TUPELO • For an improv troupe, 10 years is a long time to be together. As one cast member put it, “We’ve outlasted most celebrity marriages.”
West of Shake Rag will celebrate its anniversary with the West of Shake Rag’s 10th Anniversary Show from 7:30-9:30 p.m. today at the Link Centre in the Black Box Theatre. Tickets are $5.
The five members who make up the ensemble are Carlton Wall, Marley Maharrey, Casey Dillard, Glenn Payne and Kristyn Martz. In the years that they’ve been together, they’ve become a family.
“After a decade, we’ve been a staple of each other’s lives,” Payne said.
When the crew had its first show in 2009, there were 11 members. While the number of members has shrunk, the skill has grown, said Wall, who started West of Shake Rag after moving to Tupelo in 2008.
Dillard, who was previously part of another improv troupe, Laff Co., in Oxford, said she originally joined the group to do sketch work, but grew to love improv more.
“It’s just fun to build up a comedy scene from the ground up. You’re writing it as you’re acting it out, as the audience is kind of letting you know what’s working and what isn’t. It’s almost like a choose your own adventure in that respect,” Dillard said.
Martz also came from an improv background and was previously part of the improv troupe Lab Rats Comedy at Mississippi State. Payne is a filmmaker and artist and was interested in the performing and acting aspect of improv.
When Maharrey joined, she was still a college senior and at one point she had to get special permission from her college to travel to one of their Chicago shows.
The troupe has been able to represent Tupelo at national events for years. They were invited to the world-famous Chicago Improv Festival to be an apprentice troupe in 2010, and have since gone on to travel to other shows and host their own comedy festivals. Their most recent traveling show was in Atlanta as part of the Atlanta Improv Festival, and it’s through those shows that the team is able to push themselves to keep growing.
“We’ve always been very good at self evaluation and just noticing our strengths and where we need to improve. That’s one of the reasons we travel, to learn, and that’s when we find out things we need to do better,” Maharrey said.
The troupe performs on the second Saturday of each month. While they briefly did weekly shows for a few years, the second Saturday is a staple that members carefully schedule around, and they said it helps them remain consistent with their fans.
Wall said this Saturday’s show will have five formats. Each cast member will host their own portion of the show, and they will also include personal staples such as Mister Murdery, an improv whodunit, and end the show with a musical. Previous cast members Chris Counts, Joseph Guyton and Caroline Upthegrove will also be performing at the family-friendly event.
Each cast member has different things they do outside of improv. Payne is preparing to go to London for his film “Driven.” Dillard also writes and acts and is a freelancer from time to time. Martz is a graphic designer for Pat the Cat Prints. Maharrey teaches theatre at Tupelo Middle School and is also a member of the Pied Piper board and on a committee with the Tupelo Community Theatre, while Wall works in banking compliance.
“Improv is an escape. I’ve joked with my friends that I’m addicted to improv. It’s one of the reasons I started the troupe. Pre-10 years ago, I would think about what friends I could trick into doing it, so I’m glad I get to do it,” Wall said.
The cast members have also experienced life moments over the years. Maharrey got engaged during an improv show, and cast members talked about watching relationships grow over the course of shows.
It is not uncommon for audience members, which now range from 60 to 80 people a show, to be split over who are their favorites. Wall said while creating a poster for this month’s show, he saw they had more than 120 unique show posters.
The troupe members said they want West of Shake Rag to grow to attract celebrities, involve more high school kids, help Link Centre and Black Box Theatre grow, and promote improv in more corporate gigs, such as when they did a show for a group of 1,200 Lee County teachers.