Brave New Workshop

Dudley Riggs invented improv as we know it today after falling from a trapeze during his aerial circus act. (True story.) Nearly six, side-splitting decades later, his “Brave New Workshop” is the nation’s longest-running, live-sketch comedy improv company.

It sounds more like a Dr. Seuss tale than the biography of … well, a normal person. But Dudley Riggs isn’t exactly normal.

Riggs was born in 1932 and joined the circus when he was five years old. He learned comedy in the vaudeville style alongside his family, who performed in touring circus acts throughout the US and Europe, and on the theatre circuit during the off-season. When he was older, Riggs formed a group that toured the country to keep busy during winter breaks.

The audiences Riggs encountered on tour often became rowdy — and even hostile toward the troupe. So after years of trying to please crowds with traditional performance styles, he instead began asking for their input. “Who do you hate in this town?” he might ask. If the crowd replied “The mayor!” the troupe would improvise a scene about the loathsome mayor.

Riggs called his company’s impromptu sketches “instant theater.” (In that era, “improvisation” referred exclusively to jazz music).

Riggs Runs Away from the Circus to Join the Theater 

After a near-fatal fall from a trapeze, Riggs retired his aerial act for good and focused on theater. But when his booking agent couldn’t find any shows for the ensemble, Riggs rented a street-level space in New York City where group members could keep their skills fresh.

Passersby took notice of what was happening through the windows and began offering money to watch rehearsals. Riggs soon booked a venue and the company established a regular show.

One early attendee — legendary theater critic and author Walter Kerr — was so amazed by the group’s “instant theater” that he held off writing a review because he was convinced the so-called audience input was actually pre-arranged material passed off as spontaneous. Once he realized the group’s authenticity, he raved appropriately.

After touring nationally for a while, Riggs’ troupe found a permanent home in Minneapolis in 1958, with the help of Dick Guindon, Irv Letofsky and Dan Sullivan. Riggs added the name “Brave New Workshop” (in honor of Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World) in 1961, when the group moved to its 2605 Hennepin Avenue location.

Moving Around Minneapolis 

Over the years, BNW bounced around several different locations across the Twin Cities, 2605 Hennepin Ave S. becoming the most enduring of those addresses. Today, its flagship location now sits downtown Minneapolis in the former Hennepin Stages Theatre building at 824 Hennepin Avenue.

In March 1997, Riggs sold BNW to John Sweeney, Jenni Lilledahl and Mark Bergren. The new owners changed the name to “The Brave New Workshop, founded by Dudley Riggs in 1958.”

In August 2014, the company also purchased a building located at 727 Hennepin Ave S, in downtown Minneapolis. This building houses the BNW Student Union’s improv and comedy writing classes, workshops and special events.

Way More Than Just Improv (i.e., Where the “Brace” Part Comes In)

BNW has been writing, performing and producing original sketch comedy, music and comedy improvisation longer than any other theater in the United States. Since 1958, BNW has put on nearly 300 original productions and exposed more than three million people to the theatre’s unapologetic and unwavering brand of comedy and improvisation. But there’s more to the story.

BNW has also implemented a social and environmental sustainability program called the Brave New Citizens Initiative.

As part of their commitment to the planet, the theater replaced 90 percent of all theater and house lights with LED lights. BNW composts and recycles, and offers incentives for patrons who use public transportation.

Additionally, BNW supports community programs that include:

  •  Student Union: Performing comedy isn’t just for the rich and famous! The BNW Student Union is a nonprofit organization with the most broad-based improv curriculum of any training center in the country. From youth to performers to corporations, more than 300 students make use of BNW’s broad-based improv curriculum.
  • Creative Outreach: BNW shares the skills and philosophies of improvisational theatre with companies worldwide in order to help them grow and change in healthy, entertaining ways, through keynote speeches and behavior-based training.
  • Project 824 offers the Hennepin Avenue theater and event space known as the Experimental Thinking Centre (ETC) free of charge to local and global community organizations that want to contribute to the greater good.
  • Twin Cities Sustainable Theaters, of which BNW was a founding partner, is a forum that gives local theaters opportunities to a) exchange best practices in sustainability and b) drive change within the industry. The group sponsored the first Sustainability in Theater Conference in May 2012. It also operates the Resource Sharing Forum, allowing theaters to decrease waste and cost by exchanging set pieces and technology.
  • Happy Hour Squared is a partnership between BNW and FINNEGANS, Inc. charitable beer to feed the hungry. The monthly event takes place at BNW’s ETC in downtown Minneapolis. After the first three events, more than 5,000 sandwiches have been made and immediately distributed to the hungry.
  • Charitable donations: BNW has donated services, tickets, space, staff time and money to organizations including Courage Center, Aliveness Project, BLIND, Inc., Emerging Green Builders, Hope Lodge, Hazelden, Cancer Kids Fund, Heifer International, Tia Foundation and many more.

Recent Brave New Workshop Hit Shows

Recent BNW hit shows include:

  • A Snowplow Named Desire: Love in Minnesota
  • Fifty Shades of White: A Minnesota XXXmas
  • Babe Lincoln and the Vajazzled Badge of Courage
  • The Wolf of Wal Mart

Notable Brave New Workshop Alumni  

Many well-known performers have graced the BNW stage, including:

Get Involved with the Brave New Workshop

To learn more about what’s happening with BNW or register for upcoming classes and performances, visit bravenewworkshop.com.