Virtual Improv? Yes We Do! How to master challenges in a playful way

Who would have guessed in January of 2020 that musicians, Berlin Clubs (United We Stream), theaters & museums would move their performances into virtual space? Many institutions like Schaubühne offer their archives for viewing online, but how does it work with really interactive formats like improvisation theater? We met Kiva and Noah of Barcelona Improv Group (BIG) on April 21st, 2020 for a Zoom conversation to talk about the matter and how they continue to create closeness, virtually.

The audio can be played at our podcast bleibim.haus on anchor.fm and at your favorite podcast platform – just search for bleibim.haus.

Kiva Murphy, a Barcelona-based french-irish improviser is a trained actress and clown. She leads several workshops with the currently virtual BIG School of Improv with a lot of love for laughs and her versatile input. Additionally, she leads the theater group called No Guilty Bones and directs theater plays and movies.

Noah Levin hails from the US and studied drama & education. The talented show host introduced (improvisation) theater to many grown-ups and kids over the years and performed in well-known comedy clubs in New York City.

BIG School of Improv has been making Barcelona laugh out loud for more than 8 years and in addition to their professional improv gigs, amateurs can experience & indulge in their improv classes. BIG offers 10-week classes also online and Drop-In workshops.

Favorite tools for improvising online & off

Zoom is the software of choice of many companies and also improv teams out there, also for BIG School of Improv’s classes. Google Hangouts sometimes substitutes the former for different types of meetings like language classes or when talking to family & friends.

Also, online meeting tools are coming in handy for movie nights with friends. When improvising of course other tools like music, objects or props are used in the digital theater. Zoombombing hasn’t really impacted virtual improv so far, on the contrary it could be seen as a welcome prompt for new scene work :).

Changes in improvising virtually felt by body, mind & soul

For Noah & Kiva, there are  two perspectives for digital improvisation. As a teacher, you need to facilitate a group of people who are enthusiastic about the play and who want to have a good time with their peers. They seem to view virtual improv at times as a kind of replacement for therapy, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.

When teaching for 90 minutes and only seeing boxes with faces on a screen, it very demanding to stay present and make sure everyone is doing well and having a good time. Contrary to performing in person, where the group leaves into the night fully charged with energy, these 1,5 hours of screen work are hard on our eyes.

The other perspective is the professional improv actor’s play. The lack of physical contact leaves a feeling of cut wings when performing. But this very fact also makes online play more interesting because people now need to listen more carefully and interpret their character differently. Improvisers now have to take more turns and focus more on their counterparts, which can also be challenging.

The whole improv game has definitely slowed down, no matter if playing or looking at scene work. Improv has become more polite virtually, because people don’t interrupt each other that much and because there is less crosstalk happening in scenes. The forced listening leads to the positive effect that people build much more on the character of the other, that they need to stop talking at some point and that their punch lines are much more on point.

Moreover, miming has not been that much of a stressor playing as it is in person. This really takes the tension out of scene work. People can focus more on dialog and emotional expressions on their faces – it could as well be a master class on facial expressions and listening for a deeper interpretation.

Virtual distractions, higher concentration & a kinder improv game played by internationally close-knit communities

Even though there is higher focus and more active participation in scenes, there are also more distractions. Browser tabs, our smartphones and maybe also our roommates or family members who also share our home in these quarantine days. After all, everything outside the camera angle cannot be seen by anyone, so nobody may notice me doing other things like reading my news feed.

Kiva thinks that it is a lot about being nice to ourselves and adapting our expectations to what can be achieved. There’s so many impulses which we now can give in to much easier because we’re physically alone and nobody’s watching directly. Although this has not been the case during her virtual improv classes, she feels that 90 minutes is kind of enough in terms of concentrating. Nevertheless, some teams have that much fun that they want to stay longer and do more improv in the online meeting.

The main point is to keep as many participants actively engaged during the sessions as possible, says Noah. Many teams have been moved to working from home overnight, as did BIG, so the main thing is to learn new things with every online workshop and training run.

Generally the improv community is tight-knit and these days many teams now also share their tips and learnings with the others. Especially exercises, games and structures which help involving people even more. In respective Facebook groups one can find useful and inspiring suggestions, help and feedback to open improv questions. Another effect Noah has observed is that cohesion between teachers has grown internationally, possibly due to the fact that all teachers, no matter if expert or newbie, now are at the same stage: the new lands of online improv if you like. 

Depending on the daily dose of remote work, some people are more or less willing to get into another online meeting in their evenings. BIG School of Improv will definitely offer online classes, probably also beyond the quarantine. Additionally, BIG is now running their teambuilding and communication training for (corporate) clients online. With this, they aim at helping teams to communicate clearer, to listen more deeply and to get along better with colleagues whom we now only see in virtual meetings and not at the office coffee machine anymore. 

Improvisation theater can help a lot to master the social and communicative challenges which arise especially in more stressful online team settings. It can drastically improve team atmosphere, team cohesion and interpersonal communication on all channels.

Noah Levin, BIG School of Improv, 21.04.2020

Another aspect is the more pronounced internationalization of improv-groups. Due to the lessons being held purely online these days theoretically anyone with an internet connection can join classes. This provides new possibilities for friendships, virtual closeness and fun not just for experts but also for amateurs.

Differences of online & in-person classes on Zoom

The more we practice online improv, the sillier we can be! 😜

Posted by Noah Levin on Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Kiva likes to use different setups in her in-person classes. Depending on the exercises, people walk, come together in a circle or work in pairs. There is a lot of diversity while playing, talking and trying including differing skills and techniques representing the entire spectrum of acting. This means not just using the available space but also to jump dynamically between lightening up, inspiring and concentrating. In online improv, this is very different. Although you can do smaller group exercises and plays in breakout rooms, the feeling still is different.

Noah recalls a positive twist of the online, confined-at-home plays. In Zoom for example you can use different backdrops for varying scenes. Also, players can use costumes or objects which serve the scene. This is possible faster and in a larger variety as when playing in person in a neutral location or theater where materials may not be that abundant. Participants really get creative rotating the camera angles, adjusting the lighting or using other technical tools which makes the scenes feel more sci-fi-ish.

The remote improv tipping point to go all online during Spain’s curfew months

There was a wild 24-hour-period on March 11, 2020, where the BIG teachers discussed the upcoming spring term’s organization. At the time people could still go to cafés and practice social distancing while meeting, washing hands and the such. During this meeting the received the first text messages on the smart phones. “I didn’t even know about quarantine plans back then when several students asked ‘Are classes cancelled?’ I went on to ask why they would think so, but then we saw it in the news. On the TV in the café we saw the headlines that schools & universities in Madrid would be closed.

We then went on to sharing articles & information about the pandemic, including the medium article about the spread of the virus if no measures were taken. We finally decided to cancel all in-person classes as late as 45 minutes before the upcoming class that day.”, recalls Noah. The next day things happened as we know: first travel restrictions & bans were issued, the day after the complete lock-down from Monday onwards was announced. Noah jokes: “Within 48 hours our world completely changed from ‘All is normal, this is an Italy problem.’ to ‘Buy all the toilet paper, now!!!!!’ “.

Kiva remembers the first reactions to the cancellations: “Some students wrote ‘You’re taking this too seriously, why the waste of classes!’ and then 24 hours later ‘Thank you so much for looking out for us, our health and for reacting that fast!’. The difference in 24 hours was really remarkable.

The wildness of quarantine within 48 hours & the people you’re “locked up” with

Noah also had to cancel an international improv retreat in Berlin, where participant numbers dropped within a few days from 30 to 3. Those three people really went to Berlin finally and started their quarantine together in a Berlin apartment doing improv for a couple of days.

If we think about the weekend before, where we all were just living our lives and meeting friends, it is outstanding how fast some governments changed this normality. Kiva renarked: “There will be strong friendships built during this quarantine and in the years after we will tell stories about where and with whom we spent our lock-down. These stories about grandparents, roommates or pets and the (lack of) connections we’ll have built will stay with us for a long time and make us laugh.

Further tools for improvising online

Kiva uses music in her classes and a little whiteboard where she gives cues to improvisers without interrupting them. Additionally, she uses the chat to give direction to the scenes. For preparation, she also checks out the notorious improv Facebook groups to get inspired.

Noah is actively taking part in other improv group’s classes, for example at The Nursery. He likes to watch international shows, e.g. played by Texan improvisers Parallelogramophonograph (this is their facebook page), who played in 2016 at the BIG improv festival. He also likes to watch other artist’s performances, like Sacha Hoedemaker, who plays an improvised song a day based on audience suggestions on the piano during the quarantine. The Sing It performances by Joe Samuel & Heather Urquhart of The Nursery & The Maydays is another example of how musical improv  performers reinvent themselves & their shows virtually. Many have found a way to change the crisis into something positive, be it movies created entirely online, pub quizzes or musical performances.

We had a fantastic time today at our Character Class. We created some incredible characters that left us all in…

Posted by Kiva Murphy on Saturday, April 11, 2020

What a person can learn from online improv for their daily life & virtual closeness

Amidst new forms of creativity, online improv helps to connect with new and old friends and to see this moment of isolation in a new light. A word said can evoke many different thoughts and reactions in others and will therefore develop a story piece by piece. 

Kiva says that it is about finding a playful way to deal with the lack of direct contact with our peers. In online improv class, the moment can be used to express oneself, to feel and to materialize ideas – just as you would do offline. “It is a real pleasure and satisfaction if you make someone else laugh at your jokes, which is something that happens a lot in this form or theater!”, states Kiva, “It’s not just a nice way to see friends again but a real fun way to talk about something else than corona with them.” Even though teachers are really tired after the 90-minute blocks it feels good to see people looking forward to the lesson and that this improv class can be a highlight of the week.

My first virtual improv class as a teacher

Noah describes his first online class as quite relaxed. “First of all it was about improv and people did not see technical issues as that essential. I was more interested in how the exercises that the teachers planned from offline to online would work out the first time of doing them in the new setting. The directions would have to be given via audio only and physical demonstrations were possible with limits only. I think a big part of it was to be very open about the fact that this was something new that I had not done before and that it was tested virtually as we went along. This helped a lot, and students were understanding and helped if something did not work.

Kiva experienced a bit more pressure at first, because she prepared for multiple scenarios of exercises and technical issues, like if the software crashed or there was a delay in the meeting. She recalls: “I felt quite limited in my way of teaching, which has become more easy to handle over time. What also helped me personally a lot was the overwhelmingly positive reaction of my students to the first online class. They were first time improvisers and they just were so happy, thankful and full of joy to be playing together online that this really stuck with me as a really outstanding experience.

Moments of remote improv truth during quarantine

People are tough. People want to be in touch with other people and if it does not work in the usual ways, the online meeting is a good substitute. People are resilient and they will rise again after the corona situation is over.

Kiva Murphy, BIG School of Improv, 21.04.2020

Noah feels that the way we share & give to other people also has changed: “As non-frontline workers we can feel blessed to be at home and have a more or less relaxed routine than system-relevant workers. We can be in the luxury of our home and take part in creative & social happenings and can support ourselves in different networks. People are sharing their knowledge and support each other in many positive ways, be it by going shopping for elderly neighbors or help by teaching fractions to parents homeschooling their children, like I have done this morning. Giving back to the community has taken on a new meaning.

Unfortunately, this last course suffered from "partial" attendance 💙

Posted by Barcelona Improv Group on Friday, May 1, 2020

Honest transformations during & after online improvisation

Players are more honest online than in person.” says Kiva, “This may be because we are not physically in the same location. Students share in a check-in round how they feel and some have taken a time-out to just watch if they had a long day. But when they see their friends perform and laugh, it is not long before they jump back in and participate. And in the end, when we look at each other’s faces and at our emotions, we notice that we are all giggling, happy and laughing. There is definitely a transformation from being tired of your day and lack of energy to ‘Oh no, let’s do another game!’, also for me as a teacher.

Noah confirms the importance of check-ins at the beginning. “You can’t just jump in and start. The check-in will take longer than in person because only one person can talk at a time, but it is essential for common understanding. It brings the element of honesty into improvisation. Because with every character we play we also reveal a lot about ourselves, our lives and emotions.

We need to give ourselves & others time and room to express that, even more so in online interactions.

Noah Levin, BIG School of Improv, 21.04.2020

Where to sign up to BIG classes & corporate trainings

If you want to try international online improv with BIG check out their sessions here. Important updates and most recent pictures are shared in the BIG Facebook group.

In 2021, the 7th edition of the international BIG IF 7 Improv Festival in Barcelona will take place. If you want to participate in workshops with international improv expert teachers or just want to watch this is the perfect excuse for spending time in Barcelona. Companies can book team building sessions & communication trainings inspired by and based on methodologies to build trust and cohesion used by actors preparing for plays and movies. 

Who should do virtual improv as a team cohesion training, in a drop-in class or for a complete term

Kiva says: “Anyone should join us, no matter if you’re a beginner or pro, in Germany or the US, everybody finds their spot with us. We also do shorter drop-in workshops to get to know what we do and how we play. Finally, we help companies to improve their communication in teams and to reduce tensions in an uplifting way.”

The big advantage of improv is that it’s really personalizable for a wide array of challenges in teams and interactions. No matter if the energy is out, if your online meeting does not work out because people talk a lot: Feel free to get in touch with BIG and we will build a personalized workshop for you to use new ways of cooperation which is based in the specific needs of your team members. We can help individuals as well as teams to express themselves better and therefore work more efficiently together.

Noah Levin, BIG School of Improv, 21.04.2020

A last piece of advice for humans locked up at home during Covid-19

Play as much as possible. We are doing little competitions on who can drink their 2 litres of water faster or who completes washing the dishes more often in a week. Our house Olympics will have 6 levels and will also feature medals and award ceremonies. This takes out the gravity of confinement at home to a certain extent., shares Kiva.

Noah says: “You don’t have to shower every day, but it helps if you do it anyway 😉.”

Planning the next round of classes and workshops – lots of new options coming soon!

Posted by Noah Levin on Tuesday, May 19, 2020

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