5 Tips for Performing Improv Online

Blog by Liam Brennan, teacher with Hoopla Impro. Liam is teaching an Online Performing Course starting on Monday 11th May 2020. 

As the worldwide improv community continues to make its exodus on to the online domain, day by day more discoveries are being made about the pitfalls and opportunities that our new medium presents.

While many improv conventions have to fundamentally change, there are many positives to be found.  For instance, it now just takes a couple of clicks to livestream and perform your show, it’s now much easier to book international coaches and dream casts that would have been a logistical nightmare, now only require a Doodle Poll. Ah sweet Doodle Polls, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

While it’s way too early to imagine that anyone has really grasped this online improv malarky, I reckon I’ve managed to collect some useful tips from the past two months of teaching, rehearsing and performing online.

The exciting thing about this phase of discovery, is that in a couple more months this list could be totally different!

        1. All right, Mr Demille, I’m ready for my close-up

One of the biggest changes for improv performers, is that we’re now all screen actors rather than stage actors.

When performing on stage, actors tend to make everything much bigger than if they were performing on screen. This is for practical reasons. To reach the audience at the back of the room, our voices need to be louder and our gestures need to be bigger.

However, on screen, everything feels more impactful. A subtle facial gesture that would have been easily missed on stage, now takes up half of the audience’s view on screen. With screen acting, you can get a lot while doing very little.

Play around with this in your next rehearsal. Experiment with subtle movements and focus on face acting. You’ll find out that you had face muscles you didn’t even know you had!

        2. You’re living in the future! (Slightly.)

Live performance is no longer as immediate as it once was on stage. Everything you do in a live improv show is now being delayed by about 20 seconds before it reaches your audience. Living 20 seconds in the future isn’t just the lamest super power ever, it presents a problem when trying to get suggestions for your show.

There are various fixes to this suggestion challenge. Before they start streaming, some teams have taken to putting up an image that has their logo, as well as a message requesting the first suggestion they need to be written in the comments section. This means you have suggestions before you’ve even turned your cameras on.

For teams that require multiple suggestions for a show, they can ask a scene earlier.

For example, say a short form team wanted to play Pan Left (A), 3 Headed Expert (B) and New Choice (C) in their show:

  • They get suggestions for A using their starting image.
  • They do their show introduction and ask for suggestions for B.
  • They present and play A.
  • They ask for suggestions for C.
  • They present and play B.
  • They present and play C.

As a third model, you can rearrange the way you introduce the show. Most improv show introductions tend to follow this formula:

Greet the audience > Explain the conceit of the show > Ask for a suggestion > Play

However by swapping the middle two steps, you allow for the 20 second delay when getting your suggestions so it looks something like this:

Greet the audience > Ask for a suggestion > Explain the conceit of the show > Play

        3. Meanwhile, in the past…

Shows that have hosts, narrators or a figure that can keep structure to a show are probably the easiest to run right now. The classic sweep edit will have you tripping over your cat and tags will just have you oddly high-fiving your webcam.

The current difficulty with editing from within a show, is that there isn’t a universally accepted grammar for stitching together an improvised long-form online performance yet.

From the shows that I’ve watched, ‘Cut-tos’ work well as a way of clearly establishing that a new scene is starting for both players and audiences alike. I’ve found this clearer when the editor turns on their mic and camera while saying the ‘Cut-to’.

For example:

“We cut to Toys ‘r’ us head office”
“We cut to Janice’s lighthouse”
“We cut to Sally and Mary battling in the Roman Colosseum”

If you’re loose with your cut to; for example only giving a location, this establishes a new scene that has a detail to latch onto but is essentially an open scene for the players.

Being more specific with your cut to; for example  mentioning names and doing some scene painting, is a more hands on edit but useful if you want to limit a number of characters or start a scene with a more developed Who/What/Where.

If you refer to past scenes with your cut to, this is a nice way of building your longform connections and again making it clear to players and audiences that they are using details established previously in the show. Note to self: stop being crap at remembering names in shows.

Regardless of your editing method, make sure it’s something that clearly shows to both your audience and fellow players that the scene has ended. If there is too much room for ambiguity, it will leave your players lost and your audience confused. Speaking of which…

        4. The Ratings War

Audience members: have you ever wanted to leave a live show that you weren’t invested in? You sure have! If only it wasn’t the height of rudeness and if only the performers couldn’t see you as you not-so-subtly shuffle out… But I’ve got some good news. Now you can leave any show you want with total anonymity and go on with living your life the way you want to!

In addition to thinking about how to get an audience to watch our shows in the first place, we also need to consider how we’re going to keep them watching. Or more specifically, why should they be watching right now?

One route could be to think about: how do you continue to engage your audience and reward them for remaining engaged? Shows that allow for lots of suggestions and audience agency are a potentially good shout here. 

Another path may be to accept that your audience will be dipping in and out throughout the show and design your show around that. Afterall, if an audience member starts viewing the show 5 minutes after it’s started and they don’t understand what they’re seeing, they probably won’t stick around for long. Likewise, if the live audience’s sole role is to say a suggestion at the beginning and then to just sit there and watch, the improv is going to need to be amazing to keep them invested.

If your show is low on audience agency, it may be worth considering making your show into a podcast or a web series. This could be an easier sell, as it means you won’t be asking audiences to give up their evenings and instead watch/listen at their leisure.

This point is probably the trickiest challenge to answer and I certainly haven’t solved it yet. However, if we put all of our heads together on this, we could be on to something very special.

        5. This could go into any improv blog but… Slow down and listen

When improv first made the transition to online, a lot of people were talking about the problems with tech causing a slight delay between the performers. This delay is an inevitable consequence, as all of our offers have to travel down the internet wire (I’ll try to refrain from any more technical jargon) before it reaches our partner.

However, as the world has gotten used to talking to each other over video chat, online improv shows have become noticeably less staccato. People are getting into the rhythm that has long been mastered by Youtubers, Streamers and Newscasters to name but a few cases. Luckily, after a bit of practice and with a half decent internet connection, the impact of the delay is minor.

What the delay did go to show, is that we’re probably not as good at listening as we thought we were. It’s now much more punishing when people talk over each other or don’t give their scene partner breathing room. It results in an audience just hearing garbled sound and it becomes difficult to follow the scene.

The takeaway is a reminder of what we were taught in our beginners improv workshops: slow down, listen, focus on your partner and make their offer more important than the belter of a line that you were going to say.

Blog by Liam Brennan, teacher with Hoopla Impro. Liam is teaching an Online Performing Course starting on Monday 11th May 2020. 

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