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Ryan Stiles, back home again

02:54 PM PST on Friday, March 24, 2006

By SAINT BRYAN / Evening Magazine

A few years ago, Ryan Stiles was starring in two prime-time shows every week and living in a home once owned by Liberace.

Then the king of improvisational comedy moved back to the Northwest where he grew up.

Why is he now performing in a tiny theater in Bellingham and why would Drew Carey drive up from Los Angeles to get in on the action?

Evening Magazine

"There's nothing I look forward to and there's nothing else I'd rather do," said Drew.

The answer just might make you appreciate an art form at the height of its popularity.

On both the British and American versions of "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" Ryan Stiles displayed his uncanny knack for improvisational comedy, making up characters, scenes, and songs on the spot.

"I'm convinced to do improv all you have to do is listen to what people are saying to you and then just add more information on what they just said and that's all there is to improve, but it's the hardest thing to do," said Ryan.

Much harder even than the dance steps he had to learn on the wildly inventive sitcom "The Drew Carey Show."

While Lewis, the loopy character he played, seemed doomed to singlehood, Ryan is not only married, but he three kids he's raising outside Bellingham.

"Here they go to a public school. They go out the front door and they see the San Juans and there's no place better to raise kids," he said.

Get Ryan started on Bellingham and you may not hear the end of it.

"It's a beautiful city," he said.

The only thing Bellingham couldn't offer was a place for him to play.

"After you do it for 25 years, it's not that you need the practice, it's just that you need to do it. You need the release. You need to be onstage," he said.

So Ryan started visiting Sheila Goldsmith's "Improv for Beginners" class.

"We were just chatting… and he said these guys should be performing somewhere," said Sheila.

"Partly selfishness on my part, I wanted a place to play when I was in town," said Ryan.

He wanted to know if he built a theater, would they run it?

That's how a cement warehouse became the Upfront Theatre that has people lining up for laughs.

"This was just a blank empty nothing space that we just took over," said Sheila. "And everyone who performs here gets to sign the wall."

The improv companies come from Vancouver, Portland and Seattle. Ryan joins many of them onstage, taking suggestions from the audience and running with them.

"Once you start doing this, it's a drug. It's so addictive," said Ryan.

One night it's the no-name players, another night, it's Drew Carey who performed making it just before showtime.

"One of the greatest joys of my life right now is to be onstage doing improv with Ryan and all the rest of the people I do improv with," said Drew.

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A square room, a stage and some quick-witted players – it may not sound like much, but it's one of the best things to happen to Bellingham in a long time.

The Upfront Theater now holds classes for kids and adults. Every Thursday they have a show called "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" and it includes sketches, stand-up comedy, improv and games. And they have tons of other things going on.