DOWNTOWN — He’s done gigs in Austin, Chicago and Hollywood, but when it comes to putting on improv routines, there’s something special about going before the home crowd.
That’s what Lloyd Ahlquist gets to do nearly every week on the same stage at The Westside Eclectic, performing improvisational and stand-up routines in the underground-style comedy theater tucked away in an alley behind the Third Street Promenade.
Not only is he a regular on stage, but he’s a permanent fixture behind the scenes.
Since 2007, Ahlquist has been the general manager and artistic director of the Downtown entertainment venue, booking shows, writing the curriculum for courses offered at its school, and promoting performances to the community.
He has appeared in theaters across the country with improv group Mission Improbable, but managing one was always his dream.
“I don’t have to get my lunch shift covered to go to rehearsal. I don’t have to find someone to fill my temp job in order to make a poster for the show that I’m in,” he said.
The Westside Eclectic is a relative newcomer to the Santa Monica entertainment scene, founded in 2005 by husband-and-wife team Mark and Alison Campbell, opening a theater that also doubles as a comedy school.
It has attracted prominent names in comedy since its founding, from Margaret Cho, a performer in one of the WE’s shows, to Adam Sandler and Andy Dick, both of whom came to watch.
It was an injury sustained when Ahlquist was a gymnast at the University of Massachusetts, sidelining him for a season, that led to an introduction to improvisational comedy.
Left with an abundance of free time from the injury, Ahlquist decided to take acting classes where he met a student who told him about auditions for an improv group called Mission Improbable.
He made the cut and along with a core group of six comedians, Ahlquist began pursuing a new passion.
“I played a lot of jazz music in high school and my favorite part was the improvising part,” he said. “The gratification was so pure and immediate and I felt the same about improv.”
“You never knew what was going to happen — if you sucked, you sucked so badly that you’re terrible, but if you’re great, it’s so amazing that it was better than any written show because the stakes are so much higher.”
In the beginning the group performed the occasional shows on the road, eventually going on a full-time tour to theaters and universities when its popularity and demand grew stronger.
“We would be in cafeterias beside Snapple machines and at county fairs and everyplace you could do it,” he said. “It was cool because it taught me how to make a show work no matter what.”
Today, the improv group has about 25-30 performers who put on about 200 shows a year. Ahlquist remains involved to this day.
More than a year after moving to Los Angeles from Chicago, Ahlquist, who was waiting tables at Houston’s in Pasadena, saw a job listing for a general management position at The Westside Eclectic.
He came in energetic for the interview, leaving with a good sense that he had landed the job, only to lose out to another candidate.
“I said if it doesn’t work out, then let me know,” Ahlquist said.
A week later, he got a call back.
Daniel Granof, The Westside Eclectic’s vice president of strategy and business development who joined around same time Ahlquist was hired, said that his colleague came in with a gung ho attitude and took what had been established and ran with it.
“He has been able to use his experience and contacts from all his years performing to build a really good school,” Granof said.
The school offers courses for six skill levels, catering to everyone from stay-at-home moms looking for another hobby to aspiring comedians. Every class puts on a public performance at the theater.
Granof is also enrolled in the school and is at level four, calling himself a novice performer.
“Being someone who is taking classes and has gotten to see Lloyd perform a lot, I have a much greater appreciation for what he is able to do,” he said. “He just brings an energy to every scene and every performance.”
For Ahlquist, who has branched out to stand-up and sketch comedy, the thrill with improv is all about the connection with other on-stage performers.
“You’re tapping into this group’s mind than your own head,” he said. “It’s something bigger than you, which is sort of addicting to me.”