The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Thursday night therapy

text by Hayden Eller

courtesy photo

Since The Upfront opened its doors in 2004 (started by world renowned Improv-Comic and Bellingham local Ryan Stiles) it has steadily become a staple within the Belingham arts community. Through providing community members of all-ages with an affordable, high quality, form of family-friendly entertainment, the theatre’s talented ensemble has continually been awarded the title of “Best Date Night” over the past decade by local publications.

At the heart of this success is “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” (often stylized as The GBU), a weekly feature consisting of two separate performances; one by The Upfront’s students and the second by the experienced ensemble cast – based almost completely around audience participation (via the suggestion of topics, themes, scenes, etc…) the program takes its name from the idea that on a specific night the performance can truly range from good to bad to ugly. While the GBU may be most well known as the show in which Ryan Stiles will most frequently participate, it is uniquely important to the theatre’s continued success for another reason: it is the first show in which recent graduates of The Upfront’s improv class series have the opportunity to perform.

“We get a really great mix, we have students anywhere between the age of 10 to 80 – so for the 100 level classes the big point is that you don’t have you be the next big comic, the next SNL star, it’s all about getting out of your shell and taking a chance. There’s a lot of people that come and take those intial classes for the social aspect,” said Sales and Marketing Director Matt Lesinski (who is also a member of the theatre’s rotating in-house ensemble).

“The GBU is really our pipeline for keeping new people coming in and invested…there’s usually a crowd of 8-10 people who came just to see that one person, which helps grow the community (exponentially),” he continued.

While some participants enter into The GBU with previous theatre or improv experience (many of which were previously members of the Dead Parrot Society at WWU), there is a large portion of individuals who are brand new to performing.

While being on stage without a script or structure upon which to base your performance may terrify most people initially, Matt noted that the principle of “Yes and” (which instructs cast members to accept whatever plot twist or objective is given to them by their castmates, without question) provides a unique safety net. “Because we believe in this ‘Yes and’ approach, it allows us to know that when we go out there, no matter what, we have each others back,” he said, “and even if I’m going down on a sinking ship, with the worst scene ever, it’s only going to last me seven minutes at most.”

The importance of this philosophy reaches far past the stage, as it lends itself to the successful development of interpersonal and basic social skills. “(When we’re on stage) you know that I’m listening with everything I’ve got to try and understand and support, (and) that allows you to speak your mind and take chances,” Lesinski said. Students are encouraged to take their performances in whatever direction they see fit, no matter how childish or silly – an opportunity that can, at first catch some off guard.

“For a lot of people they haven’t done that since they were kids, so having that playfulness is something that builds up gradually for some while others are like ‘thank goodness I have a place to do this’,” Lesinksi said smiling. “To get up on stage is such a great opportunity to play around and be kids.”

While the first half of The GBU is slightly structured in the sense that the first time performers often play short subject games aided by audience participation (in the vein of Who’s Line is it Anyway), the second half is left almost completely to the judgment of the ensemble. “We will sometimes get a song lyric and do 40 minutes off of that,” Lesinski laughed. The ability to do this is a matter of both developing your ability to communicate within the language of improv (i.e. the principle of “Yes and”) and hours of practice with your fellow castmates. Lesinski likened it to playing pickup basketball with a group of good friends, “If I see you running towards me, I can set a screen in the right place, which then sets you up for an easy layup.”

What is unique about The GBU, is that a great performance can often rely on the willingness of the audience to participate, thus separating The GBU from other forms of entertainment. “It’s similar to a concert, where it’s a shared experience that’s very different than going to a movie where you’re supposed to be silent,” Lesinksi said.

Tucked away on the corner of Bay and W. Chestnut it can be easy to brush off The Upfront as a small/insignificant portion of the Bellingham community. The cast members are goofy, the audience is diverse, and the subject matter is far from serious, but that is why it plays such a vital role. No matter your background, age, or level of self-confidence, it provides a safe haven through which community members can shake the stress or  mundane routine of everyday life and smile. Lesisnki summarized this sentiment perfectly, “There’s something about coming to place and knowing you’re going to laugh and have a great time – even if the dates not that great you’re gonna have a good time.”

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly performances are set for 8 p.m. every Thursday at the Upfront Theater. For more details, see https://theupfront.com.