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Kansas Wesleyan University

Dinner comes with a side of mayhem, murder and slapstick.

Murder-mystery dinner theatre has returned to Salina with the formation of the Vagabond Players, which is filling a niche vacant that opened when Bill and Debbie Weaver ’91 temporarily moved out of state.

“We didn’t realize it was going to be so popular,” producer Dorothy Gallagher ’88 said about the first production, “A Murderous Reunion,” in August 2021.

More than 100 people attended that first show. It was just too crowded, she said, so they’ve had to limit the number of tickets sold.

The third show, “Deck the Hall with Parts of Charlie,” will be presented Aug. 5, 6, 12 and 13 at Tumblweed on Old Highway 40. Dinner will be served at 6:30 p.m. and murder à la mode will begin at 7:30.

The Players had planned to do this show in January, but that wasn’t possible with COVID-19, Gallagher said. She asked the subscribers if they would like a Christmas show in the summer, and they told her they thought it would be fun. In keeping with the theme, the meal will be a full-course Christmas dinner, turkey on the table as well as ham on the stage.

“It is campy,” Gallagher said. “We tell the audience it’s corny.”

Sodexo of KWU is catering the dinner.

Vagabond Players have several other connections to KWU. Alex Lankhorst ’87 is directing “Parts of Charlie.” KWU student Saria Taylor is serving as choreographer for this production. Brianna Anderson ’19 had a lead role in “Murderous Matrimony.” KWU student Tammy Houston had a lead role in “Murderous Reunion.” Patsy Stockham ’94, KWU career services coordinator, is the technical director and runs the sound board. She and her husband, Steve, both serve on the board and he acts. While not officially an alumnus, he plays with the KWU Wind Ensemble and Jazz Ensemble.

Karen Babcock Brassea, KWU associate professor of theatre arts, director and choreographer, serves as consultant. Gary Demuth ’98 directed “Murderous Matrimony” and acted in “A Murderous Reunion.”

The show was written by the Weavers, who had produced it as part of their Dream Weaver’s dinner theatre several years ago. It is suggested for mature audiences.

The first two shows, “A Murderous Reunion” and “Murderous Matrimony,” presented in May, were premieres, also written by the Weavers.

The Weavers had just moved back to Kansas when one of Gallagher’s friends thought about starting a different kind of acting group. The friend eventually dropped out, but Gallagher called a few people, including Demuth, who is well-known in the area’s theatre community. Demuth called a few people, and the next thing they knew, they had an acting troupe, “just a whole bunch of people from the community theatre who were interested in doing something new,” Gallagher said.

They hope to do three shows a year, Gallagher said, but scheduling is a problem. Five area schools and Salina Theatre also have theatre productions.
“We want to be a partner in the arts community,” she said. “We don’t want to be in competition with anybody.”

For that reason, they hold auditions and productions after everyone else is through, she said.

And while they do have seasoned theatre people in the troupe, they welcome newcomers.

“One of the goals for us is to encourage people who maybe wrote a play,” Gallagher said. “It’s very important for us to welcome new people and have anybody come and try something else. If you love theatre or are curious about theatre, we would love to have you. You don’t have to have experience.”

And you don’t have to act. Numerous volunteers find props, build sets, create costumes, Gallagher said. Despite her intense love of theatre spanning more than 30 years, she rarely appears on stage, but she loves the backstage activities.

Vagabond Players is staffed entirely by volunteers, Gallagher said. No one, including her as producer, is being paid. The group recently picked up its first sponsor — Kansas Wesleyan.

This was a natural fit because of all the KWU connections, said Brad Salois, director of marketing and communications at KWU.

“We always try to support the major arts organizations in Salina, but to be able to support a start-up is especially important,” Salois said. “Anything that provides new, extra opportunities for our students, we want to encourage.”

As the Players get their efforts rolling, the focus remains on having fun.

“Here’s the main thing we tell them as actors: ‘Have fun,’” Gallagher said. “ ‘If you’re not having fun, we’re not doing a good job.’

“We’re there as a group of volunteers to have a good time and to entertain. If our audience doesn’t have fun, if our actors don’t have fun, we have failed.”

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Story by Jean Kozubowski