Dan Stabb is an improvisational performer and is the Director and a performer with Better Than Bacon, an improv troupe performing out of the Philadelphia area. Dan also teaches improvisational classes for various theatres, schools, and businesses throughout the Philadelphia area. PWC’s own Carol Sabik-Jaffe caught up with Dan to talk about his work, the conference, and all things in between. Check it out after the break!
Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
I have been performing for nearly 30 years, spanning television, radio, and (primarily) stage. I caught the improv bug over a decade ago and (thankfully) it has not gone away! I have performed around the country with various groups, and I am currently the Director and a performer with Better Than Bacon Improv. In a nice bit of timing, BTB just celebrated our fourth anniversary of performing throughout Suburban Philly!
I have been teaching improv for about seven years now, both for performance and for professional development. When I first started teaching improv, I thought, “Oh, I’ll teach people how to make up funny stuff onstage.” However, I quickly learned that students value the life lessons that improv teaches (and there are many), so most of my classes tend to be an amalgamation of “improv as performance” and “improv can make you a better person.”
How important is improv in critical thinking while writing and creating characters?
With improv, a good character has to have a strong point-of-view. Remember, every scene is always a blank slate for an improviser. Since we don’t have the benefit of time, we have to endow our characters with a strong POV to start right off the bat. This provides the actor with a good foundation for what will (hopefully) be a good scene.
However, I always stress that the most important facet of an improv scene is our character’s relationship to our fellow scene partners onstage. Everyone thinks improv is all about being witty and clever. While that can be a part of it, it’s a small part of it. Truthfully, improv is about listening and reacting authentically to what our scene partner says and does. In terms of building a character and a relationship, authenticity will always resonate more than wit, and that’s when you get the richest response from the audience.
Whether in writing or improv, if you endow your characters with a strong point-of-view and qualities that are relatable and real, your audience will gravitate to them. If a character is undefined or wishy-washy, it’s much harder for your audience to care about him/her.
Can you give us writers some insight on thinking like an actor?
You always hear the actor cliché of, “What’s my motivation?” Yeah, it can ripe for parody, but an actor needs to always look beyond the surface of just the character. Where does my character come from? How does my character feel about others? Heck, how does my character feel about myself? It goes well beyond, “Does my character have a funny accent?” It’s about building a history and, again, a point-of-view that takes our character from cookie-cutter to something far more nuanced.
Now, in improv, I don’t really have the benefit of time to flesh that all out. From the time I get an audience suggestion to the time the scene starts, I maybe have five seconds. However, I can decide from the outset, “My character hates everybody.” That point of view is now the launching pad for my character, and my subsequent actions and reactions are influenced by that initial point-of-view. Whether my scene partner chooses a similar POV or a completely opposing one, I can still hold onto that choice I made from the outset. However, as long as I am continuing to respond authentically to my scene partner, the audience will hopefully see the nuance that goes beyond surface-level caricature.
How important are conferences and conventions to a writer?
To grow in any level of your passion, you have to hear other viewpoints. You have to see how other people are doing it. I have been blessed to have learned from so many different teachers, mentors, fellow performers, etc. You won’t agree with every single thing you hear. But sometimes, it just takes that one new idea to get you out of a rut or to inspire you to move to the next level.
I remember being in an “artistic rut” several years ago where I just felt like I wasn’t clicking onstage. I then went to an improv festival, but with no intentions of taking any workshops/classes. I was just going to do my show and do some sightseeing. My mentor at the time said, “I signed up for this workshop…but you’re taking my spot.” I begrudgingly went into the workshop…and it changed my life forever. It provided that new spark that I really needed. I can safely say that I wouldn’t be answering these questions now if I didn’t take that workshop 7 or 8 years ago.
Plus, you’re networking. My biggest mistake in my early improv career is that I truly underestimated the value of networking. You never know where one connection is going to lead you…but you’re never going to make that connection unless you get yourself out there. Yes, the internet has become an incredibly helpful networking tool, but my biggest opportunities have almost all arisen from folks I have met in-person.
What are some hints for getting your butt in the seat and your hands on the keyboard?
“Just do it.”
Half-joking aside, I think you sometimes have to just sit at your keyboard and type away. Even if you think it’s no good, you’re at least doing it (and chances are, it’s almost never as bad as you think it is). The more you do, the better you get. Know what your end goal is and know that you can’t win the race if you don’t even take a step off the starting line.
When did you first realize you were a writer/performer?
I’ve just always known. This lifestyle is so ingrained in me that I don’t know that I could pinpoint a “moment of realization.” This is pretty much all I’ve known for the better part of 30 years, and I am so beyond grateful that I discovered my passions at such a young age.
How can shy/relucatant introverted writers best use improv?
Confession alert: I was a shy introvert for a good portion of my life. Improv has instilled a confidence in me that will carry on for the rest of my life.
In terms of the “how…”
First, take an improv class. It sounds like a cheap plug, but improv is truly one of the best ways to learn how to get out of your comfort zone. You’re in a class with other students who are in the same boat as you. Everyone may take the class for different reasons, but ultimately, you’re in the same journey together.
Improv is about acceptance, which is typically one of the biggest fears introverts have, right? They’re afraid they’re not going to be accepted. But in the world of improv, everything we say is heard, accepted, and built upon. You feel yourself being heard in an improv class…and then it’s automatically accepted as a shared reality that you and your scene partner created.
I always say that improv is tapping into our childhood. When you’re a kid, your imagination is limitless. Think about the characters you created when you’re a kid. In a child’s world, anything you imagine is true. Why? Because as children, you don’t have the filters we inherit as adults that often inhibit our creativity and thinking. We fear judgment, and in turn we often judge ourselves…sometimes with no mercy!
Improv shuts down that pesky voice of judgment by embracing the acceptance of not only each other’s ideas, but our own ideas as well. Once you learn how to silence that annoying dude in your head saying, “That’s not going to work,” it opens up possibilities that you never thought were imaginable.
Plus, we’re afraid to fail, right? In improv, you learn how to embrace failure…because you learn that failure is not the end of the world. When I perform, I’m getting in front of a bunch of people…and neither of us have any earthly idea of what I’m about to say. That means I have bombed…hard…a lot. I still do. But I’m still here, aren’t I? If I’m still living/breathing/talking about it, it could not have been that bad…because I’ll always get another chance to do it again. Fortunately, the more you do it, the better your batting average is. But that doesn’t mean you won’t fall down every once in awhile. Improv taught me how to take the good with the bad and still laugh about it either way.
What are you most looking forward to at the 2015 Philadelphia Writers’ Conference?
The opportunity to meet, network, and share knowledge with an amazingly talented group of people.
How has the new emphasis on a digital world impacted your writing/performing?
I’ve embraced it, because it has forced me to be proactive with everything I do. From advertising to idea sharing to sometimes just sharing silly quips (in 140 characters or less), social media keeps you relevant and visible in ways that were never possible before. Yes, you have to stay on top of it to maintain your relevance/visibility, but it’s completely doable.
Plus, it’s important to have your thumb on the pulse of what’s going on in the world…and the relevance of any one topic/trend/story has a pretty limited shelf life these days. So for my writing/performing to stay topical, I always need to know what’s important today. A big story from Tuesday may be usurped by a whole different story by Thursday. It changes constantly, so it’s crucial to embrace “the digital age,” because it’s not going anywhere anytime soon!
Dan will be teaching the Improv for Storytelling workshop on Friday, June 12th at 4:15 PM. To register for the 2015 Philadelphia Writers Conference and take Dan’s workshop, click here!