Best known in Minneapolis as the founder of the Brave New Workshop, Dudley Riggs’ show-business career actually began decades before he opened the long-running sketch and improv comedy theater in 1958.
By age 8, Riggs had already performed on the vaudeville stage and under the circus big top, making his debut as a toddler carted around the ring by a miniature horse. Part of a multi-generational circus family, he would eventually join his parents — the aerialist duo Riggs and Riggs — on the trapeze.
Riggs lived through three eventful decades before opening Dudley Riggs’ Cafe Espresso in Minneapolis, organizing in that space the early improv performances that would evolve into Brave New Workshop. It’s that first, long chapter of his life the Riggs covers in his new memoir, “Flying Funny: My Life Without a Net.”
Riggs, 85, recently sat down for a conversation about his new book in the East Town condominium he shares with his wife, Pauline Boss, an author, therapist and University of Minnesota professor emeritus. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Southwest Journal: You were born into a circus family and you traveled the world as a performer. You’ve led this incredibly interesting life. People must have been telling you for years to write a memoir; how and when did you decide to do it?
Riggs: I supposed in a way I’ve been blocked for quite a while. The stories, I would keep bringing them up. I was almost embarrassed by the idea that people would say, “Oh, you’re writing a book, are you going to include this?”
And it became quite large. There was more book there than I was contemplating.
Fortunately, Ron Hubbard wrote a history of the Brave New Workshop (published in 2015) and (Riggs’ collaborator, the late journalist and comedy writer) Irv Letofsky wrote a history of one phase of it. And I thought, well now, they’ve covered a lot of ground that had been sort of holding me up.
Essentially, the memoir is trying to explain what I was doing before I came here. All the people I know are familiar with the work I was doing at Brave New Workshop, but they never had any idea how I happened to show up here.
There’s this amazing scene in the book where you’re in New York City for the 1939 World’s Fair and you watch your dad perform a handstand on the edge of the Empire State Building — then the tallest building in the world — in front of a group of newspaper photographers. When did you realize your childhood was unusual?
It took quite a while. In fact, maybe only in later age have I given that much thought. It seemed to me that what we were doing was the family business. I’ve often said, if I had been born on the farm I probably would’ve been helping with the milking.
That was our reason to exist, to be able to entertain the public and to do that in a particular family tradition that was pretty well set by the time I came along.
You grew out of your family’s trapeze act essentially because you were too tall. Would your life have been different if you were shorter?
I suspect so, or I would have had to choose a different specialty. For a few years I was really trying to find the niche within the circus that I wanted to be in. Our family, we always kept trying to add another offering, another act that we could sell to the agents.
There were some I never succeeded in getting (into the circus). I had the thought that a flying act (set) to classical music should have a theme and that we could tell a story with that.
That was pretty much scorned by management. They were all pretty much based on the idea of a segmented, revue-type format, and they weren’t very open to something that might have more continuity to it.
You write about the various influences that shaped your version of improvisatory theater: a story game your family played on the road, the Freudian concept of “free association,” jazz and the kind of ad lib survival tactics that stage performers use to control an unruly audience. How did these various ideas begin to coalesce with you?
I started floating the idea of free-association performing, I started talking that up, when I was first in college in Mankato (at Mankato State Teachers College, now Minnesota State University, Mankato). The idea wasn’t very well formed yet, but I did make some effort to expand the idea. I pulled some of my fellow students into it and discovered for the most part they didn’t want anything to do with that idea. They were too busy memorizing lines and designing sets and so forth. Initially, I think, people said it’s a crazy idea, let’s get on with rehearsal.
So, after pushing that for a while I encountered some people who were very open to it. Then it started to grow. It started to cook.
You were one of several people who, in the middle of the last century, pioneered this type of performance. Today, we have Upright Citizens Brigade, Second City, Brave New Workshop and many others. There’s more than one improvisatory theater company in Minneapolis alone. Could you ever have imagined that?
No, I was quite surprised. Well, I shouldn’t say I was surprised. I could sort of tell that was the direction it was going. It’s the same way when a certain strain of music gets going, it starts expanding.
Early on, I met Bernie Sahlins of Second City. At that point I had been running for about five years in Minneapolis, and he came to town to see our show. We were sitting around talking: maybe we should do a convention of improv theater. And so, we were thinking, who’s on the list? At that point it was The Committee in San Francisco, Second City, a troupe in New York and us. Four groups do not a convention make.
Your book’s foreword was written by Al Franken, one of many talented performers whose lives intersected at some point with Dudley Riggs’ Brave New Workshop. You’re in your eighth decade of life, and I wonder if you think about your legacy at this point?
I’ve been quite pleased by how strong the theater is continuing. Not everybody leaves the theater and looks back fondly. This is working and continuing. That has created a legacy, if you will.
The first 250 shows are all over in the library and are available for anyone who wants to ever research the material. (Acquired in 2012 by the University of Minnesota, the Brave New Workshop materials are in the school’s Performing Arts Archive.) I had kept it around for years thinking I was going to go through that.
They’ve done a lot of things (at the Brave New Workshop) in recent times I had always sort of hoped to do. They’ve improved on it, but they’ve kept the structure, and that I feel good about.