“One of the Minnesota traits that I don’t respect is that we’re not bold enough to tell the world how awesome we are. I think we’ve been a very quiet, important theater for a long time. Perhaps too long.”
“It was very much an overdue story to be told.”
When asked why a book about the Brave New Workshop was being written now, both the author and the owner of the theater expressively said that because now was already too late.
The Brave New Workshop was founded by Dudley Riggs in 1958. Riggs, a fifth generation circus performer turned comedic actor, started a troupe of improvisers out in New York City. As they traveled around the country, they decided to settle in the Twin Cities. Then, in 1961, they performed their first true show in Northeast Minneapolis.
The home of the troupe moved from a coffee shop in Northeast Minneapolis to 26th Street and Hennepin Avenue to, its now current location, 8th Street and Hennepin Avenue. And the group moved from traveling troupe to improvising satirists to longest-running sketch comedy theater company in the U.S.
Now, on Oct. 26 author Rob Hubbard is sharing its story, and with it an alternative look at Twin Cities’ history, in “Brave New Workshop: Promiscuous Hostility and Laughs in the Land of Loons.”
“I’ve been familiar with Brave New Workshop for decades now,” Hubbard said. “My first encounter with the Brave New Workshop was back in the 70s going to see them at the State Fair and they would be at the old Young America Center.”
The initiative for the book began with the Minnesota History Trust. Noting that the theater had been around for 54 years, they wanted to celebrate its longevity by documenting it. They chose lifelong Twin Citian Hubbard to be the author. Being a longtime fan of the theater, Hubbard readily agreed.
“It really kind of gave birth to a lot of things that are now familiar in pop culture, most notably Saturday Night Live,” he said. “Two people from Brave New Workshop became part of the original writing team of SNL – that would be Al Franken and Tom Davis.”
Now Senator Franken, he introduces readers to the book with a foreword filled with stories of his teenage years spent viewing improvisation at the theatre.
Hubbard then sets the scene using the theater on the night 2605 Hennepin Avenue closed, the theater that housed the company for 45 years.
Using the voices of all the alumni that attended he dives into the story, starting at the beginning and moving forward. He takes readers through the history beginning with the first few sketches up to the latest full-scale main stage performance, and every sketch, set and song in between.
“I was actually able to find the original notebook that they stayed up all night writing the original sketch ideas and I have that reprinted in the book, along with the stories of the people who were there,” Hubbard said.
He only breaks the chronology twice; once to discuss Brave New Workshop’s music and the other to review the outrageous show titles throughout the years.
Hubbard interviewed alumni ranging from Al Franken to Pat Proft to Peter Tolan to Sue Scott, nearly 45 in all over a course of 14 months to cover 54 years of theater.
“It really has a lot of really funny stuff in the book… but also acts as kind of this interesting alternative history about another side of the Twin Cities,” Hubbard said.
Hubbard hopes the book showcases not only why the Brave New Workshop is important in the theater culture, but why it is important in Minneapolis culture.
“They are our resident satirists,” he said. “I think that when we’re confronted with very difficult things it’s very important for us to gather around to laugh. A place where people come together to decide to laugh is very important. I think that they’ve always kept that in.”
And owner John Sweeney would agree.
“We sort of have been a passive aggressive community that is more focused on kindness and politeness than it is disruptive conversations. [Riggs] always taught us, and I hope we teach our actors, that we want people to laugh in the theater but then discuss on the way home,” he said.
Long-standing but little-known (outside of Minnesota), Sweeney hopes this book will also help expand the company’s reach.
“For many, many decades the Brave New Workshop decided that they weren’t going to spend a lot of time and energy and money telling the world how great they were and telling the world how great their alumni were. And to be honest, we’re hoping to change that,” Sweeney said.
After all, while there may be theaters that house satirical shows or sketch comedy companies, there are few houses that are home to satirical sketch companies. And fewer companies that allow their writers to perform the scripts they write.
Sweeney explores the comparison between Brave New Workshop and Second City, the Chicago institution many people know as the birth place for Saturday Night Live comics that shares a lot of the same traits.
Sweeney explains that both allow writers to perform, have similar number of shows a year and turn out the same amount of talent, but Brave New Workshop differentiates itself by being writer’s theater.
And, as Sweeney states, “there is only one of them.”
“Dudley used to always say we’re the place that you can come where you can see and hear things that you wish you could do and say but you’re just too darn Minnesotan ever to do it. And so I think our roll within the community is irreverence, pushing people beyond on their limits of comfort,” Sweeney said.
And perhaps Hubbard’s book will show that not all Minnesotans are too Minnesotan to say and do and create promiscuous hostility and positive neutrality.
“Brave New Workshop: Promiscuous Hostility and Laughs in the Land of Loons” will be available in stores on Monday, Oct. 26.
On Tuesday, Brave New Workshop will host a panel discussion with some of the alumni featured in the book, as well as a signing. It will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. at the theater’s home at 824 Hennepin Avenue. A limited number of free tickets are available. For more information, or to get tickets, call 612-332-6620