5 Tips for Improvising Online

This month will mark 10 months that we have been improvising online. Can you believe it? Though improvising online will never replace the thrill of improvising in front of a live audience, I have to say it’s a pretty good substitute.

During this time, I have gotten to work with students from all over the world who have taught me a lot. And John Hildreth and I have continued to do our monthly Jimmy and Johnnie show, and we have gotten to perform with improvisers from cities across the country who have also taught me a lot.

So I wanted to share with you some things I have learned over the past 10 months that have helped me and my students become even better online improvisers.

  1. Slow Down
    There’s never been a better time to slow your improv down than on Zoom. Playing with a lot of energy and moving quickly in that tiny frame is hard for the audience to watch and even harder for your scene partner to follow. Slowing down your improv will give you a better chance to read your partner’s face and connect with them on a deeper emotional level. It also looks more natural, since Zoom is a medium that is more close to film and TV than stage.
  2. Say One Line at a Time
    When you’re improvising online, giving too much information to your scene partner too fast can cause your scene partner to experience information overload. Great online improv scenes happen the same away they do on stage — when players say one or two lines at time. Less is more in this medium, and if you can condense what you are trying to say to one or two lines, you will have a better chance of doing great virtual improv scenes. That’s because the more concentrated your lines are, the more they will affect your scene partner.

    And once you deliver your line, PAUSE until you partner speaks. This will prevent people talking over each other and give your scene partner the space to emotionally react to what you just said. If you are having difficult doing this, a good exercise to start with is “One Word Dialogue Scenes,” which is helpful in teaching students that they can communicate a lot in one word.

  3. Use Your Frame and Space Creatively
    The more you can use your frame and how you are position yourself in it, the more you can change the tone and the environment of your scene. I had students position their cameras so it looked like they were lying in a bed, and it set up a rather sexy tone in the scene. I also had two students do they most brilliant thing of walking in space. How you position yourself physically can say a lot about your character. Experiment and have fun.
  4. Suggestion Tip
    Online improv is less nuanced then in-person improv, so it’s better to keep things simple when you are doing long form. One tip I have used with classes that seems to work is to tell the players that they can do anything with the suggestion they suggestion that they get, except that they can’t say the word. So, if the suggestion is “eggs,” the players can never say “eggs” in the piece. It’s so simple, it works.
  5. When Technology Fails, Incorporate That Into Your Scene
    When technology fails — and trust me, it will — incorporate that into your scene. I have seen my students gracefully take these mishaps and weave them into improv gold, resulting in big laughs.

    When a player’s screen freezes, justify it. I had a student who was doing a scene where that happened and her character took it personally and called out the other character for stopping speaking. If you or your scene partner forgets to unmute at the top of scene, call it out in character, because we all saw it. If someone pops on screen accidentally and then pops off, you need to mention it, since we saw it, too. It’s not only fun, but it also has the potential to deliver some of the biggest laughs.

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