By Emma Kivlin
In a candlelit theater nestled in the heart of downtown Bellingham, an anxious audience chats amongst themselves as they wait for the show to begin.
Black and white photos cover the walls leading to a red backlit stage, making the theater feel almost like an old Hollywood movie. As the lights dim and performers take the stage, they welcome their eager audience members to the Upfront Theatre.
Owned by well-known improv actor Ryan Stiles, the Upfront was created in 2004 as a space to learn, teach and perform improv within the Bellingham community, according to their website.
The Upfront’s blended history of famous improvisers, dedicated local performers and first-timers alike make it a place for all to feel comfortable exploring improv acting.
Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, improviser and owner of the Upfront, Ryan Stiles, will stop by for a surprise performance.
Performers such as Colin Mochrie, Jeff Davis and alumni of the popular improv show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” on ABC have even passed through the Upfront.
With regular improv performances every Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, the Upfront’s shows are constantly changing: no performance is ever quite the same as the one before, according to their website.
Now a member of the Upfront’s ensemble, Cecilee Romano first learned about the Upfront six years ago. Romano was enrolled in a drama class at Whatcom Community College when two improvisors from the theater came ther to do a demonstration.
She looked into the theater further, and Romano learned that the Upfront hosted many different kinds of improv classes ranging from free drop-ins to stage-ready classes.
Romano started taking some of these classes and has since moved on to become one of the Upfront’s Mainstage Ensemble performers. Now a seasoned improv performer, Romano said having access to the Upfront’s classes influenced the way she performs.
“[The classes] opened parts of my brain that I didn’t know were there,” she said. “The first thing you learn is how to silence your inner critic. It’s such an empowering self-confidence building tool and I just wanted to see that happen in other people too.”
Romano said she has since taught youth improv classes at different elementary schools because she values the experiences she’s gained from taking classes herself.
Western alumnus John Lee joined the Upfront’s ensemble as well after he was recruited by another member. Lee said he was performing stand-up comedy at Western’s Underground Coffeehouse when he was approached by a member of the Upfront who suggested Lee look into performing at the their stand-up night.
Now a Western graduate with a bachelors’ degree in theatre arts, Lee is in his second round of being on the Satellite Ensemble, another improv team at the Upfront. He encouraged other students and interested Bellingham locals to try improv.
“There’s a lot of opportunities to perform and a lot of stage time willing to be given to make careers,” Lee said.
Performers described their experiences as rewarding, listing some of their favorite parts of working in improv.
“Every single show is so unique, no matter if it’s a bad show or a good show, it’ll never happen again,” Romano said. “No matter what you do, you cannot recreate it. It’s like this magic moment that slips away into the night.”
Another member of the troupe is veteran Mainstage Ensemble performer Yonk Reinemer, who’s been with the Upfront since it’s opening in 2004 and has both taught and performed at the theater.
“Connecting on stage and having that connection be witnessed by the audience is really awesome,” Reinemer said. “You can feel that through the energy exchange from stage to audience and back.”
He said he loves to watch the transition from teaching a new student to the moment when they first perform onstage.
“If you’re at all interested [in improv], definitely challenge yourself to try it,” Reinemer said. “You’ll know right away if you don’t like it, and there’s a pretty high chance that you’ll love it.”
For more information, visit www.theupfront.com.