Three days before welcoming an audience, Brave New Workshop in downtown Minneapolis looked like a construction site.
Workers on ladders were painting the lobby. Scaffolding turned the staircase into an obstacle course. During rehearsals in the upstairs theater, cast members were adjusting to new material written the night before.
But the country's oldest sketch comedy troupe, the brainchild of Dudley Riggs, is used to flying by the seat of its pants.
"We've always had challenges," longtime artistic director Caleb McEwen said as his players warbled vocal exercises. "It's a scrappy group of people working together at an institution that everyone keeps counting out. But Dudley grew up in a circus where you just made things work. And we've continued that tradition for a very long time."
This time, the comeback seemed more daunting than ever. Riggs, who retired from day-to-day operations in 1997, died less than two years ago. As the pandemic waned, other comedy clubs and theaters reopened; BNW remained dark. Rumors circulated that it was finished.
"I definitely went through deep grief when this place shut down," veteran performer Lauren Anderson said after she and her three castmates ran through a musical tribute to essential workers. "I started thinking, 'Maybe this is the end.'"
In December, owners John Sweeney and Jenni Lilledahl sold the space and name to Hennepin Theatre Trust, which also operates the Orpheum, State and Pantages theaters, all within stumbling distance of the newest member of its family. BNW moved downtown about a decade ago after operating out of Uptown since the 1960s.
"We started talking about succession plans three years before the pandemic hit," Lilledahl told the Star Tribune at the time of the acquisition. "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."
For Hennepin Trust president Mark Nerenhausen, the addition fits his mission to create an even more vibrant theater district. He also believes his organization's reach — it has a mailing list that tops 350,000 people — will help in marketing productions like "Back to Workshop or Everything's Fine!" which officially opens Saturday after a week of previews. It runs through Aug. 6.
"We've got a huge voice," said Nerenhausen, sitting in the back row of the 204-seat theater. "We can reach more people in one e-mail blast than a company like this might otherwise reach in a month or more."
The CEO, who arrived in Minneapolis six years ago, is well aware he's battling the impression that venturing downtown these days is akin to visiting a war zone. He said almost every major metropolitan area in the country is struggling with the same perception.
"We're sensitive to the concern. We wish downtown was back to its old self," he said. "But people are coming back. They're going to baseball and basketball games. Our theaters are full. You come down here for a Sunday matinee, you see families walking down the street. You don't have to take our word for it. Talk to your neighbors who are coming to our shows."
Those who do return to BNW this summer — or are checking it out for the first time — will see a show steeped in the tradition of mixing topical issues with pure goofiness. It's a formula that's worked since 1958, more than two decades before "Saturday Night Live" went on the air, and helped boost the careers of Al Franken, "Mad TV" veteran Mo Collins and "Rescue Me" co-creator Peter Tolan.
"We're hoping we can gain a whole bunch of new people that will appreciate the kind of comedy that's both silly but doesn't shy away from stuff people are thinking about," cast member Doug Neithercott said.
The first production since the pandemic has a wealth of material to mine. In fact, there's too much. If there's a theme this time out, it's how impossible it is to reflect on every recent life-altering event in just 90 minutes.
There's also the challenge of addressing political issues without certain spectators storming out.
"The audience is so fractured now," McEwen said. "Is there agreement on anything in the world right now? I don't think there is. Finding something that's universal is a challenge. It's the hardest time to write comedy in the last century. Anyone who thinks it's easy has never written comedy."
Another adjustment for the "Everything's Fine!" team is dealing with the absence of its biggest fan. It's the first production since Riggs passed away.
Cast members believe the founder's spirit will be hovering over every show.
"Our theater is actually addressing something," actor Denzel Belin said as he and his three fellow players returned to rehearsals. "If people crave escapism, they can literally go to Margaritaville. But they can also come back to the Brave New Workshop."
Back to Workshop or Everything's Fine!
When: 7:30 p.m. Fridays; 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays through Aug. 6. Thursday nights added in July.
Where: 824 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.
Tickets: $35-$40. bravenewworkshop.org