The Unexpected Delights of Online Improv

The Unexpected Delights of Online Improv

‘Can it work?’ said every improviser on the internet at the same time. ‘Improvisation online?’ ‘If the point is to connect with people, doesn’t a screen defeat the point?’ But then there was no choice, and all at once, like mushrooms after a storm, pockets of online improvisation popped up all over the world. Rehearsals and jams, classes and community events. Online shows via Twitch and Zoom. Some organised by theatres, some by teams and some just by people who were bored and locked in. My social media feeds were full with people asking and answering questions about how to do it and just what to do. Stock in Zoom rose by 25% in less than a month. List of games and ingenious ways to play them proliferated. My Facebook post with some advice on how to run classes online was shared a hundred and thirty times and counting. Sure, things are challenging right now, but as a community, we got on with it.

This is, I think, the best of improvisation. We are flexible, antifragile. We have the fierceness of adaptation. We of course have advantages over theatre: a lack of formal rehearsal and the flexibility to put the show on with minimum prep. And besides, we are used to back rooms and basements, church halls and living rooms. The internet is not an ideal space, but that is nothing new to us.

I have run a few of these sessions now, and am starting to get a feel for how it works. And I have been both moved and entertained by what we have created. In the first online session which we ran at the Nursery (a rehearsal for our house team), I realised at the end of the session that for the three days before, I had just forgotten to laugh. We make do by making something beautiful in making do.

I do not mean to belittle what is happening. It is terrifying, impossible to comprehend. There have only been a few events in my lifetime that have felt this way, like the world not just was not, but could not be the same afterwards. 9/11. The fall of the Berlin Wall. ‘Paradigm shift’ gets thrown around a lot, but when they actually happen, anyone predicting where we will be afterwards is either arrogant, a fool or both.

Brecht came of age during the first world war (another global paradigm shift). So much of his poetry and lyrics are so beautiful, but this is one of the best:

“In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.”

That doesn’t mean that we have to play endless scenes about the lack of toilet paper and where to get eggs. It also doesn’t mean that we need to be Pollyannas denying reality. It means we need a space and a time to be elsewhere, unconnected with what is happening and in that we make art about and for what is happening. I am deloghted by the strange little pockets of shared creativity that the improv community provides. For ‘Where did that come from?’ moments and the ‘This definitely won’t work, but let’s give it a try’. It doesn’t mean that everything is all great, but it does mean that it can for a few minutes to breathe and be with people across the world. For those few minutes, despite it all, we have and hold each other. And that is important.

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Jules Munns

Jules is the one of the founders 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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