Audio, Accessibility and Action in (Online) Improv Theatre

Audio, Accessibility and Action in (Online) Improv Theatre

It appears we’re at the point where those of us who want to play online know roughly what we’re doing with zoom-prov. We’ve got the gist of muting and unmuting, turning off self-view, and some of my friends even have Bluetooth clickers that let them turn their cameras and mics on and off at a distance.

The future is now, people.

So… what else is there? And what of those who have been left behind as we forge our way in this brave new world?

Through experimentation and working with Stephen Davidson on making our co-taught classes more accessible for neurodiverse and partially sighted folks, I’ve found myself being exposed to audio-only and off-screen improv. And I have to say, I’m loving it. I’ve now run workshops and shows involving both a mix of on and off-screen participants, and everyone off-screen, and there’s so much joy to be found in both.

Thinking critically about audio-only work as a director.

At a recent Love Circle rehearsal, we tried out Katy Schutte’s Format “Flicker”. It’s a simple format: alternating one “light” scene (i.e., the players on “stage” or screen), and one “dark” scene (i.e., audio-only). The Love Circle is a show that is built around intimacy, sex, and sensuality, and having some scenes where the players couldn’t be seen really heightened the senses. It felt like the players felt emboldened to make bolder, more sexual or sensual offers, and as an observer I found the off-screen encounters more titillating, as it gave my imagination space to roam. I don’t know that we’ll use the strict one light, one dark structure of Katy’s original format (our show is a La Ronde based show, so we already have one strict-ish format to follow!), but we will absolutely be incorporating non-visual scenes in the future. It’s another tool on the toolbelt (and hopefully means we can work towards better inclusion in our shows too).

So how does this relate to The Nursery?

Historically, we know that we haven’t done anywhere near enough to make our spaces fully accessible. Whether that’s the practicalities of our in-person spaces, the lack of diversity amongst our student, performer, and staff population, or lack of accommodations for our online spaces; we know we need to do better.

Which is why I was keen to bring my audio-only experience into our drop-in offerings; we now offer a completely audio-only drop-in once a month and are looking at launching longer audio-only courses too. We are working with our teachers to ensure that they can accommodate students who need to dial into classes via phone, to make our general offerings more accessible for students who can’t participate on-screen. If you’d like to know which courses you can join without being on-screen, just email classes@thenurserytheatre.com. We now have automatic closed captioning available in all our classes (if you’re not sure how to access this, please get in touch!), we’re working with the Black Improv Alliance to bring in more Black Improvisers, and our Sunday workshops are designed to encourage participation from equity-seeking communities. We have scholarships available for anyone who needs them, and we’re hoping to expand these offerings further.

More importantly, we’ve hired Velvet Wells as our Outreach and Inclusion Manager to examine our practices more fully and enact the full and lasting change we need to turn us into an improv organisation that is truly welcoming to all comers.

Want to get started with audio-only? Here are some tips!

  • If you’re interested in how you can implement some of these simple changes in your own practice, here are my handy tips for incorporating dial-in or off-screen participants:
  • Make sure it’s very clear who’s in the room. Ask everyone to introduce themselves at the very top of the class, and speaks for a little while to introduce what their voice sounds like to people who can’t see them.
  • Turn off the countdown in breakout rooms. If this is left on, dial-in participants get a booming voice counting them down to when the breakout rooms close, which is very distracting.
To do this, click on breakout rooms. Click on the little settings dial at the bottom of the breakout rooms box. Untick “Countdown after closing breakout room”. And you’re done!
  • Ensure all your participants are on board with being descriptive. When people go into breakout rooms, remind them to say “hey, it’s Rhiannon!”. In scene work, make sure it’s clear what is happening for anyone who’s not able to watch the screen.
  • You may want to incorporate some players as audio-describers; this can really add to the class too, as they are able to make offers for the people playing within a scene.
  • Ask! If you’re not sure if an exercise will fall apart without on-screen participation, talk it through with your participants. Chances are you’ll find a way to make it work or have fun when it fails.
  • Have fun! Lean into all the extra fun that’s available to you when you’re not able to see each other. Use voices, scene-painting, lean into your flowery language, improvise foley… mess around with it. It’s another new way to play, and I for one am delighted to see what we can do with it.

BONUS TIP – if you’d like to turn on auto-captioning for any of your workshops, jams, or any other event on zoom, here’s how:

  • Login on your web browser, and in the left-hand bar of zoom, go to settings:
  • Slide on the closed captioning setting:
  • Then, when you’re in a meeting, you can click on Live Transcript:
  • And Enable Auto-Transcription:
  • And automatic captions will be on! Your participants will be able to choose to have them on or off, so you don’t have to worry about them being distracting for those who don’t need them.
  • It’s useful to remind participants to speak slowly and clearly, as auto-transcription isn’t infallible!

Making your spaces friendly to audio-only participants isn’t just about inclusion; it also adds so much to your scenes. In the first audio-only drop-in I ran, the participants spontaneously created an entire world through being off-screen; they were able to use different voices, sound effects, and audio-description to create a highly stylised audio-drama, set on a local radio station. A different part of your brain seems to light up when you remove visual cues, and it led to some hilarious scenes. But don’t just take it from me – this is what one of our participants had to say:

“Your workshop was excellent. Thank you so much for creating the perfect atmosphere for those big hitters to stride out. My brain hasn’t come alive like that, EVER in improv.”

Enough of tips! Here is a game you can try.

One of the exercises I love doing the most with off-screen participants is “You sound…”. It’s a riff on the classic game “You look / you seem”: participants go into paired breakout rooms, player one starts the scene with a sentence, which the second player responds to with “You sound…[an emotional endowment]”. E.g.

“Wow, I didn’t expect there to be so much to do”

“You sound disappointed”

They then continue the scene from there, with player one accepting the emotional endowment.

This is a fun way to get your participants voice acting, listening to subtext, and making strong emotional offers. Wordy games like “I’m a Whisk”, Word at a time Stories, gibberish games, or translator are fun, and you can do longform work by using sound edits such as “Meanwhile” or “Cut to”. I’m in no way an expert on this though; I think the most important thing is to just play around and see what you can do!

These are only very simple, small changes, but we hope that by implementing them, we can make sure our online offerings are open to all. We’re still working on it though; if you have ideas, suggestions, concerns, or just want a chat, you can always drop me a line at rhiannon@thenurserytheatre.com.

So come join us every first Sunday of the Month, 2-4pm UK Time at our audio-only improv drop-in. You can sign up HERE.

Rhiannon Jenkins
rhiannonjenkins@live.co.uk

Improviser, Actor & Facilitator | Education Administrator at The Nursery (e) rhiannon@thenurserytheatre.com

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