Nine years ago, former sketch actor Kevin Allison was down on his luck. His troupe, the State, left MTV after a successful run for a stab at the big time on CBS. It didn’t work out. Things weren’t looking up in his career as he approached his 40th birthday.
“The State broke up in 1996. We had a long, tortuous breakup like the Beatles, basically,” he says by phone from his home in New York City. “Those were dark and difficult years for me, because I had really thought that the group would be together forever. We always talked like we were going to be the Rolling Stones or something like that, but that was just naiveté.”
Twelve subsequent years of auditioning, pitching, and doing solo shows didn’t result in much.
“I kind of floundered for a long time,” he says. “I blame myself for not getting up on-stage every night, because that’s what you really gotta do when you’re young like that. I actually quit performing entirely for about four years.”
But as the saying goes, no risk, no reward. Allison took a risk that would see him heading a small business with 24 employees that also manages to scratch his creative itching.
Some advice from his former sketch castmate Michael Ian Black led to his aha! moment. Black came to see Allison in a solo show made up of five kooky characters. The show was funny enough, but not nourishing. Black told him afterward, “I think you should just take the mask off. Stop playing these characters and just start telling your own true stories.” Allison’s reaction: “Oh God, that feels too risky.”
But he gave it a try, hopping on-stage at L.A.’s improv-based UCB Theatre to tell the story of the time he prostituted himself at the age of 22. The thought of revealing himself terrified him, but he went through with it, taking a chance that would change his life.
“It’s amazing what happens to people when they listen to a very honest and heartfelt true story,” he says. “It’ll just unlock certain emotions and thought patterns in other people. You really don’t know what you might be offering to other people by sharing the truth.”
On his walk home that night, his future came to him in a flash. He thought, “That’s it! I should create a show called RISK! where the whole idea is everyone who comes up to share a story on-stage, they’ve got to be stepping outside their comfort zone; they should be sharing something they never imagined they’d dare to share in public. It could be a funny story or it could be a terrifying story or it could be a beautiful story, as long as it’s pretty clear that that person is boldly revealing something and kind of taking a risk. And I knew it had to be a podcast as well, because I knew that after 12 years of occasionally doing small theatre shows in New York, you need to reach a bigger audience.”
Allison and his team work with both celebrities and regular listeners who want to share their stories. At press time, the lineup for his Vancouver show is still up in the air as Allison is busy listening to all the pitches.
He’s heard all manner of personal, gut-wrenching stories over the last nine years. And with a million downloads per month, the program shows no signs of slowing down.
“People are so individual and have such specific backgrounds and such specific friends and family members that there’s often incredibly different things about each story that make them surprising in different ways,” he says. “It’s amazing to me how it feels like we’ll never run out of new and surprising stuff.”
RISK! True Tales, Boldly Told plays the Biltmore Cabaret next Saturday (September 8).