Brave New Workshop, the oldest comedy troupe in the country, is saved by its new owner
The Brave New Workshop, the nation’s oldest sketch comedy troupe and created stars such as former Senator Al Franken, comedian Louie Anderson, “Naked Gun” screenwriter Pat Proft and Lizz Winstead, co-creator of “The Daily Show”, has a new life.
It was purchased on Tuesday by the Hennepin Theater Trust, which operates the Orpheum, State and Pantages theaters along Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis. Terms were not disclosed.
“This is not just a real estate transaction, but something that continues the legacy of this great institution – the Brave New Workshop – as a theater company,” said Mark Nerenhausen, President and CEO of the trust. “In a broader sense, we can preserve a theater space and continue to build a campus in the Entertainment District that provides world-class entertainment to the people of Minnesota. “
The trust, which also has a flexible space attached to the Orpheum which is used by schools and other community partners, took over the two-story building from BNW at 824 Hennepin Av.
He also acquired the intellectual property of the workshop whose comedy sketches carry titles such as “Atheism Means Never Having to Say You’re Lutheran,” “Obama Mia! And “Minnesota Summer: It’s not the heat, it’s the stupidity.”
Artistic Director Caleb McEwen will continue to lead the irreverent cast as they plan a new production in “late winter, early spring” next year. Whether the current company of actors will be back is an open question, he said.
“But people who have attended our shows in the past won’t see a difference,” McEwen said, adding that the shows will always be very funny.
McEwen said he felt “a sense of relief and honor” to be tasked with keeping the legacy of Brave New Workshop alive. He was first hired as an actor in 1996 by studio founder Dudley Riggs before being elevated to artistic director by former owners John Sweeney and Jenni Lilledahl.
Sweeney and Lilledahl, who moved the workshop to its current location in 2011 – the former Hey City Theater – will retain their in-house training company, renamed Brave New Outpost. They will also continue to run the Brave New Institute, a nonprofit improv school they started in 1997 after purchasing the studio from Riggs.
Riggs, who died last year, began the workshop in a cafe in 1958 reading and satirizing newspaper stories. His satirical sketch style would later be popularized by Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe and NBC’s “Saturday Night Live”.
Riggs was particularly concerned about the continued existence of his legacy, said his widow Pauline Boss, professor emeritus and author at the University of Minnesota.
“Dudley, like me, was a Depression-era kid who went through tough times, so we know there are good times that can follow,” Boss said. “It would have made him happy.
News of the sale allayed fears that had arisen about the fate of Brave New Workshop, which has always been a for-profit entity entirely dependent on box office and bar revenue.
Like all performing arts institutions, it closed in March 2020 due to the pandemic. But while others, from the Chanhassen Dinner Theaters to the Guthrie Theater, returned, the workshop had not announced a show or schedule, causing concern among alumni and fans alike.
“It relieves my tension about leaving the Brave New Workshop,” Proft said. “It would have been tragic if this place hadn’t existed. I’m really happy it was saved.”
The acquisition helps the trust fulfill part of its mission.
“As we build the Theater District, we want it to remain a place to showcase Minnesota artists, not just for touring,” Nerenhausen said. “The size of the Brave New Workshop allows us to do this. It gives additional options for visibility in the neighborhood.”
Before the pandemic, the trust had a budget of around $ 30 million. The addition of the workshop will increase that figure “by about $ 1 million per year,” Nerenhausen said.
The acquisition also helps build confidence in the leading entertainment districts, at least in terms of capacity, in the country. The Orpheum Theater seats approximately 2,600, the State 2,000 and the Pantages 1,000. With its flexible spaces and now the sketch comedy company, the Trust can accommodate 6,800 people at a time.
Those who attend a comedy show at the site may not see any changes on stage, said artistic director McEwen. The trust will continue to support the creative independence of the troupe known for its biting humor towards trends, politicians and celebrities.
Meanwhile, Sweeney and Lilledahl will continue to own another building at 727 Hennepin Av. Which houses their offices. They too are happy to see the workshop continue.
“We started talking about succession plans three years before the pandemic hit,” Lilledahl said. “It was a disaster for everyone, but it accelerated our ability to focus on our plans. It seems divine that everything is aligned and that we can hand over the workshop, after 25 years, to the third group of owners. . “