Dudley Riggs reminisces on Brave New Workshop

Comedy troupe readies for its move downtown

Dudley Riggs knows all about serendipity.

It was 1965, and Riggs's Brave New Workshop appeared to be at the end of its rope. "I started out on East Hennepin and got evicted. I moved around the corner and got evicted again," Riggs says.

He was in the parking lot at the old Embers restaurant on Hennepin Avenue in Uptown, with a moving truck packed with the artifacts of his theater and a show all ready to perform, but without a place to put it on.

Then it happened. "I saw a man putting up a sign across the street saying this building is for lease. I went across the street, rented 2605, moved in on Thursday, and did our show as scheduled on a Friday night," Riggs concludes.

Well, that's not really the end of the story. Instead, it was the beginning of more than four decades of comedy revues and improvisation for the Brave New Workshop at 2605 Hennepin Ave., both under the ownership of Riggs and, in the last decade, of John Sweeney and Jenni Lilledahl. Through the decades, the troupe has had second locations and even spent a few years primarily performing a few blocks south at Calhoun Square, but the storefront on Hennepin has always been its home.

That changes next month. The workshop's signature comedy revues will move to a fresh location downtown on Hennepin, into the old Hennepin Stages location. The Uptown home will still be in use for BNW's Student Union improv-training school, but the focus of the theater is definitely moving north.

Two things strike you when you see the decades' worth of pictures of Dudley Riggs: his ever-present bow tie and his ever-present smile. Both are on hand while he chats about the decades of history at 2605 Hennepin.

Riggs has been a performer nearly his entire life. He started out in the circus (he's a fourth-generation performer) and spent time in New York with an early version of the Brave New Workshop in the 1950s before settling in the Twin Cities. Along with a hard-working core of performers—many went on to greater fame outside of Minnesota—Riggs pioneered comedy that was topical, pointed, and willing to push boundaries.

Back to those first, frantic days at the Workshop's new digs. As the space had been a bike shop, it wasn't quite up to snuff. With barely any time to prepare, the company taped newspapers to the windows to cut out the glare of the streetlights while setting up the platforms and lights for the performance.

"By the time we had closed the show, we had moved back into the larger room and built a temporary light booth. It's still in use," Riggs says.

The new neighborhood brought a fresh audience (the old audience found it as well, thanks in part to a note taped to the door at the old location) and, as time went on, worried clucking from the city's moral brigade, who didn't much care for comedy that hit so close to home. That led to vandalism (the front window would be smashed by a brick each time a new show was announced), and to cries that BNW was "anti-American" (for Vietnam Follies). And the company was often ahead of the curve.

"We did a Nixon-Watergate show, and the local critics didn't think Watergate was worthy of a show," Riggs remembers. That opinion would change as the scandal deepened, but by then Riggs was on to the next target.

"I always felt if you have a core of truth in it, then people should be able to do it," he says. "I remember the first four-letter word used on the stage. We stepped into that slowly, and there were other subjects we went into rather slowly. And whenever I was getting bored with it, some new outrage would come and trigger a new show."

The Brave New Workshop also became a home for the generations of writers and performers who put on its shows. There are plenty of famous alumni—not many comedy troupes can claim a United States senator (Al Franken) as a former member—and plenty of others who worked in film, television, and theater.

It also served as a gathering place for like-minded folks, who forged bonds of friendship that endured for decades. Love was even in the air. Writers Faith and Dan Sullivan met at the theater and had their wedding reception there, complete with an original show written and performed by their friends.

"I'm happy that out of the 500 or so alumni, the majority of them are still in show business. They came in and learned their craft and have stayed in it. I feel a lot better at that than if they had all ended up selling shoes or insurance," Riggs says.

AFTER DECADES OF RUNNING the various parts of the Brave New Workshop business, Riggs sold it to husband-and-wife team Sweeney and Lilledahl. Riggs is pleased with the direction the theater has taken in the past dozen years under its "new" owners. "They've brought freshness to it. I like the philosophy of their shows," Riggs says.

That freshness extends downtown for the theater on 824 Hennepin Ave., which includes a pair of stages, room for offices, and, certainly to the delight of anyone who has spent the entire intermission waiting in line, plenty of restrooms.

Before the Brave New Workshop gets down to what it does best—making pointed fun of politics and politicians, fads, and everything else under the sun with what will be its 275th comedy revue—the new 824 Hennepin space will host a special two-week revival of Dudley: Rigged for Laughter, a look at Riggs's career that premiered last year at the History Theatre.

"I think the flag will be carried on downtown," Riggs says. "I get good vibes from it. I think we approached the 2605 Hennepin space originally as just an emergency until I found something better. Certainly, that bike shop location wasn't ideal, but somehow you make it work. Now they're going to make that better."

Dudley: Rigged for Laughter will play September 29 through October 8 at Brave New Workshop Downtown, 824 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612.332.6620. $25.

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