Since January, Playhouse Square has been busy presenting one of Cleveland’s longest-running improv comedy shows, Flanagan’s Wake, at Kennedy’s Cabaret.
After first appearing on Chicago stages in 1994, the interactive comedic wake made its Cleveland debut at Kennedy’s Down Under in 1996. The production ran under John Regan’s direction until 2003 when he retired. That same year, former Cleveland mayor Jane Campbell awarded the crew, the “Irish Rodeo Clowns," with a proclamation to commemorate its 500th performance.
The cast continues to draw lots of laughter during sold-out shows nightly, particularly around St. Patrick's Day. Part of the hilarity that keeps guests coming is the way audience members can participate. Those who choose to engage with the actors will be thrust into the ever-occurring wake of the dearly-departed Flanagan. The odd funeral festivity includes fond memories of Flanagan's life in the imaginary Graplin, County Sligo, Ireland.
Sean Lackey, the show's producer, spoke about the passion that has fueled Flanagan’s Wake all these years.
Cleveland Magazine: How did Flanagan’s Wake start?
Sean Lackey: It started in the '90s, with a group of people from Cleveland that moved to Chicago, wrote this play, and began to perform it there. The group consisted of Second City Improvisational Theater Company teachers and alumni. In Cleveland, John Regan produced the show from 1996 to 2003. The theatrical company moved to Cleveland, and Flanagan’s Wake was where many company members got their start. Several of us wanted to get involved in improvisational comedy, and we did that through Flanagan’s Wake.
CM: What happened to the show from 2003 to 2010?
SL: John Regan retired in 2003, and the play had run its course. Before Regan retired, Jane Campbell, the mayor of Cleveland at the time, awarded the show for its 500th performance, making it one of the longest-running shows in the city. I decided to revive the show in 2010, and I’ve produced the show ever since.
CM: How did you feel when you took over the show?
SL: It was a different time. I wasn’t the student anymore; I was the teacher. For me, it was a really big challenge because it brought a lot of risks but also a lot of rewards, such as having a successful show. Spreading the word has evolved. You used to hand out flyers at cafes and other places, but that has all changed. You couldn’t ask for anything better than online reach for show advertising, and the show has been sold out every night since the post-Covid return.
CM: What makes the show unique?
SL: You will never see the same show twice. This is because the audience dictates how the show goes. They provide the information that the show runs with. I’d say it's 60% what the audience gives us and 40% script. It keeps us on our toes, and I can honestly say we will never see the same thing twice. We really try our best to keep things fresh and guests laughing. Guests that want to participate can throw out things that Flanagan did when he was alive, and we use their suggestions. We also do musical improv – someone will shout something out and we have 10 seconds to come up with a tune.
CM: Does the spontaneity improv ever get stressful?
SL: No, we have been doing it for so long that it’s like muscle memory. There are definitely curve balls, and sometimes we are put on the spot by something we didn’t see coming. You have to just go with it and you'll often end up surprised by what you just pulled off.
Find more information about Flanagan's Wake at flanaganswakeohio.com.