Satire’s cutting edge

Minneapolis’ Brave New Workshop gave rise to improv and social commentary in the late ’50s

The Brave New Workshop began performing at 207 E. Hennepin Ave. in 1961, within Dudley Riggs’ Cafe Espresso. The company moved to 2605 S. Hennepin in 1965. Photo courtesy
of Keith Fountain
The Brave New Workshop began performing at 207 E. Hennepin Ave. in 1961, within Dudley Riggs’ Cafe Espresso. The company moved to 2605 S. Hennepin in 1965. Photo courtesy of Keith Fountain

‘I’m going to Dudley Riggs’ Cafe Espresso,’ she announced as she swept out the door of our Minneapolis apartment, clad all in black, her eyes sooty with mascara.

As I thumbed through Brave New Workshop — the 2015 book by Rob Hubbard, a St. Paul arts writer — it was 1958 again.

My “Beatnik” roommate was heading for her favorite hangout at 18 University Ave. NE, which is richly described in the book.

She (I’ve forgotten her name) was one of many roommates who came and went back then.

All small-town girls, we’d moved to the city and were working at non-descript clerical jobs.

I always wondered if her intellectual coffeehouse friends recognized this irony as they discussed the likes of existentialism, with the espresso machine hissing in the background and, behind the bar, Dudley Riggs — the former circus aerialist who founded the coffeehouse.

Comedy sketches

A flashback of another kind altogether from the early 1960s hit me as I delved further into Brave New Workshop.

Riggs, having by then moved his establishment to larger digs at 207 E. Hennepin Ave., and inspired by Chicago’s Second City, engaged a group of local actors to perform comedy sketches.

The group, the Brave New Workshop Company, specialized in “sinking its satirical talons deep into the culture of Minneapolis and St. Paul.”

In the fall of 1963, a conundrum made to order for satire occurred: Ultra-liberal University of Minnesota political science professor Mulford Q. Sibley, with a bit of tongue in cheek, publicly put forth the idea that a student Communist club be established at the university, as well as a nudist club, an association promoting free love and an atheist group.

Milton Rosen, a St. Paul city councilman and plumber, was outraged.

Rosen demanded Sibley be fired.

The two men engaged in a debate on campus, attended by 1,200 students.

It caused a major uproar that involved the State Legislature, the University Board of Regents and the American Legion.

It was even carried on local television.

Yet, curiously, no mention is made of the Brave New Workshop players having lampooned this debacle.

Another omission: I’d then begun working as a stewardess for Northwest Airlines. Although it seemed out of character — and therefore noteworthy — another stewardess, Cynthia Nimmer, was then acting with the group.

Cynthia famously portrayed Laura Lovely, Miss Dinkytown, in a Miss America parody.

But she isn’t among the many actors profiled either.

Whatever.

The many outrageous skits the troupe performed through the years that Hubbard describes uniquely reflected the times they portrayed.

I laughed my way through the entire book.

As for my Beatnik roommate, she, of course, vanished ages ago.

However, she left behind a copy of A Coney Island of the Mind: Poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

And in the years that followed, I actually came to appreciate them.


Carol Hall lives in Woodbury. She’s a longtime freelance writer, a University of Minnesota graduate and a former Northwest Airlines stewardess. Writer her at chall@mngoodage.com.


 

Brave New Workshop by Rob Hubbard
Brave New Workshop: Promiscuous Hostility and Laughs in the Land of Loons by Rob Hubbard

Learn more

Brave New Workshop: Promiscuous Hostility and Laughs in the Land of Loons by local arts writer Rob Hubbard tells the history of the Minneapolis comedy theater.

Though Riggs sold the Brave New Workshop in 1997 after operating the venue for 39 years, the theater organization is still going strong today with a theater, box office and event space at 824 Hennepin Ave. in downtown Minneapolis.

Owners and theater enthusiasts John Sweeney and Jenni Lilledahl still put on shows and teach improv classes to all ages, including corporate groups at the BNW’s Student Union and offices at 727 Hennepin Ave.

Lady and the Trump — an election show and sketch comedy revue — is showing through Nov. 5. Tickets are $28–$36 with $4 discounts for seniors. See bravenewworkshop.com.