New leader takes the helm at Uptown’s Brave New Workshop

Julia Schmidt says theater ‘feels like home'

Julia Schmidt grew up in the theater business.

Her mom was the musical director and box office manager at the Anoka Opera Company and later founded the Lyric Arts Company of Anoka. Schmidt transitioned from playing with Barbie dolls among auditorium seats to helping her mom fill them with customers.

In 2001, Schmidt was hired to fill seats at the Brave New Workshop Comedy Theatre at 2605 Hennepin Ave. S. as front-of-house manager. After leaving the theater to spend a couple years getting a masters of business administration degree at Harvard University, where she received a bachelor of arts degree in biology in 1998, Schmidt returned to take the reins of the theater last month. She is the theater's new president.

&#8220It just really feels like home to me,” she said of her new position.

Schmidt takes the place of John Sweeney, who is now focusing all his energy on keynote speeches about innovation and improvisation in the workplace. He flies to cities all over the country to speak for corporations such as Target, Microsoft and Yahoo.

To make more time for the speeches, Sweeney, who still owns the Brave New Workshop, needed someone to manage the theater. He knew Schmidt was the person for the job.

&#8220She's the only person I've met in my whole life that I ever felt comfortable turning the company over to,” Sweeney said.

Theater co-owner Jenni Lilledahl, Sweeney's wife, said she was the first to interview Schmidt back in 2001.

&#8220I remember thinking, ‘why is a Harvard grad coming to work here?'” Lilledahl said. &#8220We were all pretty bummed when she left the first time, but we all kind of thought she'd be back.”

Schmidt didn't know if she would be back after leaving to get her second degree at Harvard, but the Brave New Workshop inspired her to go to business school. When managing the box office, she said she thought employees were often &#8220reinventing the wheel.” She wanted to learn how to run a more efficient business.

It didn't take too much coaxing from Sweeney to get her back after she graduated in June. She started three days after graduation.

Schmidt said she loves the people she works and laughs with every day. No one at the Brave New Workshop has an ego, she said. Her title might be president, but her colleagues treat everyone equally.

&#8220I've never worked in an atmosphere with people like this,” she said.

She said the sketch comedy, improvisational comedy and music shows the theater is known for will continue as it always has; and the Brave New Institute, which sees 250 students each week, will keep training fledgling performers.

Schmidt has dabbled in performing herself. She played violin in the orchestra pit as a young girl, acted occasionally in plays and even spent some time in San Francisco trying to make it as a jazz singer.

She caught the theater bug a long time ago, she said. It just ended up being from a management perspective.

&#8220I could spend a lifetime here and never get bored,” she said.

Jake Weyer can be reached at 436-4367 and [email protected].