Separately Together; The improv teams that have never ‘met.’
A year since improv went online, I got to thinking about all the relationships and connections that have been forged between people who have never ‘met,’ or at least been in the same room together physically. Not only that, but how many new improv companies exist consisting entirely of people who have only improvised together in a Zoom room?
I asked the trusty global improv community how many people have found themselves in this situation and I was overwhelmed by the response I got. I knew about improv schools creating performance teams for their students and wider community (some of which I’ll talk about in this article) but in this past year so many ideas, shows and teams have flourished. Our imaginations have gone wild with just an internet connection and a ‘yes and’
In the beginning…
Rhiannon Jenkins, director of Hot Singles in your Area admits “I was really sceptical when everything moved online initially; I was so depressed about losing my IRL friends that I couldn’t fathom working with people through a screen. But a year on, I feel like I’ve found my groove in it. It’s obviously never going to replace in-person work, but it’s a complementary space that allows international collaboration, which I think is great”.
As Rhiannon says, online improv has, without doubt, opened up the world and allowed improvisers to connect internationally like never before. “It has been a hugely enriching experience to play with people from different cultures, backgrounds, mostly unrelated to where I come from. It opens the mind, challenges you to access information beyond your usual and is such a terrific learning ground. My improv world, outlook and play has all expanded because of this.” says Anshu Daga of Nautankibaaz Improv Collective.
The importance of playing with people from different places, backgrounds and using the opportunity to champion less diverse voices was a really strong theme that came out for many of the improvisers that got in touch with me. Velvet Wells told me that the International Players Club was created by the Black Improv Alliance as a means to connect black improvisers across North America and Llaura Hughes says “Having a mix of people from different countries brings a lot of the table. One of my groups, Don’t Mess, ensures that we bring more women/non-binary representation to improv. Whereas in Say What You Mean membership leans more towards the Asian community. It’s something I’m passionate about as during the virtual times I have found Asian representation within Improv is still very limited”.
Breaking down Barriers
Suddenly people can find each other, work together how they want and raise each other up.
Lyndsay Drummond from The Honey Spiders had this to say “Online improv has been a revolution in the way we think about and play improv. Zoom has sort of become what the mp3 was for the music industry. The democratisation of an industry overnight. Online improv has also decentralised the old power bases where once the established and older theatres took the reins on what was seen and out there, now anyone anywhere can perform shows whenever they like. Also, those who may have been marginalised through the old paradigm are finding a voice. It is an exciting time for Improvisation.”
This is also very exciting artistically, and many people got in touch and said this new world had allowed them to try out new concepts they hadn’t been able to before. “Creatures had been rattling around my head for a couple of years – lockdown provided me with the time to do it and it really suits the zoom and live-streamed world so well. It’s a privilege to get to play with and direct performers from all over the world, it’s a huge silver lining to this situation we’re in” says Chris Read of Dogface Improv. Another thing that Chris mentions here is of course change in medium, moving from stage to screen has changed things too. Sarah Davies of the British American Experience insightfully points out “My focus has been on making the online medium the hero, not the problem, just like we would on stage with celebrating mistakes etc.!”
Meanwhile, over in LA, Dan O Connor and the Impro Theatre team are making a hotbed of shows for online ‘It has spawned so much creativity in our community including Le Roundabout which is an international cast on Sunday afternoons creating a one-act play with most of the time the improvisers have never met each other. Tons of new shows like a space soap opera called Private Space, Documentary UnScripted, Road Trip Improvised as well as shows adapted for the virtual world. A new impro Talk show has been part of the burst of new stuff as well as tons of school shows and people from our community have gone off to create their own created Twitch channels Also the tech conversations about streaming have been amazing with multiple groups sharing information, tech and techniques!”
This blog was originally supposed to be about people working together online who had never met in real life but there’s another category here; people who have met face to face but have never been able to work together before due to geography or circumstance. This is certainly the case for Emma Bird of Moses and Bird “We share a very similar philosophy when it comes to what we enjoy playing and watching in improv. We share similar sensibilities, styles and preferences. The fact that we can collaborate, learn, teach and play with people beyond our city and regional borders into national and international collaborations, is incredible. And long may it continue even after we get back to ‘in person’.”
To take this even further, for some people playing with their own home companies just hasn’t been an option. “My local groups in Poland do not hang out much on zoom and are not so eager to exchange between the groups. In my local community people just mainly stopped doing improv and not being online much. The International community is the opposite having jumped right into zoom and made a new quality which will for sure influence the whole community in post-pandemic time” says Monika Ozdarska from The Art of Yes.
Monika also mentioned learning, both from each other and from previously out of reach schools and courses. Lots of people seem to like this as well as the ability to work with great teachers that they couldn’t before without paying to go to a festival or their city. Personally, I have loved getting to take musical improv workshops online with teachers like Will Naameh, Stephanie MC and Improduction’s Nelson Velasquez who when asked about this subject had this to say “If you’re not doing it, you’re missing out on a lot of opportunities. This is the reality of the game to continue working and performing until at least the end of the year in the US. Make connections globally & get silly!”
While improvisers have gone off and created their own work, some of the theatres have also tried to create opportunities for new formats and teams and have made online hubs for people to get together and jam. The Hideout Theatre, Liverpool Comedy Improv and Queen City comedy are just a few of the organisations doing great work to bring people together. Individuals are doing it too, including Martin Boedicker who has even created two Zoom ‘theatres’ “The Friday Delight Theatre (English) and The Theatre of the Moment (German). The groups are quite stable. The oldest is of May 2020. It is just wonderful.”
The Nursery (who I teach for myself for full disclosure!) has moved it’s Nursery Originals programme online. One such show has been the improv news hour directed by Pratham Sarwate & Varoon P. Anand – a short run of shows, just perfect for the on-screen format. Cast member Rachel Archer says “it really filled an improv hole in my heart. The News show seemed like a very fun opportunity. I think working in groups with defined directors; I know I’m going to learn something and it keeps things focused.”
Aree Witoelar also met his fellow cast members this way “Through an open audition. Spicebox! did a Nursery Original show in September. But we enjoy playing together so much, we’ve kept going for almost 6 months now. Our director, Marie de Waal always brings in guests with different cultural backgrounds every show. Our group has a strong shared passion (for food). Rather than being restrained by geographic location in the same city, we find our soulmates across the ocean connected by a common interest and our stories. When we are not improvising, we send each other food pictures.”
While Nursery Originals were always designed to be a short run of shows like a theatre production would be, it seems that the online versions will have life and friendships that will continue.
A kind of Therapy?
On top of all this, let us not forget the global pandemic raging in the background and the many challenges that brings. I know I for one might have entirely lost my mind had it not been for improv this year. Both in the wonderful resourcefulness of those, I already knew and in the many people, I have since met, taught, learned from and played with. It seems many of us feel the same ‘I’d go crazy if I wasn’t doing this. I personally need it. I’d planned on so much improv training last year and in a way, I got that, just not how I had imagined it. It’s the only social interaction I have with friends now too’ says Alan Donohoe of Long Distance Relationship
And these relationships while forged in a virtual world are very real. Kristen Drenning of No Pants Improv says “It honestly has been the thread that keeps me sane throughout. These are generous, kind, fun people who have become friends.”
Anshu feels this too “I hope this continues even after the physical world opens. Though we have only met online, the connection and bonds we have built are not only for a season but beyond!”
Umut Kilik of Imaginary Friends says “Initially, we thought that we can’t enjoy the improv as it has been from tiny squares of our cameras. It was so therapeutic especially in these hard times, to connect with fellow improvisers from other sides of the world, which couldn’t be possible otherwise. Although we are missing so much to go back to our 3m2 stages, online improv will be our emergency supply until then”
It’s an interesting question: is it an emergency supply? Ian Luke Jones of The Oickers notices “it is the only form of improv available right now but the ability to improvise online has literally changed my life. I hope even when the world is back to in-person improv that online sticks around.”
A New Artform
It certainly doesn’t look like this is going away any time soon. A year ago we panicked, bought ring lights and green fabric by the truckload and just got the hell on with it, but there is still much to learn.
Davide Scarafile from Ronin Factory, Milano group points out “It’s been hard. Improv training and concepts are still mainly related to theatre and stage, and theatre simply doesn’t work online, it simply doesn’t work or fits our actual skills and training. Yet if we think to improv as a process, and we put this process into a different box, we can have improv shows that look like an improv radio, improv talk show, improv web series, and so on. And that requires a totally different set of skills from theatre’s ones, to make this work and be enjoyable for watchers. So we actually are using a kind of “internal workshops” working methods, that transforms rehearsals in a kind of narrative simulation of improv process, a kind of improv role-playing.”
There are still many many improvisers who have never opened their laptop and jumped into this brave new world, and fair enough. It is completely different from before. Soon we’ll be back in our dusty dark theatres and online improv will need to adapt and grow even further to survive “Online improv is not the same as live improv, but once I’d accepted it as something else completely, I started to see the benefits of it, and even enjoy it” says Sara Van der Zande of Ghost Sheep.
Perhaps that’s the key? To think of it as something different and embrace all the benefits it brings. This year I’ve done improv with Doctors on communication skills while they are forced to self isolate at home, a friend of mine has managed to get more involved than before despite rural living and a child with special needs and for many places that don’t have an improv community at all, it’s made it possible for the first time.
As Aree says “In the world of online improv, we don’t need to wait for a theatre to give us a stage. We can connect with others via a shared passion and go create art”
For myself, improv has been a constant in my life for over 20 years. It’s not just my job, it gives me a sense of connection and meaning that’s essential for my wellbeing. As the vaccine allows our theatres and classrooms to slowly open back up again, some of us still won’t be able to access improv in the normal way. As a brand new parent, that now includes me, and I’m so grateful for the passion and inventiveness of all the improvisers that have kept going against the odds. Online improv will mean I can still do the thing I love.
Please check out these other online groups not mentioned by name above: The Peeters family, Professional Weirdos Inc, Talisman, We Polak, Close Distance, DNA Dude.tte.s, Loose Seuss, Between the Lines, GSM-Admin, The Grid, Recapitulation, Love and Improv, We need a name, Noarrr, Citylamps, Improv Comedy Bangalore.Thanks to Simone Ellul, Pierpaolo Buzza, Pranavi Pullagummi who also contributed their input.
by The Maydays, Heather Urquhart
You can join our improv powerhouse for one of her upcoming online improv electives, drop-ins and courses,m pretty much anytime you fancy, as Heather keeps busy! See what Heather and our other superstars have got in store for you here.