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October 22, 2014

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Q+A: Wayne Brady

Wayne Brady gained national recognition when he joined the cast of Drew Carey's improvisational TV series "Whose Line Is It Anyway?"

Since then 34-year-old Brady has had his own talk show, appeared in several motion pictures, traveled the country performing concerts and appeared on Broadway.

This month he's trying something different - a four-week engagement at the Venetian, where he will share the theater with impersonator Gordie Brown.

Brady, a native of Orlando, Fla., graduated from high school at age 16 and has been performing since.

Q: How did you discover your talent as an improv artist? Did you start out doing it?

In my mind what I do is I'm an actor who happens to do improv. You happen to know my name and speak to me because I do improv. Even if I didn't do improv, I'd still be acting, so the two go hand in hand.

In 1990 I was in a play, "Fences" by August Wilson. It was a wonderful show but at some point in the run I froze on the guy playing the lead, the James Earl Jones role. Not only did I freeze, but I left him onstage looking like an idiot. Soon after that I was doing an independent film and a woman that was one of my co-stars said to me, "You should come and take this improv class from my husband and me, and we'll teach you how to get over that."

I said, "So you guys teach people to just say things and you make things up like kids?" And they said, "Yeah. Come on out."

I did, and it changed my life. I joined their theater, it was called Sak theater in Florida. I joined the company and started gobbling up the improv stuff at an amazing rate, realized that I loved it, that I did have an affinity for it. But it was not just about being able to say, "Hey, I'm going to say something funny." That was never my aim.

Why do you think that is?

I'm going to have to say that out of all the funny people that I know, I probably have the least sense of humor sometimes. I was raised as a very studious kid. I came from a very serious household. My dad was military. There wasn't a whole bunch of joking around. So with improv I loved the fact that I could create characters and operate as these characters and improv as these people. That was my whole thing, not doing the jokey-jokey improv.

What impact did it have on you?

It opened a whole new world for me. I joined that group, and after we split up, we all met up in Los Angeles years later and formed a group called the Houseful of Honkeys and that's how I got "Whose Line?" We got a name for ourselves as one of the better improv groups in California and people came to check us out and that led to the audition that led to "Whose Line?"

Did that launch your career?

It launched my career on TV. I'm proud of the fact that I've been a professional actor since I was 16 years old. I've worked all over. I never waited tables a day in my life. There's nothing wrong with waiting tables, but I promised myself that's not what I want to do. I love being onstage. I said if I can't get an acting job I'm going to work in a theme park. If I can't get a theme park job I'll sing on a cruise ship. If I can't sing on a cruise ship I'll sub in a band. I'll do anything as long as it's onstage.

I was able to support myself and make a pretty good living from the beginning, but "Whose Line?" definitely opened up this great big world of entertainment. Growing up in Florida I couldn't even imagine being on TV.

When did you first come to Vegas?

In 1993. I already had years of experience. I've been working in entertainment since 1988. So when I came to Vegas I'd already been on the road with a couple of musicals, on a couple of different cruise lines as lead singer and then I ended up in Vegas with my now-ex-wife - she was a dancer at the "Folies Bergere." I auditioned for a couple of things and ended up at the MGM Grand Theme Park.

That was back when Las Vegas was trying to be family-friendly.

Yeah. That lasted a little while, didn't it?

Do you like Vegas?

It's my kind of town, in the performance sense. I feel a very strong kinship with performers like Sammy Davis Jr. and Ben Vereen and people of that ilk, people who can make their living not only on the Broadway stage but on TV, film and finally bringing it home to Las Vegas , where you really need to be someone to really, really hold an audience's attention ...

So, especially when you're starting off and nobody knows your name, you really have to bust your hump to stand out and make folks make you a destination, and that's what Sammy Davis was able to do back in the day, and he's definitely someone I look up to.

It's always been in my plan that one day I'm gong to come back to Vegas and I'm going to be a headliner. I've been able to do that for a long time now. And the other notch on that was that one day I was going to come back to Vegas and sit and have my own theater. And this, I think, is the first step in doing that.

Have you ever been at a venue this long before?

No. This is the first time. I've stayed at hotels performing for them exclusively a few weekends a year. For the past few years it's been at the Mirage. Before that I was at the Paris. This is the first time that I've sat anywhere. I'm very excited about it.

Did the Venetian come to you, or did you go to it?

It was a little bit of both. I put out feelers, knowing that there was no way I could ever do anything like this at the Mirage, because that of course is Danny Gans' theater and he has a very specific type of act. There really is no room for another headliner to sit in his theater. So I started thinking if I want to do something like this I've got to go someplace else, so feelers were put out. The Venetian and a couple of other hotels responded very favorably.

I've always been a fan of the Venetian, especially since they built up this little performing block of "Phantom of the Opera" and the Blue Man Group. It struck me that this might be a really great place to be.

But smaller than what you are used to?

I'm used to playing bigger venues , but the thing I love about this theater is, at 750 seats, it's perfect for what I do. This is not an act where you just sit back, one where I don't want you speaking and "Don't talk to the stage" and "Don't get involved." That's not me. I need the people, and I need the audience interaction to fuel the improvisation. And even doing the musical stuff I'm the kind of person that really loves to connect with each person in the audience, and the theater is great for that. It's a great house.

Is the monthlong engagement a showcase for you? Are you interested in an even longer stay, or is this a one-shot deal for you?

Anything's possible. I prefer to take the month first and treat it like a special event. I dig the Venetian so much that if the opportunity to stay there longer arose I wouldn't say no to it. But I really want to get this month under my belt first.

Will the show be strictly improvisation?

It's a little different than the normal act that I do, but it's still improv. It opens with a faux history of how I came to do improvisation.

It's a bit more of a mature show than you might expect. It covers a few more topics. And I spread my wings a little bit, do a little more of the music and the impersonation aspect as well. I do a couple of straight-on big song and dance numbers like I used to do when I was actually performing in Las Vegas, working for the MGM Grand and touring as a musical theater performer. Not everyone has seen that side of me, so this was a chance to take everything but the kitchen sink and throw it in there.

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