After six weeks of teaching improv classes online using Zoom, I wanted to share with you some scenic exercises that I have had success with in this whole virtual format. They are simple and straightforward, and I have found that they have helped the students become more comfortable with the format, which seems to be a concern of theirs when they first start improvising online.
- Starbucks (2 players)
I have found limiting the movement of the players when they first start doing online improv classes helps them with their comfort level.This scene will take place in a Starbucks. One person will be barista and one person will be the customer. Ask both players to stand in their respective spaces and agree on the environment — the height and placement of the counter, the pastry case, etc. in their frame. Also, alert the players that they may pass objects to one another. The barista may give the customer their coffee, baked good or change from their purchase.
To avoid the trap of this becoming a transaction scene, let the players know they are choosing to either break up with the other person or ask the other person out on a date. They don’t have to decide beforehand. Hopefully, it will be discovered as they go. This exercise gives the players a shared history and a want, and it forces them to start in the middle through limited environment work. I have also seen players create and react to imaginary customers who are also waiting in line. Tip: Since the other players are muted, I have actually done voiceover walk-ons as another customer, which is fun for the players to react to.
- Office Zoom Meeting (5-6 players)
After watching an SNL episode a couple of weeks ago where they did a sketch about an office meeting on Zoom, I decided this was ripe to use as an improv exercise as well. It’s simple. Have five or six players pretend they are going to an office Zoom meeting, where each player is playing a different type of person you may find in the office. Have the players briefly discuss beforehand the different types of people who work at this office, and then assign someone to run the meeting. I have found this exercise is a great way for players to establish characters and a point of view immediately. You could be an IT guy with an “I can’t be bothered” attitude, an HR person who is concerned that everything is inappropriate, or a shy receptionist who has never been included in meetings before.
- The Hook Up (Done in pairs for three beats)
This is the most complex of the three exercises, and my Master Level Class just recently tried this form in front of an online audience. In this exercise, each pair is given the same scenario. They have just hooked up and had a one-night stand. The pair does three beats in the scene in a time dash, much like if you were doing three scenes in a Harold.
- First Beat
Location: Apartment, the morning after the hook upPlayers can only speak in numbers starting with one and consecutively going to around 30, or until you feel they have made a strong emotional connection. For more advanced players, the scene can end after about 20 numbers.
How to edit: Edit the scene after the pair has reached the desired number. The players will then turn off their video and audio, and the next pairing will turn their video and audio on.
- Second Beat
Location: A diner, 20 minutes after the first beat.The pair can only speak in one-word dialogue for the entire scene. I have experimented with the players using a real mug from their kitchen, to help ground them more and make it more clear for the audience watching it.)
How to edit: To edit this scene, the teacher should walk-on as a voiceover say something like: “Here’s your check.” The players may continue to talk for a couple more seconds before they turn their video and audio off.
- Third and Final Beat
Location: Inside an Uber after they just left the restaurant.The pair can now use regular dialogue, stressing one or two line at time. When done right, the players have used everything they have created in the first two beats and the third beat is an emotionally connected relationship scene. These scenes can reach real emotional depth and pathos and have almost a film quality to them as you watch them. (I have experimented with allowing the players putting a real jacket and/or hat from their closet in the third beat.)
How to edit: To edit this scene, you as the teach will play the off-screen Uber driver and will say something like, “We are here,” or “Here we go.” Then the pair may continue talking for a few more seconds until they turn off their video and audio.
When all pairs have gone three times the form/exercise is done.
I hope you have as much success with these exercises as I have had so far in my online improv classes. As always, feel free to take what you like and leave the rest and if you have any other scenic exercises that having been working, I would love to know about them. Please, please, please, include them the comments below. Thanks for reading and stay safe.