We have an art form whose tenets boast comfort with failure. Are any of us comfortable with this failure?
The history of pure improvisation on TV and film is almost non-existent. We have game shows and panel shows with producers live-directing the cast and much written stand-up material stuffed in where possible. Anything good that comes out of improvisation on TV or film is because of the edit. Our best examples are assisted by heavily structured storylines with alternate takes, edited into their best possible shape afterwards (e.g. Paul Feig). We have characters immersing themselves in a world where a puppet-master introduces elements for them to react off of (e.g. Mike Leigh). We have real life and emulated real life where people are aware of the cameras (documentaries/reality shows and the mockumentary style made famous by Christopher Guest). But when something is edited, it is not live improvisation. It’s writing.
So why are we trying so hard to make improvisation work online – and can it?
In these lockdown times, improvisers have thrown themselves into different camps. There are those who have switched off and avoided; feeling fear or even a sort of betrayal in learning, teaching or performing online. Then there are those whose identities are challenged by not being able to improvise live: their solution is to double-down and reinvent, imagining themselves noble where perhaps the reality is anxiety or a necessary desperation for income. I have visited both camps. For the first few weeks I felt a huge sense of overwhelm, that I should, that I was a bad person for not, that I was doing it anyway and was that unfair because I didn’t believe in it?
After the first flush, the sorting hat of post-live improv gave us clearer factions, spilled out around the community, some preaching, some struggling. Unsurprisingly, it was the strong-willed A-type coming to the fore. I will teach you how to do this new thing (that I am also just learning myself). Those comfortable with the technology are leading the blind like gurus, fake-it-till-you-make-it-ing and saying it is a kindness.
I’m a science fiction fan, so this all seems very familiar to me. I’ve lived my life with a few extra food cans in a corner cupboard; on every flight, I say Thank the Gods to myself as I imagine telling my grandchildren about the Sky Birds that used to take us to distant lands. None of this feels like a surprise, though there are very few of us – including me - who planned ahead to a time when we can’t play an actual physical improv game with actual physical contact.
In the beginning, then, we used online improv for sanity. In our Maydays drop-ins, one of our check points for a class was to reassure everyone that they may feel strange or sad and that’s okay. Our only connection as a species was found online and therefore any improv, any conversation or silly game was enough, it kept the Black Dog from the door. Everyone is in a different state of course, this is harder for some than others for reasons we all understand.
Normality was the next phase, finding something that was routine. Waiting for your favourite improv school to put on a drop-in class so that you can go along like it’s a normal Tuesday. Then a jam night or – Blessed Be! – a course. I find myself going into a week with four nights of teaching, a show or two and a podcast recording. Apart from living through a pandemic, life is familiar. But what happened to the Dark Night of the Soul? What about that bit where I cried with my whole body at the breakfast table in front of my husband, wondering how I would be able to stay independent and who I even was if I wasn’t an artist and a teacher. Wasn’t there a reason for that?
Are we just normalising our regular schtick and expecting it to work in this new medium? We smile and congratulate ourselves for doing a show or class in ‘difficult circumstances’ with all the compromises that come with two dimensions, an invisible, inaudible audience and semi-pro equipment, using an art form that hasn’t worked longform on screen… ever? I worry that we’re doing it for us and not for an audience (and perhaps that’s fine). I’ve played in a couple of passable shows and a delightful one or two, but I don’t know what they were like for the audiences. I’ve not watched them back and I haven’t been able to sit through a single full show made by any improv group. Sometimes I’ll watch the first 5-10 minutes and think ‘well done, that basically works’ and be able to take a trick or too back to the cave. Lots of my colleagues and friends have ideas (and blogs) about what works or what doesn’t work, what is or isn’t a good show or form or framing or set-up, but not that many people are asking why.
Longevity is the thing that most of us don’t seem to be comfortable looking at. Yes – we have no deadline and that’s the hardest thing of all. Perhaps if we knew it was six weeks; we’d all try and take an actual break or just tidy the house and read, but because we don’t know how sustainable we have to be or how long our money will last, we are in the dark.
What happens after?
For my part, I’ve been teaching writing, which I don’t think loses anything from being online. This isn’t a sales pitch, because they all sold out. It’s a humble-brag, then; but one that’s here to underline the point. After… all this; I’ll still be able to do that course and it will be a good one and people will still join from all over the world. But that’s not improv. Will anyone still be going to online drop-ins after the fact? No. It may be a tool for teams spread around the world, it can be an in for people who simply cannot join a live class, but I don’t think it will sustain.
My open question, then is how are we spending our time and why are we doing it that way? Let’s think of things that will last; what improv show would be better online than on stage. Can we admit that podcasting* has already totally nailed it for years? What can we do with screens and text and screen-sharing that we can’t do on stage? I don’t know, I’m an amoeba right now, but I’m pretty sure no one has cracked it because Netflix. I am the biggest fan of good improv, but if it’s a wrinkly green screen and that fucking space virtual background, I’m going to watch Better Call Saul.
What I have enjoyed are shows that take mine and your suggestions the moment we tune in, absentmindedly, half way through; I can hang out for five minutes before I’m distracted by something else. Shows that ask us to buy a ticket (from a finite number of tickets) because when we invest any amount of money, we put the show in our diaries and we stay for the duration so that our money went somewhere. Shows that then delete the show. Give me FOMO. Make me feel like I missed out and I must be there next time.
The advantages are; where we are in the world doesn’t matter. I can play with and teach anyone from anywhere and that’s awesome, even if it is at 3am. There is a limit to who can go to improv festivals because they’re expensive to attend, they may not be accessible to everyone and there are people who are committed to family holidays. This crisis levels the playing field a bit. There is a coming together – we are sharing information as we discover it. All the Zoom calls between improv practitioners, the lists of Facebook interrogations into the situation and the many blogs.
Let’s move from sanity to longevity.
*My friend Lloydie's thoughts in a great blog on podcasting in these times.