Future of Us: When their theater closed, these comedians found an audience in each other

People poses for a portrait
From left to right: Lauren Anderson, Caleb McEwen and Denzel Belin pose for a portrait at Brave New Workshop on Feb. 24 in Minneapolis.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

This story is part of a series called “The Future of Us,” exploring how a pandemic, a murder and a city on fire have changed us and our path forward.

It was a couple of months into the 2020 pandemic shutdown when Denzel Belin joined his Brave New Workshop Comedy Theater colleagues on Facebook Live for the first time, his wavy blond wig fighting the confinement of his digital square.

The online audience had become familiar with such squares. Remote meetings, remote birthday parties, remote happy hours. In a matter of weeks, online interactions had gone from novel to normal. Belin and his castmates were about to test their limits – by performing improv in them.

Traffic in the theater district was light.
The marquee message above the Brave New Workshop Comedy Theater on Hennepin Avenue offers a light message in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, March 18, 2020, in Minneapolis.
David Joles | Star Tribune via AP

“Can you hear me? My son set this up for me,” Belin said in his best suburban housewife voice. The prompt: a virtual “wine o’clock” happy hour. 

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What ensued was about as stilted as those first office Zoom calls.

“It was frankly demoralizing,” Belin said in a recent interview. “You would finish a show and log out of Zoom, and it was just silence. You're just being coated by the light of your ring light and thinking, ‘I guess I’ll go make a sandwich now?’” 

The theater’s artistic director chimed in: “I'm going to tell an hour's worth of jokes, but I won't be able to tell if you're laughing or not,” Caleb McEwan quipped. “That is a circle of Dante's Inferno.” But the cast and their theater survived the pandemic – and gained a new appreciation for the work.

“When I was performing online, I started to figure out ways that I could enjoy it without that immediate feedback from the audience,” said Lauren Anderson. “Like, how much enjoyment can I mine out of the doing of the thing?”

It’s a strategy she learned in school. 

“Part of being an actor is you have to audition all the time and you're constantly being rejected. But one of my acting professors said, ‘Make the audition the thing,’” Anderson said. “You're not auditioning to get something else or something new; you're auditioning because the audition is the thing. I do a lot more of that now.”

The pandemic put “doing” center stage for Belin, too. 

“Before everything shut down, I was trying to build up that résumé and I had forgotten that the work we do here is so much about our lived experiences,” Belin said. “I wanted more lived experiences.”

In the company’s first live show after the shutdown, Belin would channel his lived experience in a piece called, “If you’re laughing you cannot cry.”

“There was the pandemic, there was everything that happened with George Floyd, and then 2020 ended with me kicking a romantic partner out of my home,” said Belin, who also works for MPR News. “I remember being around Lake of the Isles and having a screaming match on the phone like I was in a Shonda Rhimes finale episode. And it was just so big and awful that I was like, ‘Well, I could laugh about it.’”

This new appreciation for experience has also come to inform the group’s thinking around diversity and inclusion work. 

“People are looking for the silver-bullet solution, where if we do A plus B, we will always get C, and that doesn't exist,” McEwan said “I tell actors who perform on this stage all the time, ‘The number one thing that will determine whether or not you are successful in front of an audience is whether or not you are comfortable.

“And I think that when we are talking about any of these difficult subjects, the number one thing is just going to be comfort, and that comfort is going to come from a series of discomforts we experience as we delve into them. That's been the mission of this theater for over 60 years.”

Now unleashed from their Facebook Live squares, the Brave New Workshop team is helping audiences deal with the uncomfortable realities of America’s wealth gap with their new show “Smelling Elon’s Musk.” It runs through May 20.