What I have learnt from an unexpected year of teaching improv online!

Blog by Maeve Ryan from Hoopla. Hoopla’s next online improv workshops are starting in January and February.

It’s a big moment! The beginner improvisers I began teaching back in April have now finished their Level 2 Performance course, and are making their debut in front of an audience this evening – online, due to the circumstances. Before my first class with this group (on Zoom), I was apprehensive about teaching online. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried: during lockdown, my improv teaching online has been a salvation for both myself and my students. We have confessed that it has provided two hours in the week when we could temporarily forget what was happening in our lives – and indeed in our hospitals and the world – and just connect emotionally and imaginatively with others. And laugh – a lot.

We have had a high number of students who did our Beginners course online choose to follow it up immediately with a performance course. Online Improv is not for everyone of course (though I have yet to meet an improviser who hasn’t got at least something out of it). The day that I step onstage at Hoopla again to perform live, or to meet a group of students whose legs I can see actually attached to their bodies, will be a day I shed a real tear of relief. However, there are unexpected benefits that come with any teaching medium, and whilst the limitations of working on screen would be obvious to most improvisers, I’d like to highlight some of the good things I have discovered over the last four months of teaching for Hoopla online.

1. It allows greater access:

There appear to be a higher proportion of people with caring responsibilities on the courses I teach than usual. As this role is still statistically more likely to fall on women, this may have been responsible for the larger proportion of women in my classes. My Level 2s who perform their show this week have only one male performer in their cast, which is very unusual. Many of the participants had had improv on their bucket-list for many years, which is quite common, but perhaps the lockdown encouraged those who hold caring responsibilities to seize the moment, rather than wait a few years for their hours and days to be less full.

There were a lot of people who were connected to London somehow, having lived there at one time, but were now living just outside, and for whom for whom the commuting would be challenging.

When someone brought up this male versus female ratio for discussion in our group, a small amount of the women highlighted other issues that I hadn’t considered. Some said that they found the prospect of performing live improv less daunting from their home, than in a hall in central London. Doubtless this will be true for many men too. Some wondered whether the public performance and competitive appeal of improv might speak more to men than women, and whether this might have made taking a class less intimidating for some women. The jury’s out on that one, but it’s an interesting thing to consider.

Finally, we had participants from all over the world. Meeting people online from Portugal, South Africa, Israel, Ireland, Turkey, Norway, the US and Canada was an unexpected thrill, and it was tempting for us all to spend our time exploiting this particular moment in time when all of our lives have more in common than usual, to just chat. Many were Londoners who had returned to family during lockdown, but many others had simply heard of the online courses and logged on, eager to meet improvisers from all over the world. The improviser and podcaster Stuart Moses (The London Improv Podcast) told me he has made genuine friends from countries he has never visited. We couldn’t travel but we could sure reap one of the benefits of travel.

2. Emotional connection is still a thing on Zoom ‘Prov:

There are games that work even better online, and there are those games that must be replaced by online versions with the same objectives. One thing hasn’t changed, however: ignore the maxim of focusing intently on your partner at your peril. Eye contact works even on Zoom, taking your focus away from yourself, so that you can surprise yourself in new and exciting ways with the things that you do and say.

3. I have developed as a teacher:

I have noticed that I have been more technical as a teacher, spotting themes and strengths in performers easily. I wondered at whether this was just a development in my practice, or something else? Having chatted a bit about this with Steve Roe (Hoopla), I have concluded that turning my camera ‘off’ on screen to watch my students has allowed me to focus more intently on what they are doing. In real-life classes, I am often tuning in to the atmosphere amongst the students in our ‘audience’ as much as what is happening on stage. This is appropriate of course – in a real-life teaching space, the best teachers are always attuned to the group energy and anything they can do to meet needs. However, on Zoom, it is as though each performer is getting their own special tutorial moment, and filling the space and time completely – except when we hear the ‘audience’ chuckle magically from their homes. The internet is also a remarkable equalising force. Everyone gets the same size ‘box’ on Zoom – even the teacher. (When we finally meet each other in real life, we might marvel that we are not all the same height!)

Teaching online has been a consistent routine, a challenge and a joy over lockdown.  Steve, Angela and Jessie at Hoopla have been incredible throughout – on the phone to talk through anything, even as they scrambled to get online improv jams going as quickly as possible for the large community of regular and experienced improvisers that congregate around our regular haunt, the Hoopla theatre in London Bridge. Which brings me to my final discovery from my time teaching improv online…

4. Real-life improv will still be fun with social distancing

Improv is about the exchange of energy between two performers and the audience. Zoom is great, but it cuts off our sense of smell, limits our vision and (occasionally, thank you Wi-Fi) hearing. Yet still, my improv groups have bonded in wonderful and intimate ways over lockdown… because that’s what happens with improv. When we meet in real life, being in the same space together will feel like a supersized, intense version of our online experiences, and two metre distancing will feel like nothing.

As a theatre actor I often toured the same production across theatres that varied greatly in size. The distance between actors would thus need to change between theatres – and if anything, the distance between actors on stage increased the tension and heightened the energy exchange in scenes, rather than reducing it. There will henceforth always be an important place for online improv classes. But I can’t wait to get back.

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