Brave New Workshop, nation's oldest sketch comedy troupe, is saved by new owner

3December 2021

The Brave New Workshop, the nation’s oldest sketch comedy troupe and one that has minted such stars as former Sen. Al Franken, comedian Louie Anderson, “Naked Gun” screenwriter Pat Proft and Lizz Winstead, co-creator of “The Daily Show,” has a new lease on life.

It was bought Tuesday by the Hennepin Theatre Trust, which operates the Orpheum, State and Pantages theaters along Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis. The terms were not disclosed.

“It’s 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 the bigger sense, we get to preserve a theater space and continue to build up a campus in the entertainment district that offers world-class entertainment to the people of Minnesota.”

The trust, which also owns a flexible-space venue adjoining the Orpheum that’s used by schools and other community partners, has taken over BNW’s two-story building at 824 Hennepin Av.

It also has acquired the intellectual property of the workshop whose sketch comedy shows have borne 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 troupe as it plans for a new production in “late winter, early spring” next year. Whether or not the current company of actors will be back is an open question, he said.

“But people who’ve been to our shows in the past will not see a difference,” McEwen said, adding that shows will still be bitingly funny.

McEwen said that he feels “a sense of relief and honor” to be charged with keeping the legacy of Brave New Workshop alive. He was first hired as an actor in 1996 by workshop founder Dudley Riggs before being elevated to artistic director by now 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 its corporate training company, renamedthe Brave New Outpost. They also will continue to run the Brave New Institute, a nonprofit improv school they launched in 1997 after purchasing the workshop from Riggs.

Riggs, who died last year, started the workshop at a coffee shop in 1958 by reading and satirizing stories from newspapers. His brand of satiric sketch comedy would later be popularized by Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe and NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”

Riggs was especially concerned about his legacy continuing, said his widow Pauline Boss, a University of Minnesota emeritus professor and author.

“Dudley, like me, was a Depression-era kid who lived through tough times, so we know that there are good times that can follow,” Boss said. “This would have made him happy.”

The news of the sale calmed fears that had arisen about the fate of Brave New Workshop, which has always been a for-profit entity wholly dependent on box office and bar revenues.

Like all performing arts institutions, it shut down in March 2020 because of the pandemic. But while others from Chanhassen Dinner Theatres to the Guthrie Theater have come back, the Workshop had not announced a show or schedule, causing concern among alumni and fans.

“This eases my tension about the Brave New Workshop going away,” said Proft. “It would’ve been tragic if that place weren’t around anymore. I’m really pleased that it will be saved.”

The acquisition helps the trust to fulfill in a part of its mission.

“As we build out the theater district, we want it to still be a place to showcase Minnesota artists, not just for touring,” Nerenhausen said. “The size of the Brave New Workshop allows us to do that. It gives additional options for visibility in the district.”

Before the pandemic, the trust had a budget in the neighborhood of $30 million. Adding the workshop will increase that figure “by about a million dollars a year,” Nerenhausen said.

The acquisition also helps to vault the trust into the top tier of entertainment districts, at least by capacity, in the nation. The Orpheum Theatre accommodates roughly 2,600 seats, the State 2,000 and the Pantages 1,000. With its flexible spaces and now the sketch comedy company, the trust can host 6,800 people at one time.

Those attending a comedy show at the venue may not see changes on stage, artistic director McEwen said. The trust will continue to support the creative independence of the troupe known for its biting humor directed at trends, politicians and celebrities.

Meanwhile, Sweeney and Lilledahl will remain owners of another building at 727 Hennepin Av. that 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. “That’s been a disaster for everyone but it did accelerate our ability to put a focus on our plans. It feels divine that everything lined up and we could hand off the Workshop, after 25 years, to the third set of owners.”

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