Most people know Ryan Stiles as the guy who makes fun of Colin on Whose Line Is It Anyway?. But he might be the most famous Bellinghamster. He makes his largest impact locally through the Upfront Theatre, a 100 seat cabaret style venue near the waterfront where laughter is in abundance every Thursday, Friday & Saturday night.
The Upfront puts on an enjoyable and less serious show than the theatre on the other end of Commercial Street. And the $10 ticket price ($8 for students) makes it accessible to everyone. But they’re best known for seasonal events like the uncomplicated BIFT—Beer, Improv, and Food Trucks, or Hellingham—the improvised murder mystery. We spoke with Matt Lesinski, Marketing Director & cast member at the Upfront, about the operation.
The 11th Anniversary show is coming up. That’s big. What should people expect?
Ryan Styles! Ryan will be teaming with the ensemble, and doing some short-form and maybe some longer-form narrative style. People whose only experience with improv comedy is Whose Line Is It Anyway? will be completely at home.
And how often does Ryan make appearances on stage at the Upfront?
At least once a month he drops in unannounced. It’s usually on a Thursday show, which ironically is our least expensive show. But even if he doesn’t come down, the ensemble puts on a great show in their own right.
For the uninitiated, could you describe Hellingham? Is it funny or scary?
It’s definitely funny. A group of improvisers are given a personality quirk, job, or some other distinctive to play for the night. Then at pre-planned intervals 3 characters die, and the audience gets to vote on who they think the killer is. It keeps us on our toes because even the actors don’t know who did it.
Upfront has quite a list of alumni performers. Is it safe to say there’s a Bellingham to Hollywood pipeline forming like the one that runs through Second City in Chicago?
Yes. I’d say so. We have alumni in Chicago (at Second City, actually) Los Angeles, and New York doing great work in stand up, sketch comedy, and improv.
But we also have a nucleus of improvisors who have been with us from the very beginning, and continue to perform weekly. And they are a tremendous asset to the Upfront as well.
A big part of any improv outfit is the classes. What’s the biggest difference between your traditional improv classes and Bizprov?
They are alike in that any adult can do either. The Bizprov class takes our fundamentals of improv class, and applies those principles to business. It helps people hone the ability to receive, acknowledge, and then constructively engage with the ideas of others. That’s something that anyone, regardless of job title, can benefit from.
We also teach team building workshops. I taught one with a colleague last year for the Bellingham Bells. It was fun to see a room full of baseball players doing improv, learning to support and back each other up.
And they won their league last year, so . . .
Oh, yeah we’re definitely the reason why. [laughs]
What’s a good show for someone to start with at the Upfront?
All of the Upfront shows are accessible. We’ve won a couple local awards for “Best Date Night” which I think speaks to how easy it is to enjoy improv at the Upfront.
I’m always amazed by how broad our audience is. I was just working with a group of volunteers who were putting up posters, and we had teenagers and senior citizens in the group. And our audience maps that same range.