Book chronicles Brave New Workshop history

Credit: Brave New Workshop founder Dudley Riggs, a former aerialist in the circus, is pictured on Café Espresso’s opening night in 1958. Photo courtesy of Brave New Workshop

A new book traces the history of the Brave New Workshop, from its beginnings as a sideshow in a Northeast coffeehouse to its role as a training ground for entertainers like Sen. Al Franken and “The Daily Show” co-creator Lizz Winstead.

After closing his Minneapolis coffee shop on a summer night in 1961, owner Dudley Riggs sat around a table with a barista, two journalists and a playwright and brainstormed 100 ideas for sketches — what became the birth of Brave New Workshop. When writer Rob Hubbard learned nearly everyone at that table was still around, he felt compelled to act.

“Somebody really needs to talk to these people and get their story,” said Hubbard. “I better do this now.”

Riggs, now in his 80s, said in a recent interview that Hubbard did a “wonderful job” with the book. He said he’s relieved he no longer holds the burden of writing the history himself. Riggs is working on a memoir that focuses on his circus and vaudeville days.

Riggs’ parents worked as aerialists. Hubbard writes that Riggs tumbled around the big top and eventually ascended rope ladders for more demanding stunts, performing as a clown while he recovered from injuries. Riggs later worked in New York in the 1950s booking circus and vaudeville acts. While there, he developed “instant theater,” in which audience members shouted out names and places for an impromptu act.

He opened Café Espresso in 1958 at a converted garage at 18 University Ave. NE, hosting performers and encouraging improvisation. Riggs believed he owned America’s first espresso machine west of Chicago, which he purchased in Italy while abroad with the circus. (Hubbard writes that the machine was so foreign to local licensing authorities they required him to train as a boiler operator.)

The name Brave New Workshop was inspired by Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”

While on the coffeehouse stage, Riggs said he took pleasure from riffing on the newspaper headlines, particularly when he could read an early edition of the next day’s newspaper.

“The current political season is certainly a ripe time,” he said. “I continue to get a lift from that.”

Brave New Workshop’s early locations in Northeast tended to be inexpensive storefronts eyed for redevelopment.

“As Dudley put it, it was always one step ahead of the wrecking ball,” Hubbard said.

The move to 2605 Hennepin was sudden and coincidental. Riggs saw the lease sign go up while having  coffee at Embers at 26th & Hennepin (where Chipotle is today). The theater had been evicted days earlier — all of their gear was still loaded on a truck — and Riggs jumped at the empty space. Some of the actors showed up to the wrong building minutes before show time.

“I was foolishly bragging that Brave New Workshop never canceled performances,” Riggs said. “We managed to pull it all together and do the performance as promised.”

They expected 2605 Hennepin to be a temporary location. A former technical director who worked at Brave New Workshop in the 1980s remembers a roof leaking so badly they asked audience members to hold buckets on their laps.

“The new theater downtown lacks a certain charm by being dry all the time,” Steve Rentfrow told Hubbard.

All scripts were written down in the early days, and Hubbard pored through a box of them while researching the book.

 “It’s sort of like an alternative history of the Twin Cities area,” he said. “It’s Twin Cities culture, but looking at it through the eyes of satirists.”

Hubbard lists titles of former shows, like “Overdrawn at the Sperm Bank” (1972), which explored artificial insemination. “The Girth of a Nation; or, Alice Doesn’t Work Out Here Anymore” (1988) suggested that being a couch potato could be sexy. Other titles included “Politically Correct Means Always Having to Say You’re Sorry” (1993); “Saving Clinton’s Privates; or Swallow the Leader” (1988); and “Pluto and Other Lies My Teacher Told Me” (2007).

In one interview, Riggs commented that every controversial show — whether the topic was religion, Vietnam War, or the Minneapolis vice squad — was met with a brick inevitably smashing through the window. The pattern continued until late one night at Embers, when Workshop staff left the restaurant and spotted someone in the act. The man was arrested, and evidence showed he was likely responsible for most, if not all, of the brick-throwing.

One of Hubbard’s favorite shows was “Fifty Shades of Gravy,” which he reviewed for the Pioneer Press last year. Two men perform identical interviews for a job, answering alike in comical fashion, until an interviewer deems the African American candidate to appear more “thuggish.”

“It’s making a very biting statement,” Hubbard said. “That’s good old-fashioned biting Brave New Workshop satire. It’s doing its job in getting people to think in addition to making them laugh.”

The theater proved to be an early foothold for many who found careers in entertainment.

“I’m quite proud of the fact that so many people who came through this theater were very successful,” Riggs said.

The list includes stand-up comedian Louie Anderson, “A Prairie Home Companion” cast member Sue Scott, “Analyze This” screenwriter Peter Tolan, Saturday Night Live writer and Coneheads co-creator Tom Davis, actor Peter MacNicol of “Ghostbusters II,” “Roseanne” producer Nancy Steen, “Naked Gun” screenwriter Pat Proft and actor Rich Sommer of “Mad Men.”

Franken wrote the forward to the book, noting that the original writing sample he sent Lorne Michaels included a piece he first performed at Brave New Workshop.

Riggs sold the theater in 1997 to former cast member John Sweeney, Second City vet Jenni Lilledahl and former Workshop director Mark Bergren. Sweeney had left a job in commercial real estate to work in comedy, and he told Forbes magazine: “When I got my first big laugh, it was similar to the rush that I got when I made my first big sale, only better.”

At the helm of Brave New Workshop, the owners temporarily moved the group to Calhoun Square, tried staging shows on Disney cruises, and performed for a time at the Palace Theater in St. Paul. Hubbard writes that Brave New Workshop is now seeing financial success through expanded corporate improv training and its new location Downtown.

The current business provides a contrast to the early days, which Hubbard called a “hand-to-mouth operation.”

“They lived month-to-month for what ended up being decades,” he said.

Riggs said he oversaw 250 continuous original productions, funded without grants or nonprofit status. Whenever he thought the theater had reached its end, something momentous would occur in the news and he’d feel the urgency to respond onstage.

“If we shut down even for a week, we’ll lose too much momentum. History keeps going. … We have to keep responding,” Riggs said. “The rent keeps going, and so does the show.”

Hubbard is a freelance arts and music writer for the Pioneer Press, and he served as artistic director of the City Stock theater company from 1983-1991. His book “Brave New Workshop: Promiscuous Hostility and Laughs in the Land of Loons” is available online and at local bookstores.

Magers & Quinn will host Hubbard and Riggs for a discussion Jan. 14.