Book Review Vol. VI, No 6

From Circus and Vaudeville to Improvisational Theatre

Flying Funny , My Life Without a Net by Dudley Riggs, foreword by Al Franken, published by University of Minnesota Press ISBN  978-1-5179-0167-7  price $22.95 in jacketed cloth.


Improvisation as an element of actor training has been around for a very long time. It is only recently that it has become an end unto itself, a performance technique that deals with topical subjects of a cultural and political nature.  Ironically it has been an ex-circus and vaudeville performer by the name of Dudley Riggs that has developed the art form into something that can be amusing to audiences as well as revealing to actors in rehearsal studios.

Riggs is a fifth generation member of a distinguished show business family. He began performing at the age of five appearing on the vaudeville stage singing a somewhat naughty parody of the popular song “Pennies from Heaven.”  As he grew older and stronger he worked as an aerialist in both the circus and vaudeville during the circus’s off-seasons  performing an act with his father billed as The Flying Riggs Brothers. Eventually he had to learn how to “fly funny” because he had grown too tall to be the graceful straight flyer.

Riggs’ family history contains a fascinating glimpse into the character of his parents as they doggedly struggled to survive in show business. Part of what kept them afloat was the no-nonsense wisdom of Grandmother Riggs.  Riggs’ memoir is filled with charming and delightfully revealing tales of what it took to survive in show business for so many years, several of them spent on the Riggs Family Circus.

As the circus business became more and more precarious Riggs began casting about for a new kind of act that could play nightclubs and other venues that were becoming increasingly popular. On a slow boat home from an unsuccessful engagement in Japan (it would have made a better story if it had been from China, but it was alas only Japan) that he developed the idea of Word Jazz, creating a script on stage as it was being performed much as jazz musicians improvise on the spot.  In 1958  he moved to Minneapolis and founded the Brave New Workshop, which over the years has been the launching pad for such inventive comic geniuses as Penn and Teller, the Flying Karamazov Brothers and Al Franken (yes, the current U.S. Senator from Minnesota.)  It is still in operation today, and Riggs serves as its artistic director emeritus.  In this amusing memoir the ex-acrobat is still flying funny.