Improv for Survival

After nearly two years, it felt amazing to put a show in front of a live real-life audience. We had completely lost touch with whether anything we were doing was funny. Had we got to the point where we just made each other laugh? Would it be like a pin drop as we muddled through creating the worlds that interested us but that no one else really understood? What was in store for us on that stage?

I was a different person from who I was when the pandemic started. I was certainly a different improviser. How would an audience react?

We held our breath.

On stage for our first duo real-life performance as Assimilate after two years in-waiting.

It had been a long two years.

It is already becoming harder to remember now what it was like for all the theatres to be closed, to have no stages to stand on, no real audiences to sense. My life had been defined by them and then they were gone, seemingly overnight. It was disorientating, disturbing and traumatic.

And we are constantly being reminded we are not out of the woods yet.

Ironically, the woods are where I have gone to when the claustrophobia of the pandemic has got too much. They have been my sanctuary. And it’s true, I’m not out of the woods yet; I’m still going there. The size and the longevity of the trees reminds me how small I am and I need that sometimes. I need to remember we are all passing through.

I imagine years from now the question will be, “How did you spend the pandemic?” in much the way my grandparents’ generation used to ask each other how they spent the war. The pandemic is a very different thing of course but another big collective happening that has cut across all our lives. It has felt long and we are weary. Sometimes I look around now and think of all the practical things I could have been doing during lockdown but didn’t. I have to remember that I was actually quite busy – surviving.

“It simply divided my life, cut across it like that. So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered. It took me a long time to go out and live in the world again. I felt “alienated” in the pure sense.”

Katherine Anne Porter on her experience of having influenza in the pandemic of 1918

I tried to be kind to myself during the lockdowns. It was one of the biggest things I learned, a lesson hammered home to me while having Covid-19 and also in the aftermath of the virus. I didn’t know if I’d ever recover my health so I resolved to be kind to myself whatever happened. If ever there was a time for me to learn how to be kind to me, surely it was here.

Separately beamed into the virtual performance space… which just so happens to be in space… a space in space. We’re thinking about that.

During this period we were barely allowed outside. Essential food items, medicine and an hour max exercise a day close-by were the only permitted reasons to leave home. Our worlds had become small and uncertain, uncomfortable and stuck. These were the reasons my duo buddy, Josh Hards and I applied to be part of a university study into virtual improv. After all, there was no indication as to how long any of this would last. And what else were we going to do with time?

For me, exploring the worlds of Virtual Director saved me from the monotony of everyday lockdown life. The software designed by Boyd Branch projected our images from our separate spaces into one virtual arena where we were guided by our director Boyd. You can read more about our engagement with the study here.

Improvising at a distance, and with a time lag, was challenging but at least it did allow us a chance to leave our homes in our imaginations. Some evidence suggests parts of our subconscious minds can’t tell the difference between real and imagined so perhaps this is why I feel I had a busy pandemic. Although we were separated by geography, seeing the image of ourselves placed into the same onscreen environment seemed to have the effect of making us feel we had indeed left the house on some level. We travelled in space and in time. We travelled through the air to create together, or at least visual representations of us did.

Josh and I came to realise, during the study into virtual performance, that to get the best out of online improv we wanted to lean into the things we wouldn’t be able to do in real life. A couple of months before the pandemic started we’d travelled together to Hamburg to do intensive training in sci-fi improv with Project 2, the inspirational duo made up of legends Katy Schutte and Chris Mead. It was because of this adventure that we’d started to plan a new improvised sci-fi show of our own.

We loved science fiction. It was what we’d set out to do in the before time so these strange unpredictable circumstances could play into our remit. After all, improv had now actually become sci-fi.

This meant with some creative thinking we could use improvising online at a distance to our advantage. There were visuals available to us now that could communicate our surroundings and even change our appearances without words. Our experiments with technology were given a huge boost working with Boyd Branch. He introduced us to using filters and we were so excited by them we chose to use one for our first performance. It made us look stylised, like vampiric scruffily drawn avatars and nudged us towards more eerie scenes and characters.

I think this also appealed to us because staring at yourself as you improvise can be quite a barrier to getting into a creative flow state. I suspect it gives the left brain too much to do as it tries to interpret what it’s seeing. In recordings, I would notice how much my eyes darted between my image and my scene partner. It revealed how distracted I’d become. Using a filter at least meant my image was then more of an avatar or puppet that only bore some resemblance to my likeness which created some more distance between my screen representation and me.

The audience for our inaugural online show had been invited into a closed Zoom room. Before they arrived, we spent some time warming up with another duo and they went ‘on’ first. This meant that Josh and I were sat separated, alone, for 20-30 minutes waiting for our turn. This was a completely different experience to sitting together for the same length of time before our live show while watching another act. In real life we still had an energetic connection. Onscreen this wasn’t possible so it had an impact.

Our first online show went into pretty weird territory. There was one scene we still laugh about now where Josh was in a bathtub and I was standing out to the side. I tried to scrub his back at one point but was spun all the way around instead as both the virtual director and I tried to figure out the logistics at the same time. It was a really strange scene but it’s funny how they are the ones that give you legacy laughs.

Was anyone else laughing at that moment? We didn’t know.

“Without reactions, laughter and gasps of audience, stand-ups can never be truly complete. There’s something strange about making jokes in a screen, with an awkward silence and occasional, disembodied laugh erupting from somewhere. [Milind] Kapoor says, “It’s a completely different thing to enjoy a band live versus listening to them on YouTube. You want the feedback of laughter. There’s an irreplaceable energy in the room when performing for an audience face-to-face.””

Grace Cyril, New Delhi, Hindustan Times

Given time, comedians performing during lockdown conditions opened up about how tough it was without audience feedback. This resulted, for some, in virtual audiences, like on BBC’s Mock the Week.

“It’s really helped the panellists and the comedians because it was flat without an audience. Now, some of them quite like being able to hear the audience clearly without having to be a few metres away from them.”

Mark MacDonald, UK Operations for BBC News

Our show was largely before those discussions. We had chosen to listen to the observations of previous performers who felt the mixed sounds coming from a virtual audience were distracting. We, therefore, opted on this occasion for performing with them muted. This helped us to discover that not being able to hear any laughter or reactions increased our disconnect. It highlighted to us we were people isolated in separate rooms, cut off from an audience from which we felt a million miles away. Once I turned my camera off after the show I was plunged back into my lonely room in isolation. It was a long night trying to shake off my performance adrenaline – energy that had found no place else to go.

Performing online had its challenges but working with Boyd had given both Josh and me a lot more confidence and enthusiasm for experimenting with improvising onscreen. We brought lots of the things we’d learnt during the study back into our Zoom rehearsal room.

We discovered we could have lots of fun with filters, costumes and props. We also really enjoyed using backgrounds to transport us to different locations. For science-fiction improv, this meant a whole other world of opportunity. We even tried splitting backgrounds and rigging up second screens to the side of us. An early scene we did this way was in a run-down tatty living room and was about a man with a robot second wife, which he had obtained after his first wife had died. It was moving but we realised watching it back I was looking too high up and far forward to meet Josh’s eye-line.

It took some adjustment in our setups to get it right so we could both appear to be looking at one another. Once we had, it created the impression to an audience that we were in the same space. Of course, we weren’t at all so it felt like a neat trick. We judged our scene Inventory to be the most successful using this technique.

Interestingly during that time, we played a lot of people in bunkers. We played people living under authoritarian states. We played people evading oppressive rules and regulations. We played people surviving. We poured out our frustrations into our characters. We lived vicariously through them. I’ve always been fascinated by dystopian story-telling but I think creating these worlds helped me cope with what was happening in real life.

The day-to-day living at this point in the pandemic fed into our art. It was a mash-up of nothing happening and everything happening. It was boring and sensational, dull and horrifying.

“These so-called bleak times are necessary to go through in order to get to a much, much better place.”

David Lynch

Making performance art gave me a reason to get out of bed in the morning. It gave me a community. It gave me a support network that saw me through this time. It gave me something to focus on that wasn’t watching the death count figures rise or obsessively refreshing BBC news. I did those things to start with and then, exhausted, I let them go as my days became occupied with making. And making, as humans have always done in so many forms over our time on this Earth.

I remember once seeing an exquisitely carved figurine in the Oxford Pitt Rivers Museum. The guide told us it would have taken a ridiculous number of hours to make. At a time when people’s lives were shorter, it awed me anyone would devote such a portion of their life to making. It really must have felt a meaningful use of their precious life.

It is easy sometimes to consider making art as trivial. But is it ever really so if it gives us meaning, a reason to carry on through the days with no certainties? I think it would be easy to see the pandemic as this wake-up call to do something important with our lives. But who gets to decide what is important to us but us?

“It is the poets, artists, and musicians that will carry us through the pandemic attacks into a new reality. They are the ones who tell us how to navigate, breathe, feel, think, enjoy, and fully live our lives.”

Erik Pevernagie

Creating and curating onscreen improv was time-consuming but it felt worth our time. Everything about it was like trial and error so we decided to accept that. We agreed the best way for us to perform online was going to be to record our scenes, review them and then share them with an audience. This would allow us to keep a level of control over our art. We were then able to put out into the world the scenes with which we were most proud.

Our method helped us to feel less inhibited in trying new things. We were still learning after all. And some techniques we tried really did not work. Still, there was a lot of debate at the time about whether online improv had to be live to keep the integrity of the art form. We felt a bit sheepish we’d found another way that worked for us but we also felt that unprecedented times called for different ways of doing things.

We had huge amounts of fun using Snap Camera filters but sometimes it was too much for my computer. In one scene where I had giant moving butterfly wings my laptop gave up trying to understand what was going on and I became a sort of inverted shadow butterfly. Of course, that gave us a gift to play with for the improv but it was visually very strange to watch back.

Snap Camera wasn’t consistent and we’d both sigh when suddenly a yellow circle would appear on the screen that meant it had stopped working. However, we were able to do some extremely fun things with it when my computer did keep up. Some of my favourite things were when Josh and I played Ken and Barbie comparing each other’s kitchens, when we played a series of monsters for our Halloween special and when we became sock puppets – a sock puppet mum talking to her ungrateful son who was off to sock puppet (presumably) university. I also completely cracked up laughing during a scene we called Berries where Josh had a head distorting filter that gave him a wide mouth and tiny forehead. A number of these scenes can be viewed on our Assimilate page.

Because of the technology involved in online improv, this actually enabled Josh and me to expand our minds further into the characters we could play and the rich worlds we could build. There were many things missing from our tool belt but there was still fun to be found. Boyd Branch’s study gave us a strong start to our adventures. I think it made us braver.

Our explorations with Boyd also led us – Assimilate – to ‘meeting’ The Sudden Knot who performed on the same bill as us in that first online performance. They were also experimenting with this new mode of improvisation so we teamed up with Desi and Johan from Belgium/Bulgaria for some double-duoing. It could have been a surreal double-duo-date but we had improv to do… so it got even more surreal.

It was strange to be improvising at such a distance without having met in real life but it was also a thrill to play with a new fresh dynamic. The four of us created dark horror stories with a fairy-tale flavour. We released Gingerbread and Wake Up and Smell the Coral. If you watch to the end of Wake Up and Smell the Coral you will see Lobby the Lobster (one of my lockdown knits) makes a cameo. The idea for this came from taking an online class with Carla Keen entitled ‘We Can All Be Hedy Lamar’. It was about experimenting with techniques for online performance and some of Carla Keen’s ideas were great for feeding back into rehearsals. Using objects and toys was one such suggestion. Also voicing people in images was another that proved great fun to play with.

Lobby the Lobster was made a star regardless of his backwards sewn-on arm. You can still be loved despite your imperfections. Maybe even, because of them. Lobby is not in full agreement.

Assimilate and The Sudden Knot then received an invite from Boyd to all come back together as a group for more fun with his virtual software. He’d developed it further by then so we were able to push the boundaries yet again with zooming in and using real-life backgrounds. From these experiments, we created a compilation of scenes that embodied an off-the-wall retro children’s show: Through The Cardboard Castle. It was incredibly fun to make together and is really quite bananas, and probably somewhat disorientating. I think it’s testimony to how we may have been going a bit stir crazy at that point.

I do though feel Through the Cardboard Castle is rather a good tribute to this really weird time in all our lives. It sits beside our dystopian worlds rather well. They form an archive of a kind, a memory of this other world in which we found ourselves and created ways to survive… by creating art about survival.

There are times when being kind to yourself has to come first. And so I found a way to keep doing what I loved doing, even if that was in a way I had never done before. What we managed to create defied anything I could have predicted in those early days of resisting improv onscreen. I discovered online improv could be really fun. It just took thinking of it in a different way and searching for new things with which to play. I started to think of it less as the improv I knew and loved, and more as online spontaneous stretching of improv muscles.

Maybe that wasn’t going on a t-shirt.

Assimilate doing our best Mulder and Scully impression. The truth is out there… maybe… we’ll look properly when they let us back outside.

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