Those who have been to a show put on by the 12-year-old Wichita improv troupe called Say What?! know that the group has easily earned both pieces of punctuation in its name.
Its comedy is side-splitting, spontaneous and random to the point of ridiculous. Take a recent show, which included a scene in which customers tried to return three items to the same store: a defibrillator for mice, a chainsaw that played Brahm’s “Lullaby,” and
“The third one you couldn’t print,” the troupe’s director, Dan Gray, said with a laugh.
Laughing and inciting laughter has been one of Gray’s specialties for years.
Improv troupes, for the uninitiated, are a group of actors who manufacture scenes on the spot, using suggestions from the audience. Think of the once-popular show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”
Gray had been a member of such a troupe in Topeka and loved the spontaneity of the comedy. When he moved to Wichita and couldn’t find one to join, he decided to start his own.
He put an ad in the newspaper and quickly recruited a group of interested actors, whose members ranged from high school students to middle-aged aircraft workers.
The group began to perform in bookstores around town, drawing big crowds and earning a name. Through the years, Say What?! has had periods of activity followed by periods of inactivity.
During the past few years, they’ve been on a roll: The group began to book shows at downtown coffee shop Mead’s Corner about four years ago and earned a big enough following to charge admission for shows at Century II’s Mary Jane Teall Theater. SayWhat?! put on five such shows starting in September. The last one was in January. The largest audience had about 150 people in it.
Now, the group is hoping to find a new home at Cowtown, whose directors are trying to fill the venue’s Empire House Theater with different types of entertainment as part of its new “Empire House Live!” concert and theater series.
The troupe’s first Cowtown show is Saturday, and another one is scheduled for May 5.
No two Say What?! shows are ever alike, mainly because the action is lead by the audience, Gray said.
The actors participate in on-stage “games,” such as the one called “Return Window” that produced the mouse defibrillator. In that game, actors are taken off stage as the audience decides what item they should be returning to a store. The actors then return and begin a conversation with the store owner, usually portrayed by Gray, until they figure out what item the audience has chosen.
There also are musical games, where the actors make up silly songs. The addition of a piano player in recent years has made the songs a popular part of the show, Gray said.
These days, the troupe has about six regular actors. The ranks have changed through the years, as members come and go. The most veteran member besides Gray is Andrew Bennett, who works at the Mental Health Association and was the first person who answered Gray’s ad. Gray also often picks up college students who have experience with campus improv groups. Several actors through the years have moved on to bigger cities and joined their improv groups, Gray said.
The shows work because of the skill of the actors, Gray said. But the audience participation aspect is what he thinks make the shows so popular.
“We always bring a real high-energy level, and it just builds from the opening and gets really crazy at times,” he said. “The audience feeds off that energy, plus, they’re getting a chance to get involved.”