Let’s face it, life is better when you’re laughing. Laughter has the ability to brighten up any room and lessen the space between us. Everyone is in the same moment in time when they’re laughing. Bergen County resident Ryan Huban discovered the wonders of laughter and its power to heal at a very young age after being introduced to the liberating beauty of improvisation.
Although he loved all forms of the arts, Huban had an instant affinity to the unique freedom of expression associated with the improv format. During his time at Pratt Institute, Huban founded the college’s comedy troupe, Up Top Playerz. He also studied improv with the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, The Magnet Theater and Armando Diaz Studios. After a short stint of stand-up comedy in New York City and New Jersey, Huban was ready to get back to his improv roots.
So, in 2008, he gathered his fellow creative friends to form what is now known as Howdy Stranger – the start of a beautiful personal and professional journey of self-awareness, fulfillment, confidence and plain, old fun. Howdy Stranger is now approaching its ten-year anniversary, and Huban couldn’t be more proud.
“From 2008 to 2013, we mainly performed in New York, but in 2014, I made the decision to bring Howdy Stranger home,” he said. “I wanted to build an improv community in northern New Jersey and give Bergen County access to the art form on a professional level. I recast the team with local performers and got to work. When people in New Jersey think improv, we want them to think Howdy Stranger.”
Howdy Stranger has welcomed many talented members in its time. Huban is the only original “Stranger” in the current core cast, which includes Dreena Moran, Chris Fitzgerald and Ethan Crump. Each show features rotating guest stars Tracy Mull, Mike Brown, Josh Hurley, Cat London and Jeff Mondoro, many of whom come from National Comedy Theater and The People’s Improv Theater in New York City. The group’s coach is Joe DeGise II, who hails from New York City improv comedy troupe Chicago City Limits; he’ll also serve as this year’s Howdy Stranger host.
A typical Howdy Stranger show is split into two parts. The first half features short-form improv games based off the popular television show, “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?.” Every performance then closes with a long-form set, where lengthier scenes inspired by a single suggestion from the audience become interconnected over time. An entirely fresh take on a true story unfolds, sparking a series of hilarious scenes and characters that all spin off that one initial suggestion.
“I believe the audience experiences a bit of magic during our shows,” said Huban. “The humor is there. You are certainly going to laugh. But realizing the performers don’t know what they’re going to say or do from moment to moment pushes you to the edge of your seat. It isn’t uncommon for audience members to feel nervous, as if they are witnessing an acrobat walking the high wire, who could tumble at any second.”
The dynamic team members of Howdy Stranger, however, are always there to catch each other’s fall. No matter how big or bold an idea, someone is constantly ready to jump in and fully support the choice, building on it to create what Huban describes as those truly magical moments when anticipation meets surprise.
The award-winning troupe performs monthly at either the Hackensack Performing Arts Center (HACPAC) or Eastwick College in Hackensack. The HACPAC is a brand-new, state-of-the-art theater in downtown Hackensack.
“Our shows in this venue provide an authentic theatrical experience with stadium seating, stage lights and a proper stage,” said Huban. “It is as fun as it is professional, and it’s where we excel.”
With 224 seats, HACPAC is one of the larger venues in which Howdy Stranger performs, yet it remains intimate enough to ensure close engagement and interaction between the audience and players – an improv must.
“When actors are creating characters, props, and environments from thin air using nothing more than pantomime and the occasional chair, you want to experience it up close,” he said.
Their shows at Eastwick College boast a very different vibe, described by Huban as a true social event and great way to meet new people, or even celebrate a birthday or milestone. Prior to the performance, audience members are treated to a variety of hors d’oeuvres and desserts prepared by students attending the school’s Culinary Arts Program. Howdy Stranger then takes to the stage surrounded by round tables, where attendees are served food family-style on platters to share.
“You can expect professional comedy entertainment with delightful, interesting small plates of appetizers and desserts galore, all prepared by Eastwick’s culinary students at a beautiful venue adorned in mirrors and oak trim,” said Pat Romero, who runs the Culinary Arts Department at Eastwick College.
This “Comedy Meets Culinary” collaboration was fostered by the Hackensack Creative Arts Team under the Main Street Business Alliance, which championed the opportunity to create a unique arts experience in downtown Hackensack that aligns to ongoing revitalization efforts. The Eastwick College administration additionally saw the partnership as a positive experience for students and a great way to raise awareness for their program.
“Comedy Meets Culinary has given Ryan Huban and his comedy troupe the opportunity to entertain members of the local community, while also providing students from the Eastwick College AAS in Culinary Arts Degree Program with the opportunity to showcase their culinary talents,” said Joyce Marchione-Traina, vice president of Academic Affairs. “Eastwick College is pleased to have partnered with Ryan and Howdy Stranger.”
Determined to further promote improv throughout the community, Huban began teaching public educational classes and workshops at ATC Studios in Clifton. There is usually an improv course available every season here, ranging from intro classes to levels two and three, as well as the occasional drop-in class. For the first time ever this year, these workshops are also being offered through Rutherford Adult School.
In addition, directors, teachers and administrators frequently hire Howdy Stranger to teach private classes for students in their theater programs. The group even occasionally runs post-performance workshops for the entire student body.
“Ryan Huban is a gift to our students,” said Danielle Miller, a local teacher whose students, thanks to Howdy Stranger, have experienced improv at a young age. “His knowledge of improvisation exceeds any teacher’s expectations. I always learn something new from him and Howdy Stranger that I can take back into the classroom and apply immediately to my pedagogy approach.”
Team-building corporate workshops are another popular option.
Huban and the members of Howdy Stranger continue their coaching efforts at the New Jersey Thespians, an educational theatre association in Beachwood. Every year, the organization offers over 30 workshops and every year, the workshop run by Howdy Stranger is sold out.
“Their workshops are fun and engaging, but I think the real reason they get so many participants goes beyond that,” said Carolyn Little, the NJ Chapter director. “They give kids an outlet, while also helping to craft and share their talent. This group creates rapport with every student they meet. Students walk away with a number of techniques to improve their skills, while making memories that last. They build bonds with each other and make new friends. Howdy Stranger teaches them about the importance of improv art.”
The feelings are mutual for Huban as he reflects upon his early days working with this association.
“I first learned improv during a workshop at the New Jersey State Thespian Festival. Decades later, I teach those very workshops. This means the world to me,” he said.
Looking ahead, Howdy Stranger has no plans of slowing down. The members are always looking for original ways to involve the community, spread awareness, and add a little sunshine to someone’s day. In fact, the comedic troupe just welcomed their newest member, Jeff Maksuta, a talented illustrator, who depicts funny comic scenes for which the members of Howdy Stranger create and submit humorous captions. The Howdy Stranger mailing list is granted access to a survey, where they can vote for the wittiest caption. The winning caption is then posted to the Howdy Stranger website and shared on all social media channels to provide followers with an amusing, innovative way to regularly engage with the troupe online.
In addition to a full schedule of upcoming improv shows scheduled for 2018, Howdy stranger also plans to further expand their creative programming with a variety show on June 16, featuring written sketch comedy, music and improv. The Howdy Stranger writing team is in development now.
Just like an improv scene, the tremendous success of Howdy Stranger can all be traced back to a blank canvas and an infinite amount of possibilities. Using some of the very skills that are commonly acquired from embracing this brave art form, Huban was a risk taker, had confidence in his own ideas and took action. In return, year in and year out he receives what he explains as the greatest reward of all – the ability to make complete strangers sit back, relax and laugh.
“The world is crazy and life is hard,” he said. “When people come to my shows, if I can make them laugh and help dissolve whatever worries they may harbor, even for a brief period of time, then I’m serving my purpose.”
By Megan Montemarano
For more information on upcoming Howdy Stranger performances, classes, workshops and other happenings, visit www.howdystranger.com or call Ryan Huban at (201) 724-0636. You can also subscribe to their mailing list at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow them on Instagram (@howdy_stranger) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/HowdyStrangerComedy/).
Howdy Stranger’s 2018 Schedule:
March 9, 7:30 p.m., Eastwick College, 250 Moore St., Hackensack
April 14, 8 p.m., Hackensack Performing Arts Center (HACPAC), 102 State St, Hackensack
May 11, 7:30 p.m., Eastwick College
June 16, 8 p.m., “Variety Show” at HACPAC
July 20, 7:30 p.m., Eastwick College
Aug. 24, 7:30 p.m., Eastwick College
Nov. 2, 7:30 p.m., Eastwick College
Dec. 14, 7:30 p.m., “Holiday Spectacle” at Eastwick College
Sept. 22, 8 p.m., HACPAC
Oct. 13, 8 p.m., HACPAC