Brave New Workshop: Sharp as ever after 50 years

Edgy humor: Brave New Workshop's Caleb McEwen, Dudley Riggs, and John Sweeney (left to right)
Stephanie Scott

It's easy for me to be entranced by the general atmosphere of youthful athleticism at Circus Juventas in St. Paul, with bodies flying this way and that. But then I eye the black case in which Caleb McEwen, artistic director of the Brave New Workshop, keeps his throwing knives. (We're at the circus becase Workshop owner John Sweeney is taking a class there.) I had seen McEwen throw those steel daggers onstage at the Workshop in the past. This time, though, I have agreed to be on the receiving end of his knife-throwing skill.

It seems prudent to start with the interviews, lest I make an early exit of the surgery-requiring variety. Also on the premises are Dudley Riggs, founder of the Workshop, and current owners Sweeney and his wife, Jenni Lilledahl. (Sweeney, knowing that I am going under or, more accurately, in front of the knives, cheerfully mentions that McEwen has thrown tons of blades at him over the years, resulting in only one major scar).

Appropriately reassured, I sit down with Riggs, well into his eighth decade and full of easygoing charm in a bowtie and polka-dotted shirt. Though we're there to talk about the Workshop's new show, I can't resist quizzing him first about his entirely unique show-business odyssey.

"I was born into the circus," Riggs says with a glance at our surroundings (children and teens are flying and bouncing on the trapeze and trampoline, rehearsing Circus Juventas's upcoming Raven's Manor). "Before I was a year old, my family put me in the show in a little carriage, with a crown and ermine cape, pulled by a polar bear on a leash."

Riggs's theater is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and while he enjoys emeritus status these days, he's a showman with an astonishing pedigree. He talks about his family spending half the year doing circus acts, then the other half on Vaudeville, before those bookings started to dry up. He gives a knowing chuckle at the idea that the theater he founded is now perceived as a permanent institution.

"Everyone has to recognize how ephemeral the work is," Riggs says. "Here today, gone tomorrow. And you have to love it in order to keep falling down and getting up and starting over again."

Riggs gives the impression of a man who lived from show to show for so long that he is gratifyingly amused to be regarded as an elder statesman. He mentions a Vietnam-era satire that earned his company a brick through its window and Green Berets wandering in and issuing threats. At one show, audience members were invited to burn their draft cards at intermission (though in the next breath Riggs talks about doing a pro-war show at the height of the public's Vietnam disgruntlement).

McEwen, the company's artistic director, also talks about the line the Workshop walks today between satire and offense. "We got death threats because of a song we did about Kirby Puckett," he says. "And more than once we had angry, or concerned, messages from Scientologists. Which was funny, because we've hit the Christian church so much harder. We actually did a sketch defending Scientology as being at least as valid as a religion that said a man came back from the dead and walked on water."

The Brave New Workshop's election-year offering, The Lion, the Witch, and the War Hero; or Is McCain Able?, opens Friday. McEwen views it as focused more on the circus of the election process than on the candidates themselves, and he promises it will change throughout the election season.

Sweeney, for his part, weighs in on the recent New Yorker Barack Obama cover as an example of weak satire. "We would have taken it a lot farther," he laughs. "Into something horrible."

Finally, the time comes for me to experience McEwen's knife-hurling skill. Riggs and Sweeney hold me against a wooden board, while McEwen goes into a frankly scary zone, staring with laser intensity at where the daggers would land next to me (I hope so, at least, trusting he isn't running a mental loop of every BNW review that carried my name).

It takes about 30 seconds. I'm so terrified that all I can do is laugh as the wood next to me vibrates with a series of impacts. McEwen is throwing them overhand, really leaning into it. Then it's over. I look down. Seven blades are stuck in a line along my left side. McEwen looks grimly satisfied. I shake his hand, suppressing a giggle over the fact that I'm not pouring blood. It may not have been the easiest laugh McEwen ever earned, but he had the rapt attention of his audience the entire time. 

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