Finding the Fun Improvising Online

The first time I did online improv I wanted to jab myself in the head with a fork. So I might feel something. Anything. Looking around at the other participants I suspected I was not alone. It was painfully slow, flat and boring. I could see myself smiling inanely but my eye kept being drawn to someone else who looked as dissatisfied as I felt. She was mostly staring down at what was presumably her phone. Or a fork.

I did what I have been known to do before in these situations, felt embarrassed, so dialled up my enthusiasm to a completely disingenuous level. By the time I turned my screen off, I was relieved to have ‘left’ and utterly exhausted. I also felt really down.

I then realised I had Covid-19. Due to being unwell, I missed the initial flurry of online improv classes. As I navigated post-viral fatigue, my troupe mates fancied meeting in Zoom rooms, but not for improv, for chats and quizzes. This felt right for us all at the time. I was grateful for the human ‘contact’. Their faces brought me relief. They were out there, untouchable and unimprovisable-with for now, but I could see they were still there.

During this period, watching online performance became a sort of salve. My improv duo buddy and I, co-ordinated tuning-in live for Andrew Pugsley’s very first Isolation. Each week, in collaboration with an improviser guest, he created a show accompanied by the musical stylings of Duncan Atkins. All parties involved, were in their separate homes attempting to create improv at a distance – on occasions, a very long distance. Sometimes the connections weren’t great, sometimes the time lags were problematic, sometimes technology failed them. One special week with two guests, Ruth Bratt had to make a rather long phone call to Pippa Evans so she could hear what was happening.

Watching these wonders felt like witnessing people defy reality. The sheer determination to keep going against all the odds was inspiring. It was infectious (pardon the pun – too soon). I remember propping myself up wearily in my bed with my laptop as I watched Rachel Parris singing about stealing tigers – at least I think that happened, and it wasn’t a Coronavirus fever dream. I resolved then to myself that when I felt well enough I’d give this thing another try.

In the meantime, bearing witness from our separate homes, my improv duo buddy, and I would message each other. We would observe the moves, the making of the narrative, and the increasing technical effects. Every Friday night, we’d be ‘there’, wondering how long all this was going to last. The show… and also the government imposed, Isolation.

In the time before, Friday night was show night so it felt a continuity (of some kind) to keep up with live improv gazing under these new conditions. And boy, could we have used some continuity! Everything had changed so fast. I don’t need to tell you, you were there, somewhere, experiencing something, no doubt pretty fast too… initially… and then very very very slowly. What happened to time?

Like many people, I was feeling cut off – isolated, funnily enough – and at a loss at what to do with myself. Having a fixture in the diary meant I had something at which to aim. Unlike watching Netflix, with online improv, we could offer suggestions to the performers through the comments function.

Now life really was getting sci-fi.

Over the weeks I got familiar with the other audience members tastes. Some preferred a story to end in a wedding, some wanted alternative worlds, some loved a pun. It was like a weird niche online family. A very distant one… for whom even meeting up in the holiday season feels a bit much.

I had lots of favourite episodes of Isolation but generally the ones with mythical beasts and talking animals were what got me the most excited. It was revitalising to be spirited off into a different world as my inner child was lacking her usual joys. The last show ever with legend Mike McShane was the perfect finale. I wanted to stand up in my living room and applaud.

Actually I did.

Well, it wasn’t such a stretch. I’d got used to clapping into the void. On Thursday evenings for a few months at the start of the first lockdown, we’d stand on our doorsteps in England and clap. Not like a slow clap.

Although we probably won’t rule that out for the future.

It was a proper round of applause because it was for the workers in our National Health Service. For visual reference on this clapping maybe imagine EastEnders… although my road is quite wide and long with driveways so the inaugural time I stood and clapped on my doorstep alone, without being able to see anyone else, as one person observed me out a window opposite, probably wondering what the earth I was doing. And wondering if they should call someone.

Watching Pugsley week-in-week-out, inspired my duo buddy, Josh Hards and I so we started tentatively dabbling. We recognised that improvising online didn’t come naturally. There was much missing from our tool belt. And finding the fun felt more challenging. We were wondering whether it was worth continuing when we were fortunate enough to be invited onto a study into virtual improv through the University of Kent.

As part of the study we had to have green screens or a wall a contrasting colour. Redecorating seemed extreme and also I couldn’t get any paint at this point – on account of no DIY stores being open… and also being unable to leave the house. So I looked through my stash of fabric I keep for an unspecified need in the unspecified future. Finally the time had arrived!

More confirmation we were living in a distant sci-fi future.

I found a huge piece of bright green fleece material. It was perfect. I strung it up against a wall and set up a station with my laptop on a table nearby so I could stand up and move about in camera shot. Josh found us some cheap ring lights we could each order online. It was starting to feel more like a professional operation… in my living room.

I realise now how being able to stand up and move more freely actually made a big difference to my enthusiasm for online improv and provided more options. For more on how embodiment can feed improv, check out Liz Peters‘ book Own It.

Before the first session of the study we had to fill out a survey to discover how we currently felt about improvising on screen. If there had been a box to tick that said: “fork-in-face level dissatisfied” I would have ticked it. The options I did check added up to roughly the same sentiment. I started off thinking it was improbable that virtual performance would ever excite me. I felt self-conscious and disconnected and couldn’t get near ‘the zone’ with a 10 foot barge pole… or even a load of lateral flow tests tapped together.

I didn’t have a barge pole hanging about either. Somewhere in the outside world was the nearest barge pole shop and it was also closed.

As our first study session approached, I felt nervous but determined to throw myself in as much as possible.

Lobby did not know why one of his arms had been sewn on the wrong way around. He would never know.

Well, why not? I hadn’t got much else to do. And my home was being filled with knitted companion animals. If I wasn’t going to be crushed under the weight of multi-coloured knitted lobster I was going to have to shift focus.

On entering the Zoom room I met Boyd Branch. He was a man behind a robot… not physically standing behind the robot like something out of the Wizard of Oz. But the brains behind a robot I’d seen improvising in a show the summer before. It was an honour to meet his face.

Boyd. Not the robot. I wonder what he’s doing now.

The robot.

Boyd would remain a floating head and shoulders until over a year later when we met him in the flesh at the Brighton Fringe Festival. It was extraordinary to discover he had legs and even a body. I didn’t recognise them, but luckily they were attached to his head. It was all starting to add up.

Boyd Branch had been developing software for virtual performance. As part of the study, he would train us up in how to navigate it and then we’d perform a virtual show. We’d also reflect on the process throughout. I felt apprehensive but also fascinated. This was something really new. And during the monotonous Ground-hog days of lockdown, it was such a welcome change of pace for which I felt very grateful.

The Virtual Director software enabled Josh and I to be beamed through our cameras, in their separate locations, into the same virtual space. Boyd would choose a backdrop for us. We could then discover the environment in which we were placed. He was able to move our images around within the screen, resize us and make us appear from behind parts of the backdrop. In one scene I jumped across the screen backwards onto a bed, in another we scurried across a rock face and climbed on top of a moon pod, and in a third I hung from the ceiling upside down painting a fresco with my feet. Boyd also had some vehicles behind which we were able to be placed, while the background moved as if we were driving said car/tractor/fire truck.

The software – Virtual Director – opened up so many new avenues. Boyd taught us how to online high-five, online hug and online slap each other in the face. We experimented with passing props between us and more than once Josh gave me a horrendous makeover by one of us turning our backs to the camera. It was fascinating how seeing this contact on screen tricked my brain. I knew logically that Josh was not in the room giving me a hug. It was empty space. However, my brain still told me something was going on as it watched me cuddling on screen.

Boyd also introduced us to filters and this is something we would take enthusiastically into our own practice and performances. If you visit Assimilate you will find lot of experiments using Snap Camera filters, including scenes where we are possessed dolls, monster siblings and sock puppets.

You can see some of our experiments in Boyd’s virtual space here and for a run of scenes we did with a filter, here. The image on the right below shows the moment I realised that I was able to hold a bright green t-shirt in front of me so that my body disappeared. Quite a silly but surprisingly satisfying trick. Josh agreed.

Stay tuned for the next instalment in online improv adventures coming soon...

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