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.
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?”
“What if we...?”
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.”