Issue date: 7/6/06
Imagine standing on stage in front of a sold-out audience, working with a diverse group of actors to deliver an unrehearsed and unscripted performance to get the crowd laughing.
Few have done it, but whoever has dreamed of it will have the opportunity this summer because of improv classes The Upfront Theatre offers.
"A lot of people don't have confidence because we live in a society where everyone is so judging," said DK Reinemer, the Upfront's education director. "Then they come to a two-hour class where no one is judging them and it blows their minds."
Actor Ryan Stiles, 47, established the Upfront in August 2004 as a venue for improvisational comedy.
Improv is a performing art in which actors must play off each other to come up with lines and actions with little to no preparation.
The art has been around for centuries, but modern improv emerged in the 1950s with the development of competition between rival improv teams, and a new teaching approach centered around a series of improv games.
Reinemer, 26, has been performing at the Upfront since it opened and now teaches the improv classes.
He said the goal of the classes is to encourage students to be creative and build confidence while also having fun. Reinemer said he doesn't have a set curriculum for the classes and prefers to tailor them to each individual group.
"The hardest thing is getting in tune with a group and finding a direction they want to go," Reinemer said. "I try to find a balance between moving them forward and having fun."
The Upfront began offering classes in September 2005 as a means of spreading improv in the community and exploring it further, Reinemer said.
Kari Lee, 30, a speech-language pathologist for the Bellingham School District, said she took the weekly course for eight weeks when the Upfront started the classes.
She initially took the class for fun after seeing a few shows, but found it made her into a more motivated person.
"It was something exciting, something I've never done," Lee said. "No one had experience, and we were all in it together."
Lee said the class performed exercises to strengthen individual improv talents. The exercises included word association games to encourage acting instead of thinking and learning how to set up a physical environment.
Executive director of Bellingham-based child-care provider Kids' World Michael Watters, 50, said he stepped into his first improv class when the Upfront began them and has attended regularly since. Watters said his experience with improv was more than just a good time. The classes have helped his confidence and taught him to strive for the next level, he said.
Watters said he regularly performs improv with the children at work to entertain them and help them learn to express themselves more freely.
Watters said one of the best aspects of his improv experience is the supportive environment that comes in the face of pressure.
"One of the most important tenets of improv is to make the other guy look good," Watters said. "It's not like middle school where the moment you walk in with a booger hanging out of your nose, people mock you."
Watters said improv also helps him deal with stress.
"Therapy is $150 an hour," Watters said. "And this is much better than therapy."
Notable improv groups formed in Bellingham include The Upfront Players, The Changelings, and the Western student-founded Dead Parrots Society.
Students who wish to show off their improv skills in front of a live audience may perform with the cast of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, a group comprised of a varying cast of 15-20 actors. The group contains everyone from beginners to seasoned performers and puts on shows at 8 p.m. every Thursday night.
Reinemer said he enjoys noticing his students' confidence levels rise as a result of the classes.
"Seeing how much it opens people's eyes is pretty neat," Reinemer said. "They can come in having a horrible day and 10 minutes later they're full of life."