Improv acts fast and goes online

The physical distancing needed to combat covid-19 is prompting improv groups all over to go online to retain its boost to mood, imagination and social connection.

The changeover is itself improvised. Most are using Zoom, a conferencing package which can host and record up to 100 players for $14 a month. Many standard games can be adapted to the new medium.

Enthusiasts in North America, the UK, mainland Europe and elsewhere are all getting to grips with a sudden technology shift, swapping tips and finding out what works best to keep the show on the road.

Acting on-the-hoof almost invariably leads to the outrageous and absurd, as politicians have ably demonstrated, but improvising for on an amateur basis is enjoyable and rewarding. It is online as well as off.

Early online experiments with my own group have been modest so for. But they have revealed notable performances of Batman and Melania Trump and that it is still entertaining and inspiring.

Google, PepsiCo and McKinsey have accepted improv theatre classes can help pep-up employees’ communication skills and teamwork. And it seems likely to help our mental health and substance use..

Improv’s secret lies in risk and teamwork. If a teammate dries up we have to be ready to jump in and take over without knowing what it is we are going to do when the action restarts.

Accepting this is hard. I, for one, am far more used to holding back in the face of uncertainty. Settling for the first thought that comes to mind is very uncomfortable …or possibly I should say “anathema”?

But it also makes sense. If we were to abandon our teammates to the merciless spotlight, we too may soon find ourselves alone, helpless, blinking, mind blank, dry-mouthed, will to live leaking away.

Funny warm-up games are key to coming good with this, breaking down barriers to making a selfless save, while also helping with listening, timing, attention, spacial awareness and short-term memory.

So, before covid-19, as a bathtub walks to the wings, I managed a solo, bent second-class train ticket from Birmingham New Street to Liverpool. Though far from completely convincing, it passed inspection.

Working as a group we learn methods to create impromptu scenes, establishing characters, their relationships, a location and goal. The trick is to add and not subtract, the dictum being “Yes, and…”.

We often shy away from taking harmless risks in real life. So, doing it for fun is helpful, not least because more often than not it works out. And the chances of success increases with practice.

It also helps to learn it is not really a disaster when something does not work smoothly. And it can even be better. Yes, and… there is always a way back, typically thanks to timely assistance from our teammates.

Putting improv online at short notice is unlikely to go 100% smoothly. But, if improv teaches us anything, it is that it is worth cooperating to make the best of a difficult situation. ■