I have a warm spot in my heart for Bellingham’s Upfront Theatre. It may sound cliché, but the time I’ve spent at this little theater has changed my life. Owned by famed Whose Line is it Anyway? actor, producer, and comedian, Ryan Stiles, this 100-seat cabaret-style venue features quality improvisational acting performances born directly from the clever, and sometimes devious, minds of their mainstage players. Improv (short for improvisational acting) means performing without a script, making the content up with your partner as you go along. The Upfront offers a variety of shows three nights a week, occasionally including a surprise performance by Stiles himself, as well as a host of improv classes from beginner to advanced.
Ryan Stiles was born in Seattle and got his start in comedy doing improv in theaters in Vancouver, B.C. Once he became known around the world for his role as Lewis Kiniski on the Drew Carey Show and then immortalized as part of the improv comedy ensemble show, Whose Line is it Anyway?, Stiles made a conscious choice to work around the world, but to live and raise his family in Whatcom County. Stiles first opened the Upfront in 2004 so that he had a place to improvise with friends near his home whenever he liked.
I saw my first improv show at the Upfront around 2006. At the time, I had no idea what improv was as an art form, but by the end of my first show, I was hooked. Performing improv is very much like playing make-believe when you were a kid…except at an Upfront show, a trained group of hilarious adults create unique characters that go on adventures together live on stage, usually based on suggestions from the audience.
My favorite night to go is Thursday to see a long-time favorite, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, known as the GBU, an incredible bargain at only $8. When he’s not traveling to perform with Whose Live Anyway? or shooting an episode of Whose Line, completely unannounced, on an occasional Thursday night, you’ll get to see Stiles himself on stage in Bellingham flirting with his pretend wife while carelessly driving a Winnebago or making up a song on the spot, based purely on audience suggestions from you and your friends.
I admire improvisers as much or more than actors who perform scripted work because they are creating each moment, fearlessly, on the spot in front of an audience. Its like tight-rope walking without a net. By the end of a show, I feel so connected to the improvisers because I’ve watched them risk it all to entertain me, to transport me to another time and place instantly, to make me believe they are someone else for just a short while.
Shows on Friday and Saturday nights have a variety of themes. January’s Space Trek is one of their most popular formats because improvisers let their favorite elements of Star Wars, Star Trek, and other classic sci-fi shows inform their performance of a wacky space mission. February’s popular dating game show Cupids Arrow helps patrons celebrate Valentines in style. October’s Hellingham shows often sell out because audiences love the spooky Halloween murder mystery format where three performers die and one is the culprit. Audience suggestions inform each performance and patrons vote for their guess of ‘who dunnit.’ Holiday-themed shows make fun of everyone’s winter holidays, and I’ve spent many New Year’s Eve’s laughing at the Upfront.
Die-hard stand-up comedy fans can also get their fix on the first Thursday of each month. The show follows the GBU and it’s hosted by Mainstage Ensemble member, Cecilee Beck for only $5.
Tickets for many of the shows are $2 cheaper when purchased on-line in advance. Doing so also means you don’t have to show up extra early to stand in line and you don’t have to worry about the show selling out while you’re waiting.
If hilarity wasn’t enough, the Upfront also offers lite snacks and a variety of locally-brewed beers from Aslan Brewing, Boundary Bay Brewery, and Kulshan Brewery, plus Seattle Cider and kombucha from Bellingham’s Kombuchatown. Thankfully, they also offer gluten-free and organic options too.
For several years, the Upfront has won Bellingham Alive’s Best of the Northwest Award for Best Date Night. Also, this year they are a finalist for Small Business of the Year, an honor bestowed by Bellingham Whatcom Chamber of Commerce.
Although seeing a show is an eye-opening, raucous good time, its not what changed my life. Actually trying to perform improv myself, by taking classes and performing at the Upfront, changed how I interact with the world—in my life, in my home, and in my business. It changed how I felt about talking to strangers, co-workers, and friends, about public speaking, and eventually, about performing in front of a live audience.
Before I took classes at the Upfront and performed in the student shows that open the GBU from about 2008 until 2014, I had never performed on a stage. While there I made amazing friends, learned a lot about improv and stage performance, and made some of the most incredible memories of my life. I gained new experiences, improved my self-confidence, and became a better listener. I picked up a whole host of other skills I still use every day on stage, and in my life with friends, family, and co-workers.
The Upfront has two spaces they use to teach classes including the main stage. Classes are numbered similar to a college system, ranging from the 100 level for beginners up to the 500 level for advanced students. They also offer classes in two youth age groups, Youth Classes for ages 10 to 13 and Teen Classes for ages 14 to 17. The quality of the classes is no secret and its not uncommon for students to travel a distance to take them. Both youth and adult students are traveling from as far as Seattle, Everett, and Vancouver B.C. to attend the weekly sessions. Taught in affordable 6- to 8-week sessions on a quarterly basis, new sessions begin each January, April, July, and September. Scholarship opportunities are also available, especially for youth.
The Upfront also offers communication-based workshops for businesses who want to develop a positive, collaborative work environment and culture, giving employees the tools to communicate successfully with co-workers and customers. Although based on basic improv tenets, these BizPROV workshops vary because the Upfront can bring the class to the business and customize it for each situation. They emphasize positive, connected communication and morale and teach the value—and power—of listening.
Improv is a magical, powerful thing. A visit to Bellingham should always include a stop off at the Upfront for an affordable, memorable show. It will put a bounce in your step and remind you of the joy of make-believe. Their classes for youth, adults, and business teams are also worth the drive. Everyone should take an improv class, even people who never want to be near a stage, because it makes you a better human being.
1208 Bay Street
Bellingham, WA 98225