Improvising at a distance | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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Improvising at a distance

Instructors adapt to online comedy and improv courses.

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When the Upright Citizens Brigade announced that it was closing its training center and theater in Manhattan last week, it illustrated the challenges of keeping improv and sketch alive during a pandemic shutdown. But for several institutions and individual instructors, Zooming over to the online world has opened up some new possibilities and also allowed them to keep an income stream coming in as their stages remain dark.

It seems counterintuitive, for sure. As Jack Helbig notes in his Reader article this week on UCB's closing, "most of the games created by Viola Spolin that birthed modern improvisational theater are intended for intensely social situations where people are on stage, together, interacting at much closer range than six feet."

But after speaking to a few improv and storytelling instructors and sitting in on a drop-in improv class offered through Second City, I can see that there are some advantages—or at least not completely insurmountable disadvantages—to the online forum.

Jimmy Carrane, who has been teaching improv and performing solo shows in Chicago for decades, made the leap online initially with great reluctance. "I am a very resistant person and very kind of old school," he says. Or, as he wrote on his blog, "I would rather walk around filled with gloom and doom than take action. (Side note: I don’t like change. And there’s enough change going on in the world that I could not accept another one)."

Yet only a couple weeks into the process of teaching online, Carrane says he can already see the benefits. "My method of improv is the art of slow comedy," he says. "So it's really about slowing down. You don't have to do crazy scenes. It's more relationship based." One of the games that Carrane has been teaching for years, which he calls "Documentary," even starts out with two people addressing an invisible camera and introducing themselves and then improvising a story about how they met. "When you use stuff like that online, it really works because—well, it's improv, right? You use what you've got, so you're embracing what is already there."

Abby Wagner, vice president of the Second City Training Center, notes that they had been offering online classes for nearly a decade, but they had primarily focused on writing. "A lot of sketch writing, writing screenplays, writing satire." But the company shifted to offering nearly all of their live in-person classes, including improv and musical improvisation, in the online realm. 

One thing that has changed is the running time for several of the courses. "Usually our classes last for eight weeks and go on for three hours," notes Wagner. "To be more accessible to people who are maybe uncertain about when they're going back to work or who don't live here, we've added a ton of 90-minute drop-in classes, or four-week classes."

I was a fly on the wall for the Second City drop-in class I attended. (The dozen students and the instructor, Jonny Nelson, knew I was listening in, but I was on mute and off camera the entire time.) The classes use Google Meet, which provides live captioning, thus making it easier to follow along.

Most of the students were from out of state, including participants from Hawaii, California, New York, Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, as well as a few from the Chicago suburbs. After a quick tutorial on the functions of Google Meet and explaining that the chat bar would be used for providing improv suggestions, Nelson told his students "If anything feels silly or awkward or weird, you're doing it right. This work is entirely about ensemble." He also cautioned them about avoiding "mean-spirited" choices in character.

Over 90 minutes, the students played three different improv games that focused on listening skills and the basic building blocks of "yes, and"—whispering back a line that the person before them had said and figuring out how to be specific with details of where they were in their online improvised world. "Specificity is your friend," Nelson reminded them. "Once you've narrowed down where you are, it actually gives you a lot more room to play." 

Given that few of them had any training in improv at the start, it went surprisingly well, and I found myself wondering how much of that was enhanced by the fact that the technology required them to focus closely on each other onscreen to keep the thread going.

"Don't plan on what you're saying next," cautioned Nelson. "As humans, our brains want to plan and plan. Slow it down, listen, and absorb." In a time of uncertainty and social distancing, learning to be here now and just stay in the moment seems especially useful.

Wagner notes that Second City is now reaching students who not only are geographically removed from a Second City training outpost, but may have other barriers. "We just sent out student surveys and I was reading some that said 'Oh, I never would have had the guts to go to a stand-up class, but I loved trying this online. It felt safe.'"

Dave Maher has been through some stuff, including a weeks-long diabetic coma nearly six years ago that formed the basis for his solo, Dave Maher Coma Show. So surviving a quarantine maybe doesn't seem that bad by comparison, though he notes with a laugh, "I was unconscious for the coma." Now he's offering online versions of classes he's taught at the Annoyance for a few years. "For me, my stuff translates pretty well to online," he says. "There's not a huge in-the-moment performative element."

Maher currently teaches storytelling and offers a how-to class on producing your own solo work via Zoom for the Annoyance. "I also teach a class called Unblocking the Artist Within which is kind of my version of The Artist's Way," he says. "It's for people who are struggling to be creative, and just giving them the tools to do that."

Maher says he and the rest of the Annoyance teaching team focused on "actually providing value to people and not just using [the classes] as a money grab. People also seem to want bite-size things, so how can we shorten classes, and how can we offer them for cheap?" As a touring solo performer, in practical terms, the classes also "serve the purpose of getting my name out there and letting people know I do more than just teach classes." But even after the shutdown, Maher says, "My plan is to keep this stuff going as at least a supplement to the in-person stuff."

Meantime, he says he's trying to adapt the material to the current reality. "A big part of the being creative and unblocking class is talking about how you spend your time, being accountable, and stuff like that. So being able to mention 'Hey, I know time passes really weirdly right now, so what are the unique properties of our days and how can we engage with them?' seems useful. I don't have any answers for that, but staying open to it is at least something I'm mindful of."

For Carrane, the online technology itself stretches the mindfulness muscles. "I had something really interesting happen which I thought was great in a recent class. They were doing a scene and all of a sudden, one of the actors had their screen freeze up. The other actor in the scene assumed, because she wasn't responding to her, that her scene partner was angry with her. So she addressed that and was affected by that. And I thought 'Wow, that's really good listening.'"

Wagner says, "Even when we go back and have these live classes, we're pretty much planning on still having the ability to do this. If you can't come or the weather is bad, you turn on the webcam and you can be in the room."

For Carrane, the online experience to which he was so initially resistant has proven to be a welcome extension of the community he's always sought in the improv world. As he wrote on his blog, "Maybe that is one of the gifts we will get from this whole pandemic situation—new priorities of what is really important. But, just like predicting when the virus will end, it’s too early to tell."  v

Jimmy Carrane 

Carrane offers six-week online improv courses, as well as storytelling coaching. Jimmycarrane.com

The Second City

Online courses for adults, teens, and kids in improv, writing, stand-up, film, and more. Secondcity.com

The Annoyance

In addition to Maher's classes, the Annoyance offers online courses in puppetry, props, voiceover, and stand-up, as well as a class on writing for late night with Peter Grosz, a writer for, well, Late Night with Seth Meyers. Theannoyance.com

iO

Classes on satire, improvised monologues, and creating personal narrative are on the iO online menu, as well as two specialized online writing classes—one focused on building a packet of sketches for Saturday Night Live, the other on creating a portfolio for talk shows. Ioimprov.com

ComedySportz Chicago

While in quarantine, the improv games troupe offers online training for businesses on team building, communication, and brainstorming. cszchicago.com

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