“Do you want to sit inside or outside?” asks Larry Williams, cup of coffee in hand, poised midway between an indoor table and the door to the sunbaked patio area at the Broadway Peet’s. “Hey, I’m a trained improvisational comedian, so I can make it work either way.”
We choose the table. Pulling up a chair, Williams — hard-working actor-director-and-comic — notes that we’re just down the street from his “day job” at Peterson Mechanical, where he works as director of technical services.
“I draw three-dimensional drawings of plumbing,” says Williams, who lists such projects as Sutter hospital in Santa Rosa and Marin General Hospital on his resume. “It’s very interesting work – and it’s pretty much the exact opposite of improvising a musical comedy in front of a live audience.”
He’s referring to his latest theatrical endeavor, a little thing called “Playwright: An Improvised Musical,” which he’s directing and will appear in this weekend at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park. Presented by Monkey Monkey + Larry, a local improv comedy troupe with which Williams often performs, the show begins with the audience choosing a famous playwright — either Sam Shepard, Neil Simon or Tennessee Williams — the style of which the troupe will emulate as they invent a full-scale musical, complete with songs and dance numbers, right on the spot.
“It’s something to see, believe you me,” laughs Williams.
He describes his particular style of improvisational comedy as “long form improv.”
“It’s better known in San Francisco and New York, where this kind of thing is pretty huge,” says Williams “This is not ‘Who’s Line Is It, Anyway?’ which is what people think of when they hear the word ‘improv.’ This is live storytelling, two hours of a show in which the audience watches us take their suggestions, and then build the characters, create an environment, and make up a show using only our instincts, comic inclinations, and our trust of each other as comedians.”
It is, he says, as exciting to perform as it is to watch.
“It’s one of the most high-wire, on-the-edge forms of comedy you will ever see,” he says. “It would be hard enough just doing a regular play. But adding improvised music to it just makes it all the more outrageous.”
There will be a live accompanist playing along as the actors make up lyrics to go with the newly-minted tune.
“Fortunately,” Williams says, “most of us can actually sing.”
Born in Santa Barbara, the son of a highway landscaper who moved his family all over the Southwest, anywhere a new highway was being built — Pismo Beach, Crescent City, Las Vegas. When they finally settled down into a less nomadic lifestyle, Williams ended up in Novato, where he attended high school, and eventually took classes at Indian Valley College.
“That’s where I ended up getting into drama, something I’d always secretly been wanting to do,” he says. “The high school group I hung out with did not much go for people who did theater, though, so I buried those inclinations. I was a bad boy, greaser, smoking-area type of guy in high school, but I always wanted to try my hand at theater, and college was where I got my chance.”
Taking his first theater class, Williams says, was an experience that turned his entire life upside down. For one thing, it’s where he discovered his inner comedian.
“I started working on comedy with a group of friends,” he says. “Sketch comedy, improvisational comedy, stand-up comedy, all kinds of things.” It was at Indian Valley College where he met Petaluma’s Carl Jordan, then a dancer, now an award-winning stage director.
“We ended up going to San Francisco State, getting into other aspects of theater, and eventually starting a theater group,” recalls Williams. “I’d write the shows and star in them, Carl would direct them, and we did a bunch of stuff all over Marin and Sonoma County.”
Next month, as it happens, Williams will be working with Jordan in a play at San Rafael’s Belrose Theater. Alternating with actor Jeffrey Weissman, Williams will be appearing alongside Melissa Claire in the two-person nerds-in-love romantic comedy “Pinky.” (Editor’s note: “Pinky” was written in 2012 by Index-Tribune contributing writer David Templeton.)
After spending a couple of years in Los Angeles trying to break into Hollywood — doing all kinds of theater along the way — Williams eventually returned home to Northern California, married, had some kids, and settled down in Sonoma County.
Over the last several years, Williams has become a go-to actor within the North Bay theater community, with an emphasis on creating zany, over-the-top characters. In recent months, he’s played Colonel Mustard in “Clue: the Musical” at Lucky Penny Community Arts Center in Napa, Black Stache in Spreckels’ “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a whole parade of oddballs in the Sherlock Holmes spoof “Baskerville” (in which he stole the show wrestling a large stuffed dog, and hilariously lost the fight), the Wizard in 6th Street Playhouse’s ‘The Wizard of Oz,” and several others. As a director, he helmed Spreckels’ elaborate historical musical “1776,” for which he’s been nominated for a Marquee Theater Journalists award. He was also nominated for a Theater Bay Area award for his appearance in the aforementioned “Baskerville.”
“I like to stay busy,” Williams says of his nearly endless string of theater productions. “And I like to keep things different, do different types of shows. That’s why this improv musical is such an exciting thing to be a part of.”
With a laugh, he adds, “What could be better, or more challenging, than performing in a completely different show, every single night?”