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Hennepin Theater Trust buys iconic Brave New Workshop

Dec 05, 2021 07:21AM ● By Editor
Traffic in the theater district was light as the marquee message above Brave New Workshop on Hennepin Avenue offered some humor in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: David Joles | Star Tribune via AP 2020

By Euan Kerr of Minnesota Public Radio News - December 3, 2021

The Brave New Workshop now has only its third owner in more than 70 years. John Sweeney and Jennie Lilledahl, who bought the iconic comedy venue from founder Dudley Riggs in 1997, have sold it and its intellectual property to the Hennepin Theater Trust. Both sides in the deal say preserving the Workshop’s legacy as a satirical comedy powerhouse is paramount. 

Speaking on MPR in 1986, Riggs revealed the secrets he and the Brave New Workshop used to keep the audiences coming to political theater.

"Loyal opposition to both parties: promiscuous hostility, positive neutrality,” he said. “When we’re working at our most effective we will touch both conservative and liberal values and not necessarily offend either side because they always think we’re talking about the other guy.”

In 2011 Brave New Workshop founder, the late Dudley Riggs (middle) poses with John Sweeney and Jenni Lilledahl, who bought the theater from him in 1997. The Workshop, seen as a foundation of the Twin Cities comedy scene, has now been purchased by the Hennepin Theater Trust, which says it will preserve the venue's legacy of satire.
Courtesy of Hennepin Theater Trust | Photo by Dani Werner

Riggs died last year, but his name is constantly invoked when the people involved in the deal talk about the significance of the workshop’s sale. Jenni Lilledahl is co-owner of the venue, though she's not entirely comfortable with her title.

"I've always felt like nobody really owns the Brave New Workshop,” she said. "It's this artistic vision that Dudley held and we've all been taking care of it and expanding on it. Kind of like a good improv scene. Someone has an idea in improv and then your job is to say ‘Yes and’ and build on that." 

Lilledahl says the idea was always to pass along the workshop when the time came. She and her husband, co-owner John Sweeney, decided that time was now, so Sweeney approached Hennepin Theater Trust President and CEO Mark Nerenhausen. 

The trust is a very different theatrical animal, but Sweeney liked the way it did business. It owns the State, Pantages and Orpheum theaters, big venues presenting Broadway Shows, musicians on international tours, and huge comedy stars. Pre-pandemic the theaters drew half a million people a year. But Nerenhausen says part of their mission is preservation, and that's what the Trust is going to do. 

“Certainly preserving and perpetuating the legacy of not only an important Minnesota organization, but an organization that's had a profound impact nationally on theater, was important to us,” he said. 

After all, this was where several young comedians learned the business before going on to a national stage, including one Al Franken. 

The pandemic shut down the workshop, but Nerenhausen says he expects regulars won't notice much difference when it re-opens, which is scheduled to take place next year, because they plan to bring back the edgy material. 

To that end, long-time artistic director Caleb McEwen is retaining his position. He says there are many details to resolve but he is excited about the resources and opportunities the trust will offer the workshop. Like Lilledahl, he says while the Brave New Workshop’s mission has remained fixed, its history has always been about flexibility and adaptability.

"I'm excited about the things that are going to remain the same. And I'm excited about the possibilities of things that could change too," he said.

McEwen says they’re looking at the situation from the perspective of the next 60 years, not the next 60 days. He's also looking forward to making smart, edgy comedy. And once again Riggs' name is invoked.

"Dudley used to say that he wanted people to laugh in the theater and fight in the car on the way home. And that's something that we've always tried to do," said McEwen.

With the midterms less than a year away, the catharsis of political satire may be much needed.

To listen to an audio version of this story, follow this link to the MPR News website.