By Max Singer
Located in downtown Bellingham on Bay Street is The Upfront Theatre, a venue dedicated to live improvisational comedy, also known as improv. “If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong,” said William “Billy” Tierney, 33, the Upfront’s artistic director and theater manager.
The Upfront, which seats 100 people, offers shows from Thursday through Saturday, as well as improv classes and workshops.
“It’s a place that’s very fun and playful, it’s an enjoyable experience,” said Matt Benoit, 24, a previous Upfront actor and former Whatcom Community College student. “It’s a really cool part of the Bellingham community.”
The Upfront Theatre was founded by actor and comedian Ryan Stiles in 2004. Stiles, who lives in Bellingham, is most famous for his part on the television show, “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” Every now and then, he appears as a guest in shows at the theater.
“You get used to it, but it’s still surreal sitting in the greenroom with him,” Benoit said.
The theater has since evolved into productions where the community participates in live comedy performances, Tierney said. Improvisational acting is all spontaneous and real-time, making each show experience different.
Tierney has been at the Upfront for the past eight years and said he is the “main man in charge.” The core ensemble features 25 actors, Tierney said. There is also a “Satellite Ensemble” twice a month, which is a tryout for main-stage performance opportunities, he added.
The titles of the shows, such as the recent “Dynamo” and “Space Trek,” indicate the theme for the performance, but because each show involves audience participation it can go in any direction, Benoit said. During the show, an actor will ask for audience suggestions on things such as character names or a setting. The actors also alternate between short and long-form games, each with a specific set of rules to guide the scene, he added.
“For college students it’s something to do while supporting the local arts,” said Daniel Morris, 30, an improv student at the Upfront. “I know they’ll find fun in the humor.”
The Upfront offers a variety of improv classes through its Improv School starting at $160 for an eight-week course, and anyone can sign up. Separate courses are held for adults and youth. A new workshop begins in March.
Benoit said he took the improv classes offered by the Upfront before he started performing there.
Tierney said that unlike traditional theater, the actors have no scripts, which changes the nature of the performance. “It really is a different craft,” he said.
“I think there’s an emphasis on spontaneity, there’s a real-time duration of stories. I would say the hardest thing is learning the rules of improv,” Morris said. “You really focus on building something together, making other people look good, and just supporting them in general.”
Tierney said the Upfront does not try to attract any particular age group, they just “shoot for a large demographic and try to be hip.”
Mario Orallo-Molinaro, the Upfront’s marketing manager, said the main sources of income are tickets sales, the Improv School, and the BizProv workshops they hold for local companies to encourage teambuilding and effective communication. He said the theater doesn’t receive any grants or donations.
Morris said the experience has been worth it. “It’s changed how I interact with people in a very positive way. I’m relaxed and open,” he said. “It’s all about the social interactions and taking chances.”
Tierney said his advice for nervous actors is to not spend so much time worrying about the performance. “You don’t want to see someone struggle. You need to allow your vulnerabilities to show, and you need to learn how to wear those vulnerabilities,” he said.
Information on scheduling, tickets and classes, is available online at www.theupfront.com.