Brave New Workshop celebrates its history — and a new book

Courtesy of Brave New Workshop
Rob Hubbard and Dudley Riggs signed books on Tuesday.

Dozens of Brave New Workshop alums and many fans gathered Tuesday at the theater on Hennepin (the new one downtown, not the old one Uptown) for a book launch. At last there’s an official history in print of the nation’s oldest satirical comedy troupe. “Brave New Workshop: Promiscuous Hostility and Laughs in the Land of Loons” was written by Rob Hubbard, who writes regularly for the Pi Press about music, theater and the arts. This is Hubbard’s first book, and it was a nice bit of synchronicity that the launch happened on his birthday.

Sen. Al Franken, who wrote the foreword, was not in the house, but Pat Proft was, and Sue Scott, and Dane Stauffer, and Anita O’Sullivan, and many more. BNW founder Dudley Riggs held court, looking sharp at 83. Co-owner John Sweeney (he and his wife, Jenni Lilledahl, bought BNW from Riggs in 1997) moderated a panel and people stood up to tell stories. Looking around at the affectionate crowd, Sweeney commented, “Dudley often said he’d left the circus to join a family. In fact, he left the circus to start a family.”

Hubbard told us that he first saw BNW as a teen, at the State Fair’s Young America center. Approached to write the book, and learning that almost everyone who was there at the start of the 57-year-old theater is still around (is there a link between satire and longevity?), he said yes, then dug in, searching original archives in disarray (“a lot of archival material became available in the last few months”), reading scripts, old notebooks and a memoir of the company’s early days by former Pi Press editor Irv Letofsky, and doing nearly 50 interviews. “A lot of people made me laugh a lot,” Hubbard said.

The result: an alternative history of the Twin Cities. A look through the eyes of those who spoofed and skewered. A funhouse mirror held up to our local culture.

“The whole idea [behind BNW] was to create a space where creative people could be creative,” Riggs said, being serious for a moment. The rest of the evening was a mix of nostalgia, tribute, silliness and wisecracks. Said alum Michael McManus: “I started at Brave New Workshop in 1865. Lincoln had just been killed, and it was a bad time for theater.” Dane Stauffer looked around the room – in one of the two buildings on Hennepin that Sweeney and Lilledahl now own – and commented, “John and Jenni have built an empire on the bones of the rest of us.”

Sue Scott called Chicago’s Second City a sham because they used scripts instead of doing theater on the fly. Caleb McEwen, BNW’s artistic director, said of Riggs, “He put faith in people, and he gave you more responsibility than you ever actually deserved.” Finally, everyone sang “Happy Birthday” to Hubbard, and decades of alumni – all very, very funny people – gathered around Riggs for photos.

MinnPost photo by John Whiting
Brave New Workshop alumni

Hubbard will read from and sign “Brave New Workshop: Promiscuous Hostility and Laughs in the Land of Loons” on Wednesday, Nov. 4, at SubText Books (7 p.m.); Sunday, Dec. 6, at Barnes & Noble Roseville (2 p.m.); Sunday, Dec. 13, at the Hennepin History Museum (a Fireside Chat, with a Q&A); and Thursday, Jan. 14, at Magers & Quinn, in dialogue with Dudley Riggs (call 612-822-4611 FMI). The book is available at area bookstores and at the BNW during shows and box office hours. 


During the renovation of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, almost all of its 40 sculptures are in storage or on loan. (“Spoonbridge and Cherry” will remain on site, a silent witness to the two-year, $33-million redo.) Yesterday conservators began dismantling Frank Gehry’s “Standing Glass Fish,” one of the Walker’s most iconic works.

Instead of being hidden away, it will stay with a family member, on public view. Starting Nov. 9, the big fish will be installed at the Frank Gehry-designed Weisman Art Museum on long-term loan.

Realizing we didn’t really know much about the fish – it’s been around so long we’ve kind of taken it for granted – we fished around for some facts.

MinnPost photo by John Whiting
Thursday, conservators began dismantling Frank Gehry’s “Standing Glass Fish.”

The 22-foot-high sculpture is made from 33 sections of 8-inch, diamond-shaped glass scales connected with whitish silicone glue, supported by stainless steel rods and wood beams. It came to the Walker for the 1986 exhibition “The Architecture of Frank Gehry,” the artist’s first major museum exhibition, curated by Mildred (Mickey) Friedman.

That year, it was acquired by the Walker through a gift to the collection and installed in the original lobby between the Walker and the Guthrie. In 1988, when the Sculpture Garden opened, it was disassembled and moved across the street to the central gallery of the Cowles Conservatory.

Martin and Mickey Friedman had the idea for the Walker’s fish in 1985, when they attended a Gehry exhibition near Turin, Italy, and saw a 30-foot-long wood-and-glass fish that “appeared to be swimming serenely across the gallery floor.” They liked it, “sponsorship was secured,” and the new fish was built in Venice, California, arriving in Minnesota four weeks before the opening of the exhibition.

The fish is a recurring motif in Gehry’s work, inspired by the giant carp his Jewish grandmother kept in her bathtub each week for Friday’s gefilte fish.

At the Weisman, you’ll be able to visit “Standing Glass Fish” in the Karen Bachman and Robert Fisch gallery. Re-installation will take place over several weeks, some in the gallery itself, so you can watch it take shape.

The big question is: Will it return to the Sculpture Garden when reconstruction is complete? At least part of the new Conservatory will be an open-air pavilion – the old one cost a lot to heat – and this is Minnesota.

The picks

Tonight (Friday, Oct. 30) the Chanhassen: “Sister Act.” Ivey winner and McKnight Theater Artist Regina Marie Williams stars as lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier, a witness to a crime who’s relocated to a convent for her own protection. Of course she turns the convent’s choir into a soulful ensemble. Set around the Christmas holidays, with music by Alan Menken, it’s a good time. Currently in previews. Ages 10 and up. 2 ½ hours including one intermission. FMI and tickets.

Tonight and tomorrow at Orchestra Hall: Disney in Concert: Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” A perfect Halloween entertainment. While Burton’s film shows on a big screen at the front of the hall, Sarah Hicks leads the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra in Danny Elfman’s score. Recommended for ages 13 and up. 8 p.m. both nights. FMI and tickets ($30-$80).

Courtesy of Buena Vista Concerts
Friday and Saturday: Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas”

Tonight through Sunday at the Southern: Twin Cities Horror Festival. Movies can be scary, but live can be scarier. And when they turn the lights down in the Southern, you know why people have long believed it’s haunted. FMI and tickets ($14-$15).

Saturday at the Baroque Room: Quodlibet St. Paul presents A Halloween Masque. For those of us who have forgotten our Latin, a Quodlibet is a lighthearted medley of well-known tunes. Here it’s a program of spooky and supernatural songs and dances by Dowland, Bach and Rameau, with Lindsey Bordner on baroque violin, Joseph Jones on baroque bassoon, Tami Morse on harpsichord and the singers of Artemis. And probably some costumes. Not your usual Halloween fare. FMI and tickets ($15/$10).

Monday at Roseville Library: Club Book: Alexs Pate & Tish Jones. Pate is a professor of writing, playwright, and award-winning novelist; Jones is a poet, activist, and the executive director of TruArtSpeaks, a Twin Cities nonprofit dedicated to arts education through the Hip Hop and Spoken Word culture. They’ll talk about their writing and the African American experience in Minnesota. 7 p.m. Free.

Monday and Tuesday at Uptown Church: Rain Taxi’s 20th Anniversary Doubleheader. Two nights of special author events. On Monday at 7 p.m.: novelist Mark Z. Danielewski, author of “House of Leaves” and “The Familiar, Volume 2: Into the Forest.” Tuesday at 7 p.m.: poets Chris Martin and Eileen Myles. Martin’s books include “The Falling Down Dance,” Myles’s “I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems 1975-2014.” Both events feature dessert receptions, door prizes, and music by local bands. FMI and tickets ($5-$35).

Tuesday at a movie megaplex near you: David Suchet in Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Suchet (“Poirot”) is Lady Bracknell in a broadcast from London’s Vaudeville Theatre. Includes behind-the-scenes footage and an interview with Suchet. Go here, click “Buy Tickets” and enter your ZIP. 7 p.m. $15.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 10/30/2015 - 10:48 am.

    First Dudley Riggs satire?

    I hope I remember correctly the first satire; spoof production was on the Miss America Pageant?

    I remember what was possibly along the walls… high-back old judges chairs and above on the walls large, gold-framed Dutch Master faces staring down …East Hennepin first location?. Big brass coffee machine – first I ever saw – was the dominant hallmark…probably wrong on a few points but time is a trickster enchanting…

    But then again,

    I never shall enjoy the moment
    but the memory
    for when I try to seal
    the essence of
    that moment in my mind,
    the thought itself destroys
    the very moment that I hope to bind? …

  2. Submitted by Britter Ritter on 11/01/2015 - 06:39 pm.

    I never got to see one of their shows, as much as I wanted to, I was too young. But I still remember the most memorable title of one of their revues:
    National Velveeta, or
    What a Friend We Have in Cheeses
    Marvelous punnery. And I loved eating in the slightly European West Bank cafe.

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