Brave New Workshop's Dudley Riggs on standing out in MN


“Nothing is sacred except the circus” is Dudley Riggs’ motto.

Dudley Riggs

University of Minnesota Bookstore

The founder of the Brave New Workshop should know: In 1932, he was born to circus performer parents. His unconventional upbringing included gigs as a vaudeville performer and a trapeze artist. In his new book, Flying Funny: My Life Without a Net, Riggs shares stories all the way from infancy to the genesis of the longest-running satirical theater in the country, Brave New Workshop. Along the way, he outlines the parameters of improv (or, as he prefers to call it, “instant theater”) that guided the careers of BNW comedians like Louie Anderson, Lizz Winstead, and Al Franken.

Before the book's launch, we spoke to Riggs about his eccentric career and his side ventures. Since he is hard of hearing, his wife, Pauline Boss, assisted and chimed in as well.

City Pages: In your book you write that “standing out goes against a well-established Minnesota custom.” Why is that?

Dudley Riggs: I came into Minnesota originally with the Shrine Circus. I noticed right away that there was a wonderful audience here, but it wasn’t a good idea to stand out. When I started college here, I looked like a wrong fit. I arrived with the wrong clothes and the wrong attitude.

Pauline Boss: And the wrong car. Tell her about the car.

DR: Back in the '50s, I was driving a foreign car that sort of stood out wherever I drove. The city of Minneapolis at that time was rather staid and pretty conservative... I grew to love Minnesota. After many years, every time I thought about leaving, I ended up gravitating back here. It’s been a good home.

CP: Do you feel like you fit in now?

DR: I think so. I’ve been here so long, I’m probably a little bit more of a fixture of the city. I certainly never thought I would become anything as big as the Brave New Workshop has become. I’m quite happy to see that, as an institution, continuing.

(Dudley Riggs takes a break with fellow performer Baba Dewyne in Manila, 1952. Photo courtesy of Dudley Riggs.)

CP: Do you feel the shows at BNW do your mission justice?

DR: The goal of the theater is to present comedy theater for thinking people. It’s always been a necessity to try to create comedy that is based on truth. The main ingredient has tended to be an open-source system where all ideas are heard. From the very beginning, I thought the city needed some things, and political satire was one of those things. I also thought it needed good bread and better coffee.

CP: Where are your favorite places in the Twin Cities to go for bread and coffee?

DR: I’m constantly being guided toward yet another coffeehouse. I really keep shopping. We are fans of Café Latte in St. Paul. When I ran the only coffeehouse in the city, it seemed like an almost sinful occupation. For a long time, the idea of selling a cappuccino for 50 cents -- back when I started -- was considered outrageous. City fathers were suspicious of the espresso machine. I like strong coffee. When I came to town, people were making coffee at 60 cups per pound. Fortunately, now they’re putting more coffee in it.

CP: Why do you think the circus isn’t as popular as it once was?

DR: The circus, like basically all entertainment forms, has been kind of eclipsed by instant availability of entertainment in the hand-held device. The circus used to go to the audience because the audience was pretty much land-locked. Now, the public has great mobility to go out and seek the entertainment wherever they wish. It’s a very crowded field. However, it does persist. Even though Ringling Bros. has declared bankruptcy, the circus as an industry is still alive and working in parts of the country. The motto in the workshop is: “Nothing is sacred except the circus.”

City Pages: What did you learn from your upbringing in the circus?

Dudley Riggs: I spent about 25 years in the circus before I moved to Minneapolis. What I learned from the circus is that it’s a well-organized company that created entertainment for a lot of people but it was built upon rules -- good, solid, performance rules. 

(The E.K. Fernandez All-American Circus. Photo courtesy of Dudley Riggs.)


Dudley Riggs, Flying Funny
4 p.m. Thursday, April 20
University of Minnesota Bookstore

7 p.m. Wednesday, April 26
SubText Books