Some Thoughts on Performing Longform Improvisation Online

Some Thoughts on Performing Longform Improvisation Online

Last week, sort of by accident, I ended up on a Zoom call with 75% of genre/narrative powerhouse PGraph and the wonderful Vinny Francois of Improv Montreal. As you might expect, we were chatting about online improv and how to make it good. Not just what we do offline thrown onto Zoom, but something really watchable, robust. It’s a hard question and a fascinating one. I should have recorded the conversation and put it out as a podcast/video, but all I managed was a bunch of scribbled notes which I have tried to make into something useful below. I’ll do better next time.
None of the ideas are my own, and few of them are one individual’s. This is an incomplete summary of a great chat between four smart people and me. I hope it is useful to some, and will be delighted to discover what I am wrong about.

  1. Frames are fun
    Turning off self view is useful to create immersion in classes, but in shows, it can be very useful to see how others are seeing you. Plus there is a lot you can do if you can see where you are. Use the edge of the frame, make out with the camera, pass things across the internet, throw a punch. All of these things work.

  2. Stand up and make eye contact with the camera
    You would do it in a rehearsal, so do it on the screen. Cool hasn’t been cool since the nineties. Lean into the scene, engage, model the way you want the viewer to engage with your content.

  3. The player’s experience and the audience’s experience are different, but both are important
    The first will give you good shows and the second will allow others to appreciate them. You need to think about both. Don’t compromise, manage both. Work with the restrictions. Which might well mean there is a workshop version of an exercise and a performance one. That’s fine if you know which is which.

  4. The camera is intense
    If you are one of two people on the screen in a scene, your face is pretty big. Anyone who has gone from stage acting to screen acting knows this transition. The tiniest flicker, an instant of disengagement, it all reads. So listen when the other person is talking. Even more than onstage, you are always in it.

  5. There’s no auditory feedback
    Playing with no laughter is strange. It can be liberating if you let it be. You get to just improvise, whether it be five people or five thousand.

  6. Have an editing system which is lag proof
    This is what I am using right now: If you speak first, you are entering the scene, if you turn your camera on first, you are starting a new scene. It works 90% of the time and the mistakes and misreads become offers in the show. Miscommunication snowballs online as people try to clarify, turn off cameras, panic about lag. Don’t let it.

  7. Decide what kind of attention you want to create
    In my last blog about classes, I said that it was wise to nurture focus and I was roundly taken to task by digital natives wanting to tell Grandad that shared focus and multi-screen are the norm now. I take their point and apologise for being heavy handed. But. It is also true that YoutTube and Netflix are both thriving, and they have very different ways of harvesting attention. Here is a more sophisticated version of what I said last week: know whether you want people to drop in and out or stay for the whole thing, design the show for that and then choose the platform for it. Facebook people are transient, but it is easy to grab them for a moment. Twitch users are more likely to stay, though it may be harder to get then there.

  8. The chat is fun
    The chat is a much more natural way to take suggestions during the show than stopping and asking the audience in a theatre. The flow of the show can be preserved and those who are in the chat get the little dopamine buzz of belonging.

  9. Use a soundtrack
    It is very hard to sing in online improv (we’re working on it), but where strict rhythm is less important than mood, a musician really raises the game. Besides, an audience is used to music when watching a screen, so satisfy that expectation. And no, you can’t have Joe. He’s ours.

  10. Learn from other media
    Video gamers, Youtube chefs and board game reviewers have been solving these problems for years. We are not reinventing the wheel, folks, we are doing something that people have done before. We might as well learn from them.

The Maydays do a live online show on Facebook Mondays at 8pm BST (GMT+1) and you can take online drop in classes with The Nursery and The Maydays 7 days a week.

Jules Munns
Jules Munns
jules@thenurserytheatre.com

Jules is the Artistic Director of the Nursery Theatre. Jules is also the director of Impromptu Shakespeare and a member of the Maydays, as well as one half of Ten Thousand Million Love Stories.

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