said, 'you know, I could do something.' "

Dudley Riggs, spotting his father on the bars,
On opening Day of the All-American Circus, Dudley Riggs is spotting his father on the bars, with Punch Jacobs at right.
Courtesy of Dudley Riggs and the University of Minnesota Press

When improv theater was considered 'shameful' and 'sinful'

Back then, an improv comedy show was not well-received by the local traditional theater community.

"It was not a popular idea," Riggs said. "And of course, at the University of Minnesota, I had frequent disputes as to whether or not what I was doing was really shameful and sinful because this is the 50s, and it showed a lack of respect for the great literature and the great playwrights."

But for Riggs, his belief has always been that improv is just as legitimate a form of theater as King Lear.

"We're not doing Shakespeare, we're not doing Chekhov, we're not doing Ibsen. We're doing something that's contemporary, something that's based on real events, real-time, right now, not hoping for it to be idolized in some fashion."