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Thursday, May 13, 2021

For the Love of Improv

Kent Loomer, 48, defets the dragon by tickling its feet in "Castle On The Rocks," an audience suggested title. Loomer has been working at the Upfront Theater for 12 years. // Photo by October Yates
Kent Loomer, 48, defets the dragon by tickling its feet in “Castle On The Rocks,” an audience suggested title. Loomer has been working at the Upfront Theater for 12 years. // Photo by October Yates

The competition of a computer store and a rival jacuzzi shop across the street unfolds before the audience.

It is unclear whether the Upfront Theatre will come close to reaching its posted maximum capacity of 99 people.

A few people purchase beers and snacks.  

“Did you get a bottle of wine?” a woman at a table asks her friend incredulously.

It is the Upfront Theatre’s second year performing a full run of “An Improvised Musical” after each of last-year’s performances sold out after the first couple of shows.

Will this year be as successful?

By 9 p.m., the bottle of wine is half empty and every table in the theatre has been filled. Yes, it looks like another sold-out showing for a lively Friday night crowd.

“An Improvised Musical” began its weekly Friday and Saturday night showings on Friday, June 24, and will continue through July.

Upfront Theatre Artistic Director Kris Erickson performs in many of the shows and casts each night’s performers.

“I have a lot of great improvisers and they’re all really solid there and so we focus a lot of our attention on how to make up a song on the spot, including how to rhyme well.”

Kris Erickson

Erickson, a Western graduate, said the title of the musical says it all.

“We’re going into it making a full-blown classical Broadway musical where you’re going to have this strong protagonist that has a story and something that they want and we’re going to discover how they get to that and give them obstacles on the way,” Erickson said. “That’s generally where we know we’re going with it and other than that we have no idea.”

Erickson begins the show by asking the audience for suggestions of a setting for the musical.

“The Lonely Computer Store” is what Erickson elects to title the play before he and the four other cast members at the show proceed to belt out an improvised “town song” in order to establish the setting.

This is followed by what Erickson calls an “I want song,” which lays out what the protagonist hopes to achieve.

It is just Kristina Gustovich’s second show as a main stage actor and despite her relative inexperience, Gustovich uses her singing chops to play the musical’s naïve protagonist.

“I did improv in high school and college, but that was mostly short form,” Gustovich said. “I learned a lot of long form from the Upfront,”

She erupts with a completely improvised song about the store’s potential to be a “nerd paradise”.

Western alumni Jake Foerg, 24, sings about climate change making up the lyrics as he goes along. // Photo by October Yates
Western alumni Jake Foerg, 24, sings about climate change making up the lyrics as he goes along. // Photo by October Yates

When the theatre’s pianist begins playing, it is like a spotlight has been directed straight at whomever happens to be speaking, prompting the crowd to laugh with anticipation and the improvised song that is soon to come.  

Erickson sees the timing of each song as the most difficult part of improvising a musical,

“In any written-out musical it’s like ‘they’re gonna sing about this and there’s a really good reason for it,’” Erickson said. “But since we’re trying to discover what the story is as we’re going, we have to figure out what the important songs are.”

Kevin Hoogerwerf, who has been on the main stage for four months, chuckled as he recalled a song that he sang the week before, in which he wasn’t able to think of a rhyme; much to the crowd’s amusement.

“Making up the lyrics of the songs is the hard part; making them rhyme and making them good,” Hoogerwerf said. “Also to get the right amount of words to fill up the time…it’s getting all the stuff in a sentence to be cohesive.”

Rehearsal mainly consists of working with the pianist on song practice and hammering down the “verse-verse-chorus, verse-verse-chorus” format that they use, Erickson said.

“I have a lot of great improvisers and they’re all really solid there and so we focus a lot of our attention on how to make up a song on the spot, including how to rhyme well.” Erickson said.

Tonight, Hoogerwerf has no problem rhyming and each song garners applause and laughter from the crowd composed mostly of groups of young people.   

Among the audience was Jesse. He and his wife were visiting from British Columbia and were interested in the idea of an improvised musical.

“I loved the spontaneity of the whole production,” Jesse said.

The Upfront Theatre is a staple of the Bellingham community having been established in 2004 by Ryan Stiles, a Bellingham local and national improvisational comedy legend.

The theatre is home to stand-comedy and improvisational comedy on Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays.  

 

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