A conversation with Dudley Riggs

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Nowadays, topical humor dominates the scene from Jon Stewart to Saturday Night Live to the Twin Cities’ own never-closing Brave New Workshop in Uptown Minneapolis. At the same time, Minnesotans have seemingly traded the old-time coffee percolator en masse for the no-longer-exotic pleasure of lattes and cappuccinos.

Neither of these two welcome developments might ever have reached the Twin Cities were it not for a singularly distinguished resident of University Grove.

Dudley Riggs has done more than just bring improvisational theater to the masses: He’s credited with bringing espresso to the Midwest. (Photo by Stephan Kistler)
Now in his 78th year, Dudley Riggs has lived a life so packed with unlikely detail and astonishing events that it probably wouldn’t make it as a novel. Too fanciful.

 

But it’s all true, and so recently the Minnesota History Theatre did the only sensible thing and turned Riggs’ life into a play. Dudley: Rigged for Laughter ran for several months in late 2010.

A 25-year resident of the Grove, thanks to his marriage to University of Minnesota professor emerita Pauline Boss, Riggs with his bow ties and his perennially impish grin might seem an unlikely resident of an academic neighborhood. But then, Riggs is probably an unlikely resident of any neighborhood.

Not surprising, since he grew up on the road as part of a multi-generational family of circus aerialists. To say that his was not a conventional suburban upbringing is to understate reality. “I grew up as an itinerant show person,” he says. “You might say I ran away from the circus. The only way I ever broke with my family was to stay in a community.”

Riggs arrived in Minnesota in about 1950 as a performer with the Shrine Circus. Although his formal schooling had been intermittent, that year he decided to enroll at the University of Minnesota. He stayed with the circus for several more years, but his foot had been caught in the door here. Whenever he wasn’t on the road performing, he’d come back for a few more classes.

Around the same time, he was also making decisions that would have important consequences for the cultural life of the Twin Cities. In 1950, American performers had trouble bringing European currency back to the United States after a circus tour abroad. “We couldn’t get the money out, so we had to buy things with it before we left,” Riggs explains. On a whim, Riggs used part of his European earnings on an Italian espresso machine.

A couple of summers later, Riggs met a jazz musician on the boat trip home from the annual circus tour of Europe. The two performers experimented with something they called “word jazz.” It functioned like a kind of psychological free association set to music, and when they got back to the States, they tried it out as a New York nightclub routine. “We didn’t strive to be funny,” in the early days, Riggs says. But they were frequently topical.

“We’d take a newspaper headline and ask the audience what they thought. ‘Who do you love?’ we’d ask. ‘Who do you hate?’ ” (Even in those distant days, long before Watergate, the answer to the second question was frequently “Nixon!”)

Riggs was living in Minneapolis when it all came together. The espresso machine had been sitting in the living room taking up space when he decided to try something new. “I opened a coffeehouse in 1958 to support myself,” he says. “That was the first espresso machine in the Midwest. We advertised it as the only [one] between Chicago and L.A.”

The café was on University and East Hennepin avenues, and it turned out to be a good location. “We were on the path to [Orchestra Hall] and we were serving Viennese pastries mit Schlag. We got good support from the symphony-goers,” Riggs says. “Meanwhile, we got the theater going.”

Ah, yes, the theater. Half a century later, the Brave New Workshop is still going strong, although the location has changed and Riggs himself retired from day-to-day management in the late 1990s.

He never expected this long a run. Early on, problems arose from a cultural collision. The idea of a café was novel to the Northern Plains. “The city of Minneapolis viewed us with alarm,” Riggs recalls. “The vice squad was convinced that the espresso machine was somehow illicit.”

Later on, there was Riggs’ own sense of impermanence to deal with. “I settled here temporarily,” he says. “I thought I’d go [on] to another job. But the theater was never seasonal. It was 52 weeks a year, so there was never an easy time to stop.”

The mix of topical wit and improvisational comedy that Riggs helped develop has never been more influential. Times and targets change, but the improv style seems here to stay. Riggs refers to improv as “theater without a net,” but he makes it sound as if falling was never his fear.

“Once people become accustomed to working in that form,” he explains, “it’s very liberating, because you can trust your companion [on stage]. … [T]he basic affinity between performers is what makes it work. What kills improv is if you rush to make a joke. You say something to me; I take it as a gift and hand it back to you-hopefully improved.”

And it’s not just professional funnymen these days who make use of the technique. The Brave New Workshop teaches classes in improvisation to students who range “from pilots to the corporate world,” Riggs says. Learning to trust a partner while thinking on your feet is a skill that comes in handy in many walks of life. “People have used it for team-building and new product development,” muses Riggs.

Not that his respect for the form stops there. Describing the process of developing a piece for the theater, he says, “You approach the stage with respect for all opinions. Every idea is equal in the process. If the goal is to accumulate good ideas, you ask the audience for suggestions.”

He pauses slightly for effect, “It would be a great way to run a country, wouldn’t it?”

 

Judy Woodward is a reference librarian at Roseville Library and a resident of St. Anthony Park.