Brave New Workshop Announces New Home for BNW Student Union
The Brave New Workshop Theatre (BNW) announced plans today to purchase an additional building in the Hennepin Avenue Downtown Theatre District in order to house its growing school, the BNW Student Union, as well as additional office and workshop space for its theatre and its corporate services division (BNW Creative Outreach). The BNW has signed a purchase agreement to acquire 727 Hennepin Avenue, currently home to UnBank and former home of Teeners Theatrical Costumes. The new home of the BNW Student Union at 727 Hennepin Avenue sits diagonally across the street from the BNW main stage theatre and ETC event centre at 824 Hennepin Avenue, and when the two spaces are combined, will create a world-class entertainment, event and training campus of nearly 40,000 square feet on Hennepin Avenue in the heart of the growing arts corridor.
"We have a strategic plan and growth initiative to reach 10,000 students through programs of the BNW Student Union," said Jenni Lilledahl, BNW co-owner and executive director of the BNW Student Union. "Our mission at the Student Union is to give anyone who desires a chance to learn the gifts of improvisation in a safe and 'BNW' style environment. Moving forward many of our students will attend class at our new home at 727 Hennepin, which has more than five times the amount of classroom space as our previous location, many will be taught via distance learning utilizing technology at 727 and 824 Hennepin, and many of them will be taught by off-site certified instructors who gained certification at 727 Hennepin in our new train-the-trainer programs."
Currently, the BNW Student Union serves more than 250 students each week, ages 9 to 90, most of whom are everyday improvisers using the skills and mindset they learn in all aspects of their lives. Other students are part of the school's performance track, which is closely aligned with the theatre.
"With the addition of 727 Hennepin, we'll be able to serve all of our customers, our BNW theatre guests, our ETC event attendees in our event centre located on the first floor of 824 Hennepin, our corporate and training clients and our students, at one accessible downtown campus," added John Sweeney, BNW co-owner. "In addition, the current layout and technology at 824 Hennepin, and the planned technology and space at 727 Hennepin, will allow us to share the BNW culture and history with a worldwide audience - both literally and virtually."
BNW plans for the six floor (5 floors and a basement), nearly 20,000 square foot facility at 727 Hennepin include six classrooms, a student showcase space, a lounge/gathering space, small group and writing rooms, restrooms on each floor, webcast and video conferencing studios, offices and storage. The entire fifth (top) floor is currently configured as offices and will remain as offices for the full-time staff of the school, theatre, and BNW Creative Outreach (corporate services division). The UnBank currently occupies the entire first floor and will remain as the sole first floor rental tenant under BNW ownership.
"The proximity and adjacencies of the two BNW buildings will create a campus feel and will allow for more cross-pollination and asset sharing between our students, audiences, actors, clients and staff," said Sweeney. "And reuniting the staff of all four parts of our company, the theatre, the school, the event centre and corporate services under one roof aligns with the improvisational and collaborative nature of all that we do."
BNW plans to begin construction at 727 Hennepin soon, with an anticipated opening of the new classrooms in late fall/early winter. The BNW has engaged Edward Farr Architects Inc. to lead the design efforts of the space. Edward Farr Architects also led the re-design of the BNW Theatre at 824 Hennepin Avenue in 2011. As was done at 824 Hennepin, BNW and Farr plan to replicate as much of the feel and history of Dudley and the BNW institution at 727 Hennepin. Many of the elements from 2605 Hennepin will be transferred to the new BNW Student Union home, with plans for a historical gallery feel for much of the space. "The large amount of space at 727 Hennepin will allow us to properly store our more than 56 years of archival materials, as well as thoughtfully and permanently display more historical elements than we have been able to in the past," said Lilledahl.
Financing is being provided by Nicolet National Bank of Green Bay, Wisconsin. "Our success and growth would not be possible without Nicolet," said Sweeney. "They continue to differentiate themselves by putting people first. We are grateful for their support and faith."
Dudley Riggs founded the Brave New Workshop in 1958, with its first home on East Hennepin Avenue. In 1965, Dudley moved the theatre to 2605 Hennepin in Uptown. John Sweeney and Jenni Lilledahl have owned the BNW since 1997. The BNW Student Union, formerly known as the Brave New Institute, has occupied 2605 Hennepin since 1997. In 2011, Sweeney and Lilledahl purchased 824 Hennepin and moved the main stage theatre downtown to increase the quality of the audience experience, expand the artistic capabilities and to provide the theatre with a truly national brand and location. Patron attendance has increased 30 percent since the move. In 2011 the BNW also opened the ETC Event Centre on the main floor at 824, a space for corporate events and group rentals, innovative and experimental programming, and charity events. The BNW staff has grown from 4 full time employees in 1997 to a weekly payroll of 85 full and part time today.
"When we purchased the BNW from Dudley in 1997, we made two promises to him and the BNW family," said Sweeney. "One, that we would take care of and expand what Dudley started, and ensure the BNW's long term sustainability beyond his generation and ours, and two, that we would grow the theatre, school and Creative Outreach and expand the brand presence beyond Minnesota to a world-class level. Because of our new downtown campus we are now able to do that with all of the divisions of the BNW."
"With the addition of 727 Hennepin, for the first time in BNW history we have achieved permanency and sustainability for the theatre, school and entire BNW family," said Lilledahl. "When 2605 Hennepin was put up for sale publicly we realized that it was no longer a location that could serve our school's mission or provide a permanent and sustainable home. Part of that realization came from a strategic planning program we participated in with the Twin Cities organization, Engine for Good. That plan is the impetus and guide for our future growth and 10,000 student goal."
"As part of our process, we have spent hundreds of hours identifying what would be best for our school and the sustainability of the BNW, including studying potential locations, prototyping design models and securing financing. 727 Hennepin exceeded all of our expectations in the search for a new home for the Student Union and with this purchase we're making a significant investment in the future of the BNW," said Lilledahl. "The space will allow us to drastically increase the number of local students we can serve, and provide us with a world-class space to train others in what we do so that we can share BNW improvisation with students and audiences across the globe."
"2605 Hennepin was one of the most unique theatre spaces in the country," said Sweeney. "Thousands of people shared their talents with our audiences on that stage, and millions of people came through that door for a laugh." The BNW is planning a 'farewell party' at the 2605 Hennepin Avenue space for September and expects to announce a date soon.
The BNW Student Union is led by Lilledahl as its executive director, and Student Union Managing Director, Becky Wilkinson Hauser. "I am very excited to return my energy and efforts to the school. Being chair of the board of the recently opened Gilda's Club Twin Cities cancer support organization has taught me a lot about running a global reaching organization with a common mission and many locations. I am excited to apply that experience to the growth of the Student Union."
727 Hennepin was known as the Teeners Building and housed the Teeners Theatrical Costume Shop. It was also previously known as the Girard Building, and at one time included a movie and newsreel theatre. The property was built in 1922/1923 in the neo-gothic architectural style by Magney and Tusler, also known for the Foshay Tower and the downtown Minneapolis post office. "When touring the space," said Sweeney, "the current owner shared a story about finding a single giant clown shoe resting in an inaccessible landing just outside one of the lower floor windows. It rested there for years, likely left over from Teeners, and one day, just disappeared. With Dudley's clown and circus history, and the mischievous approach we have to life, we took it as a sign."
About the Brave New Workshop (BNW): The Brave New Workshop has been writing, performing and producing sketch comedy and improvisation since 1958-- longer than any other theatre in the United States. Founded by former circus performer Dudley Riggs and currently owned by husband and wife John Sweeney and Jenni Lilledahl, the BNW has become a legendary comedy institution, where audiences enjoy improv and sketch comedy nearly every night of the week. The company's talented performers create satirical, irreverent, and intelligent original works. Alums of the Workshop stage include Louie Anderson, Pat Proft, Al Franken, Tom Davis, Mo Collins ("Mad TV"), Peter MacNichol ("Ally McBeal", "24"), Melissa Peterman ("Reba"), Cedric Yarborough ("Reno 911", "The Boondocks") and Rich Sommer ("Mad Men"). The Brave New Workshop's Creative Outreach division trains and entertains Fortune 500 companies like Microsoft, Hilton/Hampton, General Mills, and Target. Additionally, the Brave New Workshop Student Union boasts the most comprehensive improv training curriculum in the country.