By Elizabeth Liberatore
Photos by Mark Morgan
Sean Dillingham, originally from Europe, moved around a lot as a military child. He grew up in cities across the U.S., but Arizona eventually became home. Dillingham found company in the films he watched as a young boy. The narratives of characters projected onto his screen, especially characters played by Gene Kelly, inspired Dillingham to pursue acting.
“I wanted to be an actor since I was about eight when I saw my first Gene Kelly movie,” Dillingham recalls.
Dillingham began to pursue his acting aspirations as a teenager. He auditioned and performed for every high school play and acted in community theater shortly after graduating high school.
“A lot of actors [in community theater] pursued improv troupes, so I joined one in 1987. These actors were also aspiring comedians,” he adds. “My first stand up performance was in 1988 at a comedy club in Tucson.”
Dillingham went on to perfect his craft at LA-based companies that specialize in improvisation and sketch comedy. He studied at Improv Olympic (iO West), The Second City Training Center in Hollywood and The Groundlings.
“[My experiences at iO West, The Second City, and The Groundlings] introduced me to another level of comedic performing, comedic acting, where I was allowed to make free choices and trust my gut instincts,” he says.
Along with Gene Kelly, Dillingham always enjoyed the acts of Robin Williams, Steve Martin and Bob Hope. After his studies, Dillingham had had an itch take more comedic rolls on stage – rolls that were reminiscent to the ones that Williams, Martin and Hope often portrayed. Stand-up comedy, specifically improv, offered Dillingham an opportunity to scratch that itch.
“I never really decided to pursue comedy as a career, it just sort of snowballed. Getting into stand up was amazing because it was the rawest form of theater. I liked being able to instantly perform, not necessarily rehearse so much,” he explains.
Dillingham’s stand-up performances ride on complete improvisation. That’s right – no rehearsals, no notecards and not even the faintest idea about the performance’s trajectory. His show caters to each unique audience, which makes no one show like the last.
“I get my material from the audience members. It’s completely improvised and made up in the moment,” Dillingham says.
The comedian spontaneously creates jokes specific to any audience. His show’s interactive element makes audience members leave feeling included and integrated into his craft. His confidence takes center stage as soon as his picks up the mic, which eliminates any inkling of stage fright.
“I used to get nervous performing, but not anymore,” he confesses. “Now, I trust my instincts and my ability. I have a lot of self-confidence when I go on stage. You have to, and I think audiences appreciate that.”
Dillingham admits that his ability to think fast on his feet helped him land more and more acting roles. His background in improv allows him to think outside of the box as an actor, giving him a competitive edge.
“I am not afraid to take chances during an audition for filming. Sometimes the greatest moments can come out of improvising in the moment.” He adds, “When I walk onto a set I have to have the character, the energy and the confidence ready to go; otherwise, it won’t be believable.”
Improvisation may come naturally to this comedic actor, but it didn’t come overnight. Dillingham learned to trust his gut to make smart choices while practicing off stage and performing live.
“You walk a razor’s edge somewhere in between being hysterical and possibly insulting people. It’s not just being mean to people it’s going off their energy, perhaps turning it back on you, and making the most of a moment. It’s not like doing a stand-up act at all because improv is in the moment. The audience feels that and realizes, ‘this guy is working without a net.’”
Working without a net has proven successful for Dillingham. The actor has appeared in over 65 commercials and 30 films. His latest big screen performance was in the 2012 film On the Road, directed by Walter Salles and produced by Francis Ford Coppola. He also recently made an appearance on the season finale of NBC’s newest hit, This is Us.
Dillingham has shared the stage with veteran performers – such as Louie Anderson, Rick Springfield and Victoria Jackson – and has worked on films with a long list of stars, including Jane Seymour and Patrick Duffy.
“The people I’ve had the opportunity to work with have all been very friendly. To work with them was amazing because I got to see such seasoned professionals, and I learned a lot just by watching their performances,” he says.
With over thirty years of acting experience, Dillingham decided to establish his own comedy club to lend budding performers his expertise. The Comedy Spot Comedy Club and Theater (7117 E. 3rd Ave., Scottsdale; www.thecomedyspot.net) opened its doors in 2002 to bring more performance opportunities to the Valley.
Dillingham’s comedy club offers individuals of all acting levels a relaxed environment to learn, entertain and have fun.
“[We offer a variety of classes,] including stand up comedy every Tuesday night and drop in improv on Wednesday nights. This summer we are offering teen and kids improv classes as well,” explains Dillingham.
No comedian – veteran or rookie – is exempt from training. Training is key to any successful act. Take it from an expert:
“Actors like to say if I’m not acting, I should be training. For some reason, people don’t think they need to learn anything about stand-up comedy. And they do. It requires a certain set of tools just like any other skill does.” He continues, “If you don’t think you should be taking classes and learning, well I certainly hope your doctor or dentist doesn’t feel that way too. Get training!”
After studying at some of the most respected companies in the country and working alongside A-listers in the industry, Dillingham has established himself as an actor, improv performer, comedy club owner, instructor and comedian. Like the actors that inspired him growing up, Dillingham is now inspiring others.
“As an actor I have the best job in the world. Every day I get to go to work and be something new. One day a pirate. One day an army man. One day a cop. One day a gangster. It’s always new and challenging. I love doing improv and teaching improv. I love the freedom that it gives me to create characters and scenes and emotions that can move an audience. That is very gratifying.”