Upfront and personal with the funniest business in town
|Upfront staffers DK Reinemer, Rhonda Daniels and Tim Eisner goof around onstage.|
A surprisingly full audience of hip-looking 20 and 30-somethings chatters to a hum before The Upfront Theater’s 9:30 p.m. performance on an icy Thursday during the holidays.
Backed by a pre-show soundtrack of musician David Gray, with candles topping the tabletops and softly lighting the pomegranate-colored walls, the audience members seem to be de-thawing their frozen limbs. A toffee-popcorn smell comes from somewhere in the back of the house and then the lights dim.
A few audience members whoop and yelp in the darkness, and then the lights come up, a performer jogs onto the stage, and the audience begins to applaud.
These people know they are about to laugh — a lot.
The show launches into a series of fast-paced skits and improv exercises, all requiring the voluntary participation of audience members — on this night there is no shortage of hands offering suggestions on locations, situations and people to base the skits on.
The five performers move from skit to skit in a hilarious whirlwind. It is easy to see they have reached minor celebrity status in Bellingham. They perform several times a week and have distinctive stage personas:
Tim Eisner is lanky and extremely tall, with a bouncing helmet of curly brown hair. He is funny in a subtle and slightly dopey way.
Jen Warwick is petite and squinty with a sly smile. Her humor is verbal and zany.
DK Reinemer seems to be the preppy golden boy of the bunch; his blonde hair and innocent expression belie his tendency to sling wickedly funny jokes.
Jordan Donovan has a bobbing Adam’s apple and a voice that sounds like a mature Kermit the frog. His humor is witty and thoughtful.
Galen Emanuelle, with his goatee and glasses, has a half-jock, half-nerd sensibility about him. He is loud and sarcastic and seems to have an unending amount of energy.
Throughout the show, the audience guffaws loud, uncontrollable, hiccupping laughs, the kind that escalate in pitch to an almost hysterical breaking point.
This is why Ryan Stiles, of “Whose Line is it Anyway” fame, founded the theater in August 2004. And the contagious nature of laughter has allowed the business to grow in pitch since then, much like the audience’s hysterics throughout the Thursday night show.
Cast of main characters:
Tim Eisner, artistic producer and performer
DK Reinemer, education director and performer
Rhonda Daniels, business manager, (she only performed once, on her birthday, with lots of encouragement and drinks from her coworkers)
The scene: A desolate town for comedy-improv. The time and place is 2004 in Bellingham, when no comedy-improvisation venues existed, although there were a few comedy/improv classes and groups that practiced at Western Washington University and Whatcom Community College.
Enter Stiles, who moved to Bellingham in the late ‘90s.
After checking out some of the local classes and talking with some of the dedicated students, he decided to build a comedy-improv venue dedicated to teaching and performing.
“If you guys run it and you keep it full, I’ll build this theater,” DK said of Stiles’ initial proposition. “He really wanted a place for him to play, but more a place for local talent to explore improv.”
The Upfront opened in August 2004 at 1208 Bay St. The opening night was a huge success and the theater sold out all of its first shows. Having Stiles’ name attached to the venture made it an initial draw, DK said.
From then on, Stiles was more of a behind-the-scenes kind of guy, DK said. He’d check in when he was in town and perform every few months, but the reins were basically handed over to the small, four-person staff of comedy-improv aficionados and handful of volunteers who ran the theater.
The theater’s repertoire began with shows on Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., featuring all out-of-town groups as well as a small class of about six people who eventually became the core pool of main-stage players.
After the theater’s initial buzz, the business had some ups and downs.
The nature of seeing live comedy-improv is different from going to see a movie, or even a play, Tim said, but people ultimately started recognizing The Upfront as a reliable place to get a laughter fix.
“We always try to get the audience to laugh a lot and have a good time,” Tim said. “Audiences know they will come down here and laugh.”
Rhonda said that the theater’s freshness is what appeals to people.
“What’s great about it is that even if you go to theater sports four shows in a row on a Friday or Saturday, you can go to all four and they are all four going to be different,” she said. “It’s always new.”
The experience is perfect for dates or large groups, rather than going to a movie or a play, because people can see a performance while still being engaged in the experience, DK said.
“They get to actually be interacting together with something,” he said. “You can test drive your date.”
“It has taken a long time to catch on and for people to know about it,” Tim said of the theater’s success. “Before shows we often say ‘Who has been here before?’ and sometimes only half or three quarters of the audience will say they have.”
In June 2005, the theater added a Thursday show called “The good, the bad and the ugly,” created to give amateurs who were taking classes at the theater a place to test their new funny bones.
In September 2005, the theater staff began devising a more solid school program. DK taught the first eight-week class of about six people, and then added two more teachers and split the classes into beginning and advanced classes. Eventually, he and the other teachers developed a curriculum with 100, 200 and 300-level classes, plus an advanced series and continued to offer occasional workshops.
The staff also started a school program for junior high and high school-aged kids in September.
“The (growth of the) school is a good way to mark our progress,” Tim said.
After starting out with one small class two years ago, the theater is currently offering six, eight-week classes this winter with about 50 adults and 15 teens signed up.
The theater has also recently increased its number of private engagements for businesses or organizations that hire the players for holiday parties, meetings, fundraisers, staff retreats or customer-appreciation events. In September 2005 the players performed at their first private corporate event, and performed at six more during the next year.
In the last four months, they have snagged another 20 private gigs and have six more booked in the next few months.
This component of the theater has experienced tremendous growth and expansion, Tim said.
Many businesses want to do something other than the standard music or dancing office event, he said, and the comedy-improv option is attractive because the players can tailor their performances to particulars about the business.
“I talk to whoever is setting it up and get some information on the business and some people that might be fun to participate in the show and maybe some jargon to personalize it to that business,” he said. “Audiences really react well.”
Some of the local businesses they’ve performed for include Morse Steel, Northwest Youth Services, The Best Western Lakeway Inn, Harley-Davidson of Bellingham and Kids’ World, and they have also branched out to perform at regional business events, as well.
Lisa Marx, motor-clothes manager for Harley-Davidson of Bellingham, helped organize the business’s December customer-appreciation event featuring the Upfront Players.
“It went over really well, and the customers enjoyed it,” she said. The audience, which consisted largely of the Mount Baker HOG (Harley Owners Group) Chapter of Bellingham, especially enjoyed the Harley references.
Marx said she appreciated the fact that the event utilized a lot of audience involvement and said she would definitely consider organizing a similar event in the future.
Tim, DK and Rhonda are proud of the theater’s growth under their watch.
Tim is especially proud of the fact that the theater started out with 90 percent of their shows performed by outsiders and now 90 percent are performed by locals, and he is also proud of the growth in the theater’s other programs.
“As far as the school and private events, they’ve multiplied by about four or five,” Tim said. In fact, the staff has discussed finding an extra space to accommodate the growth of the school.
They attribute the theater’s growth to a change in it’s priorities when Rhonda and Tim took over operations during the first year. Together, they pressed for more community involvement and an emphasis on local performers, as well as getting a liquor license, Tim said.
“It’s been kind of an avalanche, snowball effect,” he said.
The players make sure they do a lot of cross-pollination referencing — plugging the school and private performances at performance events, or plugging performance events at private events as well as being sure to integrate the school with the performances.
One challenge has been balancing a sense of community with the business aspect of running a theater.
“They are not totally exclusive from each other, but sometimes we can’t be quite as loose as we’d like,” Tim said. The shows need to be as professional as possible, and while they’d like to include all their amateur classmates, they realize they need to keep audiences coming back.
Still, all of the main-stage players are unpaid, and considering the amount of time and energy they put into performing, the heart of this business is not hard to gauge.
The bottom line is, there isn’t going to be an ending punch line to this business any time soon.
Tim summed it up best by saying, “We’re just trying to get people to laugh.”
Tim and DK’s tips for making your coworkers laugh:
Replace all the regular coffee with decaf for a month. Then switch back and watch people bounce off the walls.
Put “pretty paper with unicorns or fairies” in the boss’s printer without him or her knowing.
Send a memo to everyone except one person that special clients are coming in and that they need to dress professionally. Then send an e-mail to one person saying that it is casual Hawaiian-shirt day.
Put a Britney Spears C.D. in the toughest guy in the office’s computer when he goes to lunch and have it start playing when he logs back in.
Put your co workers lunch boxes in the freezer. This is really mean, so be prepared to take them out to lunch later.
Run an ad in the classifieds for free puppies with a coworker’s extension as the contact number.
Glue quarters, nickels and dimes to the sidewalk just outside the front door of the office, then kick back and watch the hilarity.
Get a life-sized cardboard cutout of someone (we have Luke Skywalker) and put him in a dark room that you know someone is going to enter. This is also scary, so be careful.