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Stevie Ray's Comedy Cabaret celebrates 30 years

Meet Stevie Ray. He’s a beekeeper, martial arts practitioner, former bodyguard and, oh, he does some comedy stuff, too.

Welcome to the multifaceted world of Stevie Ray, co-founder and executive director of Stevie Ray’s Improv Company.

The organization operates Stevie Ray’s Comedy Cabaret at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, where the Stevie Ray’s Comedy Troupe performs. Classes are held through Stevie Ray’s School of Improv. Confusing? A little. As Stevie Ray says, “We need more names!”

Actually, all you need to remember is “Stevie Ray.”

This is a significant year for Ray, as his Comedy Cabaret is celebrating its 30th year in October, and the public is invited to join the hoopla.

Ray and his business partner Pamela Mayne, co-founder and artistic director, started the improv company and the comedy cabaret in 1989 in Uptown Minneapolis. Over the years Stevie Ray’s Comedy Cabaret and Stevie Ray’s Comedy Troupe have entertained on stages throughout the Twin Cities, including an eight-year run at the Sheraton Hotel in Bloomington.

In 2010, Chanhassen Dinner Theatres invited the Comedy Cabaret and School of Improv to move into its Playhouse Theatre where it’s been ever since.

The anniversary weekend will be “two fabulous nights of improv,” Ray said, during a recent interview. He described a show that will include current and former cabaret members, former students and a few surprises. The shows will showcase the cabaret’s signature comedy improvisation, and the talent that’s orbited in and out of the comedy club over the years.

In conjunction with the 30th anniversary, Ray has initiated what he calls the “30 By 30 Fundraiser” for his Skills For Life Project. He hopes to raise $30,000 by the end of the cabaret’s 30th year, in December, to enable more nonprofits to offer life skills training to their clients.

BUILDING A BRAND

Over the years, Ray and Mayne grew from providing an entertainment venue for stand-up and improv comedy performers to hone their craft; then developed classes and workshops for the curious, the aspiring, and even those simply wishing to complete a bucket list.

When some of those students came back to him, describing how those very same improv and stand-up skills were improving their communication in the workplace, Ray and Mayne paid attention.

It led to Ray and Stevie Ray’s Improv Company presenting programs and workshops to corporations, businesses, and organizations around the Twin Cities, then across the country. And, if these skills could help business professionals, the business partners realized these programs could be even more useful for the clients being served by nonprofit organizations in the social services — victims of domestic violence, the homeless and others in crisis.

The very same communication skills that helped business people be more confident, effective and productive could help people undergoing life transitions. And when these clients came back to him with their success stories — being able to negotiate and lease an apartment for the first time; applying for and interviewing for a job; or dealing with a bullying or abusive partner, Ray realized he was onto something.

As part of his effort to bring more people in need into the fold of better communication and life skills, his Skills for Life 30 By 30 Fundraiser — raising $30,000 — will enable him to offer more training to these nonprofit organizations.

THE FUNNY ONE

Ray grew up in Rochester, Minnesota. As the classroom cutup, he developed his stand-up and improv skills in grade school and high school, emceeing and hosting school events.

At Minnesota State University Moorhead, he planned to be a speech therapist. In his third year of coursework, and actually seeing patients, he realized this was not a fit.

After assessing his interests and seeing what Moorhead had to offer, he created his own major, “Theory and Performance of Comedy.” That he succeeded in convincing the university he wasn’t kidding around demonstrated his tenacity and vision.

Two advisors from different departments worked with him in designing this unusual major. His course work had equal amounts of speech, theater, business and economics, and independent research. The school even required him, as an undergraduate to do a dissertation on classic and modern comedy and defend it before a panel of professors. He got his degree.

1989

After college, he was working in Twin City comedy clubs, learning the business of comedy, on stage and off. While working at one of these clubs, Ray met his future business partner, Pamela Mayne. Assessing the local comedy scene, they realized there wasn’t a place that invited both stand-up and improv comedy. So they opened one. That was 1989.

Mayne remembers her introduction to the local comedy scene in the 1980s. She walked into the Ha Ha Club in Uptown to see an open stage. “I not only fell in love with comedy that night, but I loved the spirit of the Ha Ha Club. I began volunteering in their concession area. That led to me being hired in the box office. That was where I met Stevie Ray.

“When the owners of the Ha Ha Club decided to leave the business, Stevie and I became partners and opened Stevie Ray’s Improv Company,” Mayne said. “I never wanted a career onstage, but wanted to use my position to help launch new performers, and help existing performers grow.”

Thirty years later, Ray looks back with a little awe. “We thought it would be a success if we lasted a year. I guess it had a lot to do with our one-word business plan — ‘OK!’”

As in, “How about this?”

“OK.”

“What if we...?”

“OK.”

Their seemingly freewheeling style, captured in their mission statement, “Making it up as we go along,” belies their shrewd business sense. Ray credits Mayne as being the brains behind the business.

“She has course-corrected this company many times. While she’s seen as someone who is silent, she has been the force to make this company run. People always assume I’m the man. No. It’s her. I’ll call her up with a brilliant idea.

“’Let’s think about that for a while,’ she’ll say. “Of course she’s right. Then, she’ll come back in a few days with a better idea or a better way to do it. And I’ll be so glad she did.”

Mayne credits their success to sharing the same goals and aspirations.

“We both want to bring great comedy to our audiences, which isn’t as easy as it might seem. To produce shows that are always high quality takes discipline and focus, and we support each other in that effort. We also share a love of helping performers reach the stage, and keep growing when they get there. Stevie Ray’s Improv Company is a result of our shared vision.

“As the old saying goes, “When you love what you do, it isn’t work,” Mayne said. “I don’t think of what I do as a job, it is a lifestyle. Working with the folks at Chanhassen isn’t work, it is like hanging out with family.”


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Lowry Nature Center celebrates 50 years of making the outdoors accessible to all

The Lowry Nature Center in Victoria is celebrating a half-century of widening nature’s door to Twin Cities residents.

When the center opened in 1969, it was the first public nature center in the area. It gave the somewhat rare opportunity of experiencing an outdoor classroom to those who traveled from across the region and state.

Parents who went to the center when they were children are now bringing their own little ones to the center. Teachers who were once students visiting the center now organize field trips for their own students.

Lara Bockenstedt / Photo by Lara Bockenstedt  

Sunlight filters through trees along the Acorn Trail at the Lowry Nature Center.

The Lowry Nature Center estimates some 1.5 million people have connected with the center since it opened, said Outdoor Education Supervisor Allison Neaton.

“For every story we hear, there are so many more that we don’t hear,” Neaton said. “It means a lot to us when we hear that it made a difference — that the experience made someone have an appreciation for the world around them in a different way and encouraged them to share that with somebody else.”

The road to Lowry cuts through the Carver Park Reserve. After following Highway 7 to Victoria Drive, a turn onto Nature Center Drive curls around lush prairie, trees and glimmering water to arrive at the Lowry Nature Center.

Architect Richard Vosejpka designed the Lowry Nature Center’s brown building. Lowry favored the outdoor classroom for learning, though, which he said was the land surrounding the facility sitting at the base of Acorn Trail, and above Crosby Lake.

Lara Bockenstedt / Photo by Lara Bockenstedt  

Painter Judith Anderson from St. Louis Park drives out occasionally to illustrate scenes from the Carver Park Reserve.

Children from summer camps build outdoor forts in the center’s backyard. Adults meander the trails on bikes, and bees mind the flowering prairie plants that fringe the parking lot. It likely isn’t too different from what the park looked like 50 years ago.

THE NATURE

CENTER FORMS

The Lowry Nature Center was created from the imagination of its namesake, Goodrich Lowry.

In 1967, Lowry invested his retirement time in several interests: conservation, birding and travel among them. He visited the Aullwood Nature Center and Farm near Dayton, Ohio, that year.

The stay inspired another way to spend his retirement.

Lowry came back from Ohio and enacted a plan for an outdoor education facility in the Carver Park Reserve that could offer schoolchildren the chance to unfurl their love for the outdoors, and learn more about conservation along the way.

“He was really focused on trying to make sure that what he was doing was creating a place where students could come and learn and build a connection with the land,” Neaton said.

In 1967, Lowry said, “These children will be our voters of tomorrow, setting the conservation policies of this state and nation.”

Image courtesy of Three Rivers Park District  

The Lowry Nature Center is celebrating 50 years of educational programming.

A nonprofit called the Metropolitan Nature Centers was formed to create the Carver Park Nature Center. It spent two years raising $500,000 to build the center and fund two years worth of operating costs.

The Lowry Nature Center opened in the spring of 1969. Goodrich Lowry called its formal event on June 28 and 29 a “housewarming.”

The nature center’s operations were handed to Hennepin County Park Reserve District in 1971. The district was later renamed Three Rivers Park District, and the Carver Park Nature Center was also renamed to be the Lowry Nature Center.

Lara Bockenstedt / Photo by Lara Bockenstedt  

Rain gardens border the path up to the nature center’s entrance.

MODERN WORLD

Nowadays, the center faces a new issue. A survey from the American Public Media Research Lab shows one in six American adults never spend free time in nature. Survey participants cited work, or having to work a lot, as the most common reason they couldn’t step outdoors.

“Whether it’s because of technology or because of the busy-ness of our lives, or just because of so many more choices for our free time,” Neaton said, “people are spending less and less time outside.”

She added reconnecting with the outdoors is more accessible than people may think it is.

“Nature is not something separate (from us),” Neaton added. “There is not nature over here in a corner while you’re in a separate corner.”

Whether it’s helping visitors navigate trail maps, educating children in an unconventional classroom, or being open and free 363 days a year, the nature center is determined to keep getting people outside.