Online improv: a few more thoughts

Online improv: a few more thoughts

Way back at the start of lockdown, I wrote a couple of blogs about Zoom and improv online. Since then, I have, as many of us have, had my share of mental health dips and blips, but I have also had many wonderful shows and classes with improvisers around the world. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that doing and teaching improv online has got me through lockdown. Dear improvisers, thank you for that. 

So here are a few more thoughts on improv online. They are in no particular order and aren’t necessarily advice or best practice, just some observations. If they are the same as your experience, maybe that is reassuring to you. If they are wildly different, please comment or email me on and I will update this list. 

So here we go. Some new reflections on online improv:

Online improv is very tiring

Don’t mistake my meaning here. I love teaching and performing on Zoom, but I find a two hour Zoom class takes at least as much energy as a four hour class IRL. Maybe because of the constantly performative nature of it, or maybe the constant extra work of parsing reactions, it wipes me out. In a rehearsal room, I could laugh, gasp, pause a scene for a note in perfect real time without thinking about lag and sound issues. I could also look someone in the eye. On Zoom, I need to be constantly moderating and modifying my responses, curating how I want to be perceived at the other end, skipping my eyes from camera to screen, my hand on the mouse. All on top of the actual improvising. When we get back to real life, I will be able to teach class for six hours straight, no breaks. 

Online classes move slower

Because of everything described in the previous paragraph, but also because of the difficulty of concept checking and the necessity to bring people together at the start and the end of class, I think online teaching moves about two thirds the speed. When this all started, I found this very frustrating, but I am starting to accept it. Generally my rule of thumb is this: one class means one idea and the time to practise it. More than that and your brain, already working hard to do all the other things described above, just will not take it in. As in the previous paragraph, that’s just something to accept. 

Miscommunication can come easily

This is a big one. With people from lots of different backgrounds and with different experiences in the same virtual space, and without the pre-class cup of tea that brings people onto the same page, moments of tension, discomfort, the occasional ill-judged joke can rankle. They are not so easy to quickly chat about and dispel and we have less of the instinctive social cues to recreate community. This all needs care. 

At the Nursery, like any improv school, we care a lot about creating an environment which is welcoming and open to all, and while few people ever aim to say anything offensive or hurtful, it just happens sometimes. And while those conversations after can be very beneficial, they are hard to have. So have a space and mechanisms to air disputes, speak up when you need to and listen carefully and calmly. Facial expressions, atmospheres in the room, responses to what is happening, all of these are hard to read online, so speak and listen with generosity and empathy. 

Preparation is key

For those of us not yet regularly leaving our houses, being at work, socialising and taking a class are all pretty similar: you’re looking at a screen. Maybe, with a bit of luck, you have enough space to stand up for the class (I don’t). However, the mental states required for them are very different and it is worth being conscious of that. Skipping directly from a work call into your class saying ‘What was next?’ can make you feel anxious, unfocussed. You may never fully settle. I like to be ready ten minutes before class starts, do a body scan, take ten slow breaths. Managing your internal state consciously and deliberately means that when you arrive in a Zoom class or show, you are feeling the way that is most helpful to you. 

It’s not like IRL improv

I have seen some passionate and, in some cases, plain rude opinions over whether online improv is ‘real improv’. I understand that the internet is not really suited to nuanced debate, so here’s my hot take: I don’t really care. Online Improv involves some of the same skills, effects and feelings as meat space improv, but it also differs significantly. You may not get the same buzz or sense of effortless community, but you will get other things. Like the satisfying rhythm of your turn/my turn and the productive ordering of information. I am passionate enough about words to understand that they are context dependent, so call it improv or not as you wish. But getting frustrated with online improv because it is different is like getting angry at a tree for not being a cake. Far wiser and more profitable to accept both for what they are and find the joys that each brings.

Vulnerability is fragile, but powerful

Screens and cameras are strange things to interact with. They can feel intimidating, easy to shy away from. Very often screens are things we passively absorb information from. But that’s not useful for improvisation. In order to connect with people, we must show a little part of ourselves. That doesn’t necessarily mean our deepest desires and most painful secrets, just unmoderated responses. On Zoom, that can feel strange and difficult, but creating an atmosphere where people feel empowered to share and react honestly is very powerful. I start every class with a quick check in, just sharing something from your day and that seems to get you started. Sometimes it’s as simple as saying “Hey, I had a bad day, but I am looking forward to playing”.

If some of this sounds a little negative about online improvisation, I apologise. I love doing it and teaching it, but also do not want to pretend that everything is kittens and roses. It takes a while to get used to, and as a community we have only been doing this on a large scale for six months. And while we muse on how tiring and slow and fragile online improv can be, let us remember the following things about IRL improv:

  1. Commuting is terrible
  2. Most of the time you are only playing and learning with people in your own city
  3. The normal timings and locations were very hard for some people
  4. You always had to queue for the bathroom
  5. Most of the time, you have to wear shoes
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