“Most [Chicago players] agreed that real improvisation was incompatible with television. Television would never capture the spontaneity, audiences wouldn’t feel the connection, and network executives would never take the chance”Amy E. Seham. Whose Improv Is It Anyway: Beyond Second City. Jackson, Mississippi: U of Mississippi P, 2001. p.221
It’s fitting that I conclude this “A” to “Z” of improv where this journey started for me. This project began in response to unexpectedly finding myself isolated from my improv community during the lost years that were 2020 and 2021. Like so many others, I turned to writing and technology to fill this spontaneous void. My in-progress spring university classes – all performance or improv-based – suddenly had to convert to online formats. I also faced a sabbatical where one after another exciting improv project vanished into the COVID ether. Like countless other artists around the world, I toyed with creating workshops and shows online: enter zoomprov.
As I write this final entry, I’m unsure if online improv will remain a permanent part of the live improv landscape or when (if?) life fully returns to normal if such experiments will retreat to the shadows and become a forgotten footnote in the ever-evolving history of our artform. Most of us encountered steep and unforgiving learning curves when it came to housing the spirit of improvisation on our computer screens. I think it would be fair to say that while a few companies have found some success, the resulting work both is and isn’t improv as we knew it prior to these odd times. In most instances, the performances are devoid of any live laughter or perceivable audience reactions save those seen fleetingly in a chat box. There is also something equally exciting and off-putting in the knowledge that most pieces are being viewed live while also being recorded for future observers. And then there is the reality that often players are now boxed into a talking heads dynamic unless they have the technical means and bandwidth to set up a home studio of sorts. (Am I allowed to voice I won’t miss any of these particular realities?)
In my own experiments the issue of focus quickly emerged as a critical new challenge. Communicative pitfalls, such as over-talking, under-energizing, and middle-of-the-road waffling, became magnified in the online realm. The thoughts that follow are offered with this particular lens in mind as lessons from zoom also reinforce and polish best practices for live embodied improv too. And so, I close this three-year series with…
Zip, Zap, Zoom: Focus and Online Improv
1.) Keep it small. At first when I was faced with the sea change that was 2020, I aimed to keep my syllabus and structures as planned. But I quickly found that the more students or improvisers that we used in a scene, the more likely communication missteps undermined the integrity and flow of the action. When I simplified nearly all of my scenic work into pairs (sometimes with a third waiting with “camera off” in the proverbial wings in case they were needed), the process and results became noticeably stronger. In this way, actors can also set their scene partner as their exclusive focus on the screen and have a fighting chance to make a more honest and fruitful connection. If you are playing in a larger group, turning off your camera as your character leaves is an obvious but helpful choice as well to minimize visual clutter as well.
2.) Don’t ramble. A move online, for many of us, made us rely too heavily on our verbal gifts as improvisers: on the screen it’s easy for our bodies to become disengaged and for our words to lose specificity and agency. If we are cognizant that our words must carry the majority of our meaning and offers, then we must be economical and deliberate with those words. We should use each word with care, and make sure that we are providing clear and dramatic final punctuation. As our partner awaits behind their monitor, it doesn’t forebode success if they are constantly unsure if we have, in fact, finished our sentences… or if… we’re still contemplating… how we might finish… our sentence. You get the (online) picture.
3.) Use old-fashioned gives. My introductory improv classes always include a unit on giving and taking focus as, I note, without a playwright or director in the traditional sense of those terms, we are responsible for always knowing where the focus should be on stage at any given moment. Especially if you’re in a larger group, throwing the focus carelessly into the air will typically create either a prolonged awkward silence or a cascade of overlapping dialogue as your teammates try to figure out who was organically next in the scene. Use character names often (or familial equivalents such as honey, son…) to mark the next likely speaker especially as the scene is being established. Clearly shift your focus and the target of your emotion on the screen to designate your focus throw and explore tonal shifts to provide clues to your partners: most of us don’t talk to our parent with the same energy or voice that we talk to our significant other, and we can mine these distinctions to help share focus around.
4.) Scenic painting can help. If you can find simple ways to refer to your environment, and the people in it, you can set each other up for clear entrances and initial dialogue exchanges. If we’ve been sitting at that restaurant table waiting to be served for what feels like an eternity, observing the carefree waiter who seems to be avoiding us, when we note that “I’ve finally caught their eye” and “they’re coming over,” we have set this improviser up for a clear focus transition. If you don’t have the technology or skill to make clever green-screen background changes or add ambient sounds, heightened scene painting strikes me as a must in general as it allows for more fully fleshed out worlds to play within.
5.) Err on the side of interruption. This may be a personal preference, but the dead air between speech acts in zoom-based improv is one of the features that makes it most uncomfortable for me as an observer. If we’re using some of the strategies above, we then need to jump into scenes with abandon thereby risking cutting off our partner(s). If someone interrupts you, embrace that they clearly thought you were wrapping up (or that you should have been wrapping up). If, as a group, this becomes too caustic or combative, check in afterwards and adjust the aggressiveness of your takes accordingly. Connected to this strategy is making sure that your scenes have an energy that would justify such a strong approach to focus gives and takes. Deadpan or under-energized characters are equally as problematic on the screen as they are on the stage.
6.) Use the technology. For good or evil, if you’re improvising online then that is your reality with all its inherent promise and complications. If your audio cuts out, that needs to be justified. If you didn’t catch what someone said, you need to honor that and ask them to repeat it or make an assumption. If you’re a professional at changing backgrounds or have someone who is adept at wrangling different improvisers and screens onto a common online stage, then make sure that person is deeply thanked and use those dynamics to the best of your abilities. Again, perhaps a personal preference, just note that meta scenes about characters using zoom have largely been played out so look for content elsewhere. And if your performance is so dependent upon perfect technology showing up then the battle to fearlessly play and improvise may have already been lost.
This entry is based on one of my first blog posts and it’s interesting to rework these ideas three years after I first tackled this issue. I’m particularly struck by the fact that most of this advice clearly transcends the site of the virtual stage. Uncluttered scenes, deliberately concise dialogue, and clear gives are all important skills to hone and have served as worthy entry subjects in their own rights. And perhaps this is the biggest take away of all from the online years that many might view as at least partially lost: improvisation finds a way even in the most trying times and becomes enriched when we’re open to viewing old techniques from a new perspective.
Related Entries: Focus, Give, Sharing Focus, Stage Picture, Take, Talking Heads Antonyms: Split Focus, Waffling Synonyms: Online Improv
Cheers, David Charles.
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Connected Game: Camera, Narrator, Actor, Actor