Five Questions We Need to Answer about Improvising Online

Five Questions We Need to Answer about Improvising Online

By any estimation, this is the first major wave of online improv. It has happened before of course, but now the entire community is buying ring lights and clipmics, rigging up greenscreens and sharing Zoom pro accounts. I (like a lot of improvisers) have done a few online shows and am sitting in a hastily cobbled together home studio. It does the job, gets something out there and as Joe Bill said to me last week, if all we accomplish at the moment is that ‘Hello’/’Hello’ feeling of still knowing someone else is out there, that’s no bad thing. 

With the inadequacy of the US and UK responses to this crisis, there may be months of this first wave and maybe several more waves before we go back to some version of normal. Any attempt to predict how improv will respond is like someone having seen a film of a train coming towards the screen in 1920’s Paris trying to predict Tarantino. Remember how they said that talkies would never last?

I understand the impulse to just get something out there, of course. We are trying to keep our businesses going and our mental health intact. But I think it is also important to take a step back and ask what we are asking here.

With this in mind, I am asking five questions that I think we need to answer as a community. I have some ideas and suspicions, and you, dear reader, will have some too. Let us be humble and confess that most of what we think will turn out to be at worst wrong and at best contingent. That’s ok, that what improv is for after all. 

Before the questions, this from physicist James Clerk Maxwell:

“Thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science.” 

Here are my questions.

How do we nurture focus?

In a theatre, there is only one option for focus: The stage. That is where your eye is drawn most of the time. It is mostly bad manners to look at your phone and chatting will often have you asked to leave. But the Online space, by which we mean in your house, it is so tempting to double screen, click away for a second, let your attention split. One of the reasons, I think, why online improv can be so much more tiring than offline is that you are constantly resisting that temptation. So how do we keep people focused without bossing them around?

What do ‘live-ness’ mean?

The easiest definition of theatre – as opposed to film, television or a game – is that it is live. The creating and the doing are happening at the same time. This may be why recorded improv can feel strange; the sparkle and danger is gone. Unlike a live show, it is very easy to record and retain an online show. One click and it’s there forever. (You can watch our Maydays show from last Saturday here.) But should you press that button? And how do we make shows designed for consumption both live and later?

What does ‘here-ness’ mean?

I live with my partner who I have also toured the world improvising with (26 countries and not counting). I flatter us that we have got some game, and if we wanted to, we could stick a camera in the front room and hit ‘stream’. But then I could just as easily do a show with friends from the other side of the world. How do those two things interact? How can I do both and get the best from both?

How do we interact with our audience?

It is a bizarre feeling to be doing a show from my study, to know that a couple of hundred people are watching, but hear no response. Improv isn’t all about the laugh, but it is a huge part of it, as well as the silences and gasps. And those little accidents that bring the audience and players together are hard to fake. There are chat functions of course, and shows which take suggestions throughout can do some very interesting things, but what other ways of interacting are there? How do I see all those lovely faces? And should I even want to?

How do we leverage the technology?

This is the huge one. Zoom is good. It’s fast, stable and the breakout room facility has been working very well for us for classes. It has a basic virtual backgrounds function which looks ok and it integrates with facebook. But. Tagging in and out and editing scenes is a little clunky (Alt-V to turn off your camera and make sure you are hiding non-video participants). You can’t psychically know when a line is going to finish, so lag will always be present. There are some people online talking about a platform specifically for improv and I am very interested to see where that goes. If you are reading this, please let me be involved in testing. And then how do we do group games in this medium? How do we get past the visual of boxes on a screen without pretending it’s not happening?

How does our improv have to change?

Those improvisers who are trying to find a format and a platform to do what we did in a theatre are, I think, like those doughty old actors proclaiming to the balcony with a camera five inches from their face. To be clar, I am one of them. Each generation of artists proves the previous one wrong in ways neither could ever have predicted. What is mumbling to some is exquisite naturalism to others. This is the largest question I think. How does the texture, rhythm and content of our improv have to change to embrace the medium?

Some of these questions may prove to be the right ones, and some may not. The painful thing for those of us with a few years under the belt is that we are now in a new medium and the only place to try it out is public, exposed. Two and a half thousand people watched our first stumbling attempt at a show. It was ok, but certainly not our finest work. That’s a little hard to accept. 

So let’s not jump to the answers. They will happen when they happen. Let us revel in the experimentation and do what we ask every new improv student to do and say “I don’t know”.

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