Just another improvisation

The story behind 
Brave New Workshop’s 
downtown expansion

The story of how Brave New Workshop ended up at 824 Hennepin Ave. is all about improvisation, but not necessarily the type that happens on stage.

For the first time in its 53-year history, the workshop now owns property — a three-floor building, formerly the home of Hennepin Stages, right in the heart of the downtown theater district.

The top floor of 824 Hennepin features a cozy theater space similar in size and feel to the workshop’s longtime stage at 2605 Hennepin Ave. in the Wedge. The middle floor sports a full bar and a large ballroom for corporate events, with dressing rooms, storage and offices in the basement.

Although the workshop’s main stage and headquarters are moving to 824 Hennepin next month, the iconic space at 26th & Hennepin will remain home to the workshop’s improv school, the Brave New Institute.

The fact that co-owners John Sweeney and Jenni Lilledahl are able to purchase prime downtown real estate after a half-century of renting is largely a testament to the success Sweeney stumbled upon when faced with a difficult set of circumstances about a decade ago.

Sweeney and Lilledahl both abandoned successful careers in the early 1990s to devote their lives to improv. They met while taking classes at Stevie Ray’s Improv Company, fell in love and were married a few years later.

For Sweeney — a brash personality with a jovial demeanor and large frame somewhat reminiscent of Madison schoolmate and lifelong friend Chris Farley — improv came naturally. After a stint on-stage at the Brave New Workshop, Sweeney quickly found himself working for The Second City improv troupe in Chicago.

“I fell head over heels with this art form,” Sweeney said. “It felt like everything you needed to do for the art form of improvisation I was naturally good at yet was told not to do my whole life. The more outrageously me I was, the more it seemed to work.”

In 1996, Brave New Workshop founder Dudley Riggs approached Sweeney and Lilledahl about purchasing the workshop. The couple took Riggs up on his offer the following year and began thinking about ways to grow the workshop’s brand.

They decided the best way to grow was to try and sell more tickets, so in 1998 Sweeney and Lilledahl leased a space in Calhoun Square and built a theater (the space they built is now home to Comedy Sportz).

The move to Calhoun Square ended up costing the workshop about a half-million dollars. Ticket sales fell as the economy entered a recession following the September 11 attacks, and by 2002 Sweeney and Lilledahl found themselves back at 26th & Hennepin, wondering if Brave New Workshop had a future.

“After Calhoun Square we were really, really, really screwed financially,” Sweeney said. “We put all our eggs in that basket.”

At a low point, Sweeney demonstrated how success both on and off the stage can be the fruit of improvisation. Drawing from his experience as an agent for commercial real estate tenants for the Keewaydin Group, he asked Brave New Workshop’s corporate clients if they’d let him come in and give talks and seminars about how improv skills, when applied to large corporations, can foster better communication and ideation.

Speaking of her husband, Lilledahl said “he’s super unique on this planet as far as having a dual expertise in improv and the corporate world.”

Sweeney’s talks focus on how large corporations can overcome the bureaucracies, status disparities and silo problems that sometimes stifle the proliferation of new ideas.

“At Brave New Workshop, coming up with a new idea for a show or for marketing is relatively risk-free and easy, and once you come up with one, you’ll be heralded and appreciated for the effort,” Sweeney said. “Whereas once you get up to having 10,000 employees, there are about a million reasons employees are reluctant to come up with new ideas.”

“Part of what we do as comedians is go into those cultures with a different perspective and try to shake things up a bit,” he added.

Sweeney wasn’t giving away his talks and seminars for long. He now does 120 $20,000-a-pop keynote speeches throughout the world for global clients like Microsoft and Dole and local clients like Ameriprise and Medtronic. He’s also authored two books about the intersection of improv, ideation and innovation.

Put together, Brave New Workshop’s “Creative Outreach” division is now responsible for about two-thirds of the workshop’s $2 million in annual revenue, compared to one-quarter for ticket sales.

“We don’t teach people how to improvise. Instead, we take a liberal arts model and ask what this artform can teach us, the behaviors and cultural norms of improv, then bridge that back to the cubicle,” Sweeney said.

“It’s odd, because it kind of started out of desperation, but the truth is I’ve grown very passionate about it,” he added. “It seems really cool that this guy named Dudley Riggs starts a theater in 1958 and introduces the Twin Cities to improv, and now, because of that, 3M is doing a better job, it’s more fun to work at Best Buy and people at Thrivent treat each other better.”

Brave New Workshop’s Creative Outreach work has been extremely profitable over the past half-decade. Since Sweeney and Lilledahl bought the company, gross revenues have increased eight-fold, and the workshop now has about 30 employees compared to just eight back in 1997.

While the theater facilities at 824 Hennepin are undoubtedly a cut above what the workshop is used to, the main appeal of the downtown property is perhaps the large, street-level ballroom perfectly suited for corporate events and web seminars. That space will allow Brave New Workshop to expand its Creative Outreach division in a way that isn’t possible at 26th & Hennepin.

“This building is a culmination of what we can do,” Sweeney said.

Brave New Workshop will open its new downtown location late September for a comedy about the adventures of Dudley Riggs. “Obama Mia!,” the last feature production staged at 26th & Hennepin, runs through the end of September.

Although there is some bittersweetness associated with relocating Brave New Workshop’s mainstage from the hallowed grounds of 2605 Hennepin, Sweeney and Lilledahl have made a career out of embracing and adapting to change.

After all, navigating change is what good improv is all about.

“Improvisers look at change as fuel rather than an obstacle,” Sweeney said. “As improvisers we want to change every three seconds — that’s where the jazz is.”