This has been a challenging year for everyone as the COVID-19 crisis continues. Now, more than ever, people need to keep laughing, smiling and connecting. With venues closed, improvisers, comedians and theatre companies who have so enjoyed the immediacy of an audience’s response and laughter have had to adapt. We don’t just perform live, we perform live-stream!
ComedySportz UK had big plans for 2020 with new shows, festival appearances and more. Those plans are now on hold indefinitely or out-right cancelled. Perhaps that’s what happens when a bunch of improvisers start to make plans in the first place…
The improv community worldwide has responded wonderfully to the ongoing situation with a real “Yes, And” attitude. But it has not been without difficulty and challenge. The immediacy of connecting with a scene partner or player in the same room has gone. We have had to find new ways to absorb the energy and enthusiasm of our audiences who we can no longer share a space with.
In improvisation, anything can be a gift, something that adds to the scene or game. Improvisers have had to find those gifts and opportunities. We have had to adapt. We have had to… improvise.
Luckily, that’s what we do.
In this post ComedySportz players are going to discuss some of their personal challenges and how they have found the positives in the situation. This article will also share 5 tips for improvising online that we hope will be useful for improvisers anywhere. It’s a long read but hopefully an insightful and entertaining one.
This year we were planning to launch our Totally Improvised Musical, bring ComedySportz to more venues and guest with more groups across the country. This would have been our biggest Edinburgh Fringe Festival yet. It’s been difficult and painful to let those plans go even though we know it is the right thing to do. Performing without an audience makes every game and gag feel like Schrodinger’s joke, you don’t know if it got a laugh or died.
However we have adapted to this “new normal” (yeah, I hate that phrase too) of online improv with a positive attitude. We have learned to engage with audiences in a different way, with a more open dialogue in the livestream chat. We have to engage with the audience and embrace the situation. Otherwise we might as well be performing to no-one. In many ways the audience has gotten to know us better as people – returning to venues and seeing each other again is going to feel like that moment at the end of Die Hard when McClane and Officer Al meet in person for the first time after already getting to know each other so well.
It’s also been a real pleasure running some of our digital drop-ins. Frustrating in that many exercises I would love to do are no longer possible but fulfilling in that it has given people an opportunity to play, connect and, if only for a couple of hours, forget the ongoing situation and have some fun!
Even though we are isolating there is also an irony in that we have been able to connect and play with more ComedySportz teams around the world than we ever normally would and that we are doing more shows a week than ever before. In many ways this distance is bringing us closer together and making us better improvisers. Online improv demands an even greater focus and connection. It’s tiring but it’s worth it.
To give me a sense of “touring” I’ve performed everywhere in the house from my bed to our office to our kitchen and our garden! You can’t say I’m not versatile!
Teaching improv through an online medium has been an interesting experience. I was on week 8 of a 12 week (5 hours a week) module ‘Intro to Improv’ with my University students when we were told we could no longer go into our campus building. My initial reaction was panic, but then I realised that for the most part my students already had a solid grounding in improv skills. So the switch from live to screen was less daunting than if I had to start from scratch all online. We worked on how to adapt games to this medium, how to play with the space (my students really excelled at this, especially as most were using phones which meant they could literally move around their house and gardens doing/using anything relevant to the scenes and games) and how to connect well through the lens and screen.
The possibility of teaching foundation level improv solely online potentially looming in the months ahead (and I know other companies have already started on this journey) is something that I personally find a challenge. For me the joy of our Foundation in Improv course comes from seeing a group of strangers form often life-long connections and friendships. Getting to know people through a screen is certainly possible, but a longer and harder process, in my eyes.
I am heartened, however, to see that our ongoing Drop-Ins have proved successful with returning workshoppers as well as some new faces – sometimes from around the world.
Our improv shows, however, are the most fun I’ve had in years! We get to play with a new style of performance (Auto Cue is currently my favourite game), play with our surroundings and most importantly for me, chat to our fans constantly! One other extra element that we realised rather quickly was that we could have our American friends (being part of a Worldwide family does have its perks) join us! 3 months in we have been able to play with other ComedySportz players from the East to West coast of America. It has also meant that ComedySportz Manchester player Ash, who moved to Germany last year, has been able to return and perform with us!
Lockdown has meant that any opportunities for live performance have been curtailed. Venues have been forced to shut, performers and audience members having to stay at home. We now perform on zoom instead of a stage.
Performing this way presents all manner of challenges. Improvisation relies on ‘listening’ to your partners offers, and this is as much visual as anything. Even with the best hardware, issues to do with lag, and other audio and visual limitations can present difficulties in communication within a scene.
All that being said, all performance spaces present their own challenges as well. For instance, perhaps the stage is really small, or the audience is a long way from you? These factors affect how you perform, and in the case of short form improv, the types of game you chose to play in order to give yourself the best chance of entertaining the audience. So being adaptable has always been a key skill.
Using Zoom also has many benefits for improvisation. For instance, the option to screen share the whiteboard, where players can draw a story that is narrated by another player. Other great games have included ‘Pechakucha’ or ‘Public Information Film’. Here, you are narrating to random pictures or films you have never seen before, speaking on a subject that has been thought up on the spot from audience suggestions.
These kinds of games have been great fun to do, and are ideally suited to this format.
Of course I miss performing on an actual stage, and certainly I miss hearing the laughter from an audience. As a stand up, as well as an improviser, I am missing out on a significant amount of income, and am thankful that I still maintain my majority income from other sources. However, I am thankful of the fundraising we are able to do with these online shows, with fans generously making donations, including the purchase of our merchandise.
Overall, doing improv online during lockdown may not be perfect, but I’m so glad under these circumstances to have it as an option. I get to play and having fun with friends, even though we are in separate homes, cities, and even countries. We play games that would not be possible on a stage, and best of all, I get to do these games without leaving my house or having to put on pants. Surely the dream for any performer!
Improv is both the best and worst thing to do online!
As improvisers, we need to focus on each other during play. We can’t just fall into familiar patterns or dialogue and play by rote. Connectivity needs to be in place and observed. Though we are living in an age of technological miracles, live streaming isn’t perfect. It can be a challenge to focus on your scene partner when you have to deal with eye lines vs camera placement, audio lag, and technical glitches. Furthermore, we are playing without stages, environment, and the theatrical thrill of responsiveness from a live audience.
However… Improv has what it takes to make it work. We can hurdle obstacles, justify glitches, and figure out how to make games work despite the challenges. A good improviser is both a problem solver and a people pleaser.
Every day, we’re learning about how to work with the tools available. We’re finding our way to adapting old favourite games to online play AND inventing new ones born out of necessity.
It’s exciting and though I’m looking forward to being around my team again in person…I’m glad we’re not surrendering. We participate and find the fun.
5 Tips for Improvising Online
The screen is your stage – make use of the space!
Don’t get stuck on the backline or remain static. In many ways we need to start thinking cinematically instead of theatrically. We can create humour and drama by playing with the edge of the frame and how we enter/exit the audience’s view. By changing our position to the camera we can create intimacy or distance between our scene partners. We can still give a sense of space and physicality and we are not bound by the frame.
The screen is not a barrier.
Likewise we can play with the screen, “passing” items back and forth (whether physical or imaginary). We can still connect with our scene partners physically even if we’re not actually in the same room. Devise games that specifically play with these “limitations” and embrace the technology.
Adapting the way we look at each other is also vital. We need to check in with our scene partners and observe what they are doing more than we need to maintain eye lines by looking directly into our cameras – which means it can be even more dramatic/playful when we do address cameras directly.
It’s important to stay focussed on your scene even though from home you’ll have far more distractions around you than you would in a darkened theatre. Keep listening to your partner and try not to get too far ahead of what you think they’re going to say in an attempt to beat lag – you might end up talking over them and missing a great gift.
A great exercise to practice is “last letter, first letter”. Use the last letter of your scene partners sentence as the first letter of yours. It’s a great exercise for tuning in to each other and really paying attention to what your scene partner is saying.
Staying hyper-alert for a performance on an online platform such as zoom can be tiring so when you’re not “on stage” turn off your camera and close your eyes. Keep listening but allow yourself a moment to rest without getting distracted.
Things Will Go Wrong… And That’s Fine!
We always want to put on the best show we can but the audience understands that we are performing in less than ideal circumstances – they’re living with them too! So take that pressure off to be as slick as you might in a theatre of comedy venue. Don’t see lag but an opportunity for a gag! Play with the glitches and see them as an offer to change up the scene. For instance, in one match the ref recognised a player was having connectivity issues that were garbling their dialogue so switched the game to “uncle gibberish”.
The core tenet of improvisation is to “Yes, And” or “Accept and Build”. If we as a community of artists and entertainers embrace the challenge of improv in the age of COVID-19 we will continue to find ways to innovate and overcome these difficulties. Keep playing, keep making it fun and see every challenge as an opportunity. We’re improvisers – adapting on the fly is what we do best!
Online Improv with ComedySportz
We hope it will be sooner rather than later that we can all laugh and play in a theatre or comedy venue together again. Of course we want to do this safely, so even if lockdown restrictions are lifted in the coming months it may be some time before we can perform in a physical shared space together. This means performing online is likely to be the only way to see ComedySportz for some time.
Luckily we are currently doing several online improv shows a week! You can watch new live-stream shows every Wednesday (7pm BST), Friday (12.30pm BST) and Saturday (7pm BST). On Mondays at (7pm BST) we will be releasing full versions of shows filmed prior to lockdown. You can find a full schedule of shows here. You can also see ComedySportz teams play around the world by checking out the CSz Worldwide website.
If you’d like to learn with us, we are running weekly digital drop-ins and what looks likely to become a semi-regular online Stand-Up comedy course. Each digital drop-in covers an improv skill and is designed to help us learn whilst adapting to this new online stage. They run Saturdays 3-5pm BST and cost just £5.
We will continue to review what output we are able to deliver online and will be making more announcements for our short and longterm plans in the coming weeks. Until then stay safe and keep laughing!