Making it up as they go

Click here for a video of the Brave New Work Shop.

As if a historic presidential election, war and a faltering economy didn’t provide enough comedic fodder, come September, the Twin Cities will be flooded with Republicans when the party’s national nominating convention comes to St. Paul. Yes, 2008 promises to be a banner year for the Brave New Workshop, where current events have been skewered, roasted and served up to satire-hungry audiences for five decades now. “It’s going to be an absolutely huge year,” predicted Caleb McEwen, the workshop’s artistic director since 2001. The oldest satirical comedy theater in the country has for 50 years operated under the motto “positive neutrality, promiscuous hostility,” which means, basically, no one is safe. Politics, religion, race, gender — they’re all fair game.

If the retrospective offered in a preview performance of “The Brave New Workshop at 50: Old Enough to Know Better” was any indication, the theater can still make audiences alternately laugh and cringe.

“We’ve always been a reflection of everything that’s going on around us in society,” McEwen said. “We’ve always been unafraid to tell audiences what they don’t want to hear. And we’ve always put up shows that make you laugh and make you think.”

The Wedge neighborhood has been home base for the Brave New Workshop since 1965, the year founder Dudley Riggs moved his theater into an old auto shop at 2605 Hennepin Ave. S. The tiny stage there launched the careers of comedian and senate candidate Al Franken, actress Mo Collins and writer Pat Proft, among others.

Riggs sold the theater in 1997, but his name remains on the façade. These days, he holds the title of “artistic director emeritus.”

“That title allows me to come to opening nights,” he joked.

Still, of the many life stories that include a chapter or two on the Brave New Workshop, few can be as interesting as his.

Born on the road

Riggs, 76, has an ample belly and favors bowties. He still has the impish grin of someone who knows how to push people’s proverbial buttons.

He arrived in Minneapolis in 1958 with the kind of implausible back-story you’d expect from a hack Hollywood scriptwriter. It begins in 1932, when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus train was on its summer swing through the South.

“I was born on the road, essentially,” Riggs said. “The circus happened to be in Little Rock, Ark. My family was on the road constantly.”

His family was show business through-and-through, going back several generations. By age 5, he was incorporated into the family circus act, eventually joining them high up on the flying trapeze.

Riggs was a flyer, he said, adding: “That was 50 pounds ago.”

When the circus train ground to a stop at the end of every summer, the Riggs family just kept on rolling. In the winters, they joined the vaudeville circuit that, when Riggs was a youth, was still just barely hanging on.

It wouldn’t last long. Working in New York City in the ’50s and still performing with the circus, Riggs began to develop a nightclub comedy act, part of which included improvised humor based on audience suggestions.

“The Instant Theater [Company] came out of a survival tactic … where we had a number of unemployed performers in New York when the vaudeville series collapsed on us,” he explained.

The Instant Theater Company was born in 1954, and soon started touring the country. After making regular stops in Minneapolis for several years, Riggs decided to make it his home, opening up what he said was the first espresso shop in town.

“It was a matter, I suppose, of having a desire to finish school and get married, have a family,” he explained. “[I wanted to] unpack the suitcase and leave it unpacked for more than a week.”

Officially, the anniversaries of the Brave New Workshop are counted from the moment Riggs unpacked, even though Riggs starts the clock in ’54. And the name, well, that didn’t come into use until ’61, when a group of writers began a series of scripted shows.

Eventually, Riggs and his cohorts mostly phased out the scripts in favor of material developed through improvisation. But the name stuck.

A new generation

That name has been overshadowed by younger satirical theater and improvisational comedy groups that achieved more mainstream success, like Chicago’s Second City or the Upright Citizens’ Brigade out of New York City, both of which spawned TV shows and recognizable stars.

“We’re like the Timberwolves or the Twins; we’re laboring in a smaller market,” McEwen said, attempting to explain the theater’s relatively low-profile status. “By the same token, within the industry, we actually have a whole lot of recognition.”

As an aspiring comedian growing up in Chicago, Mike Fotis had heard of the Brave New Workshop. After college, Fotis moved to Minneapolis, started taking classes at the workshop and worked his way from the box office up to the stage.

“I’m 31 [years old] and my full-time job is writing comedy, you know? That’s great,” he said. “There’s no other place on the planet where I could have really gotten the opportunity to write and hone my skills like I have here.”

Lauren Anderson, by comparison, grew up in St. Louis Park and regularly attended shows at the Brave New Workshop. Still, like Fotis, Anderson said actually making it on stage was “a dream come true.”

Both Anderson and Fotis said they developed a better appreciation for the theater’s history while researching the 50th anniversary show. Along with McEwen, they spent hours digging through the Brave New Workshop archives, an incomplete and disorganized collection of old scripts, reviews and videotaped
performances.

“In the ’60s they talked a lot about race, for obvious reasons,” Anderson said. “In the ’70s they talked a lot about sex. In the ’80s they talked about sex and drugs. And money.”

Sex, drugs, race and money all remain fertile topics for the Brave New Workshop. And even today’s cast keeps an eye out for the artistic director emeritus, who they know is sitting out there in the dark on opening night.

“We can’t not think about Dudley,” Anderson said. “We always try and do the best, funniest thing that will make people think and laugh and [get] a little bit angry.”