By Alex Bayer
On a recent Monday morning in Drama 103: Beginning Improvisation, two students sit on stage as their classmates watch. They’ve volunteered to act out an exercise about “status.” For example, a British lord would probably play “high” status, while an indentured servant most likely plays “low.” Standing on the side, teacher Dan Klein ’91 instructs the two to try to “one up” each other in status. They begin discussing their majors. “Oh, you’re a psych major?” the girl asks, one knee crossed over the other haughtily. “That’s so cute,’” Klein suggests. “That’s so cute,” she utters sweetly, rife with condescension. The class laughs, marveling at the transformation of the (otherwise kindhearted) student.
Klein makes suggestions in a gentle voice. When he speaks in front of the class, his arms hang by his sides innocuously, and when he talks, there’s an irrepressible smile on his lips. He has a certain peacefulness about him; it’s the stillness of limbs, yes, and the steady deliverance of his words, but one gets the sense it’s something within. Klein is the kind of guy you want to ask, what’s it all about? Where does one find such serenity, such unspoken happiness? Long gone is the middle school theater director shrilly commanding his students to enunciate. Klein is like the Buddhist master of theater, but instead of daily meditation, his practice of choice is improvisation. But as it turns out, the two have more in common than you might think.
How does one get “professional improviser” on a business card? For Klein, it started, incidentally, when he was a sophomore at Stanford and took Drama 103. “There was a girl involved,” he admits. A good friend of his. “She was funny and playful, and I sort of had this crush on her.” He smiles. “It was thrilling, it was scary. I never really fully let go when I first took it. I got the idea that I’m so supposed to talk without thinking beforehand, without editing and censoring, but I still couldn’t quite let go.”
Then, in the beginning of junior year, Klein suffered a serious car accident and had to miss a full year of school. As part of his recovery for his head injury the following year, he took different types of classes to stimulate different parts of his brain. That’s when he remembered improv. Problem was, you weren’t allowed to take the class a second time. He thought he found a solution when the teacher at the time, Patricia Ryan, asked him to be her teaching assistant. He recalls sitting in class on that first day. “Dan, will you be the TA?” Ryan asked. Another guy named Dan stood up. “Sure,” he answered. Luckily, other-Dan was absent at the second class. Dan Klein got the job. He would TA the next year, too. That quarter he joined Ryan as she created SImps — a quasi-acronym (at Stanford? who knew!) for the Stanford Improvisers — a campus improv troupe that’s still thriving today.
“After my car accident, I had a different sense of what it meant to take a risk. Like, the idea of saying something in front of a group of classmates I hadn’t edited yet wasn’t quite as scary as getting hit by a drunk driver on El Camino. And so I was able to let go, just a little bit more, and I felt, I just kind of got it,” Klein recalls, beaming. His foray into improv has since blossomed into a career not only teaching Stanford students, but also leading workshops around the world. He recalls performing in front of Japanese dental implant salesmen using translator headphones (there’d be a joke, followed by a few seconds of painful silence, and then finally, laughter); performing on a high-definition video conference in Copenhagen; performing alongside the CEO of the Nordic Stock Exchange in Stockholm after a workshop. “How did I get here?” he remembers thinking.
Stanford students, Klein says, offer a particular gift. “When I tell students to shoot for average and fail cheerfully, I can feel this burden being lifted, and it’s one of my favorite things about teaching this population in particular,” he says.
For a university marked by its high academic standards and its career-driven students, it’s tempting to think the cores of improv are incongruent, even contradictory, with the Stanford mentality. But Klein is quick to point out that the improv spirit is embraced on many levels. He brings up Patricia Ryan. During her thirty years teaching at Stanford, she formed a fruitful alliance with the product design faculty. What has emerged in part out of that relationship is the d.school, which Klein sees as the embodiment of improv’s spirit of collaboration, the notion of allowing mistakes to be gifts and a selfless desire “to make your partner look good.”
But perhaps the most surprising thing to learn from this improv expert is that very little of improv is being funny. “That’s really about a third of it, if that,” he says. That’s also one of the hurdles of teaching newcomers to the practice: They come in believing that to succeed as improvisers, they have to be relentlessly funny.
Having traveled around the world, Klein has come to believe that anyone’s capable of being funny. How? It turns out some of the funniest moments come from just being authentic.
“I’m addicted to the pure, honest moments in the classroom when someone discovers something right there; it’s totally fresh and unexpected, and it surprises them, and it gets a huge house laugh … that’s what I’m going for. And I find that moment comes from anyone.”
Klein admits it’s the laughs that got him into it. But he’s come to realize that improv is about so much more than that.
“What I really love is changing for the audience’s emotion,” he says. “Laughter is the easiest one to hear, but to do something that has an effect on the audience, that’s really amazing.”
There’s a distinctly humanist element to how Klein explains improv. In some ways it’s even spiritual. He discusses “masks,” the characters people put on to obscure their true selves, not just in performance but in life.
“To be as simple as possible, some people hide by retreating, and some people hide by advancing,” he explains. The great beauty of improv, and theater by extension, is that it allows people to peel away their defenses. If there’s an irony to this, that the artifice of the stage gives voice to this wonderful authenticity, it’s quite a fascinating one. The core of theater, Klein says, is about connecting and being authentic. There’s got to be something truthful at the core of the performance. That’s where the humor comes in: when an audience is watching a person, a performer, “having an authentic reaction in the moment.”
In the process, Klein has learned a thing or two about humans. He recalls being intimidated 12 years ago when he first started leading workshops with corporations. He expected these people to be serious, high-powered, demanding, critical. It took a while to realize that every group is just people. Everyone, even the most high-powered CEO, has insecurities, things they’re working on and strengths. And most importantly, “everyone needs to be witnessed.” Klein’s great ability is to create a space where people can feel safe taking a risk, in front of colleagues or even strangers.
“I can’t believe this is my job; I really can’t believe it,” he says. “It’s almost like all those lessons about improv really were true: say yes, pay attention, notice what are the offers and gifts, make use of the mistakes and twists and turns and see where it takes you. And it’s kind of amazing that I find that it’s taken me here, where I literally get to play every day, and that’s my job.”
Klein smiles wide. “Whatever it was that made me feel like this was valuable and worthwhile to me, I think this is really true for other people. People want to connect with each other. They want permission to mess up and do it together and be witnessed. And they want to sometimes be brilliant and have it be okay if they’re not.
“I’m just lucky,” he continues. “I think improvisers are lucky because some of the skills improvisers are taught actually make you luckier. You’re able to notice more things, you’re able to turn negative things into positive things and you’re more likely to connect with people and increase the chances of something fortuitous happening.” He leans over and whispers: “That’s what my TED Talk is about.”
How does one become a professional improviser? Klein might give you this simple advice: by being an improviser in life. To improvise is to say yes, embrace mistakes, live in the moment and listen, closely, to others. Is it any wonder, then, that students flock to Klein’s classes and, at the tail end, marvel at how much they’ve grown not just as improvisers, but as people? Perhaps this proves that the essence of improv is authenticity, which everyone possesses in bucket loads. And how about Klein’s remarkable serenity? That, too, is solvable. When you’ve chosen to live with fresh eyes, keen ears and an open heart, and what’s more, spend your time giving these abilities, these gifts, to others, you court a lot of good in your life. And surely, a lot of laughs.