Embracing Virtual Improv Classes

It is an understatement to say things have changed in the world, and improv is no exception. For the time being we cannot safely meet in person to do shows, hold rehearsals or attend classes. All the performing arts are in limbo.

Some improvisers have moved fast, and have already started doing online classes, rehearsals and even shows, using Zoom, which is a video conferencing service.

When I heard this, I was skeptical. I was resistant. Just ask my wife Lauren.

I would rather walk around filled with gloom and doom than take action. (Side note: I don’t like change. And there’s enough change going on in the world that I could not accept another one).

I wanted to bury my head in the sand and avoid this whole virtual class thing, but I knew I needed to at least look into it.

So, I started calling my friends who were already doing what I thought was impossible — teaching improv online. Kevin Reome, who teaches at Second City, spent over an hour on the phone going over his lesson plan with me, and reassuring me that doing improv online was actually fun.

Then a couple of days later, Noah Gregoropoulos e-mailed me asking me if I would like to improv on Zoom with another old friend of mine, David Koechner.

Noah was going to teach his improv class online for DePaul University and wanted to get comfortable with the technology and record some scenes to show his class. Then Thursday at 5 p.m., Noah, Dave and I all met on Zoom.

It was a reunion — an unexpected benefit from the virus. The three of us go way back to late ’80s in Chicago, where we did lots of shows together, drank too much together and hung around in coffee shops eating omelets and burnt toast after we drank too much together. We were young and arrogant, and for someone who never went away to college, this was my college and Dave and Noah were my fraternity brothers. I loved them.

The three of us met on Zoom and Dave and I did a couple of scenes.

It was like a Zoom time-machine for us. It took me back to the first time I had meet Dave and worked with him in one of Del’s classes above a Swedish restaurant on Belmont Ave. The first day we met, we played two guys looking at the sun. I cannot remember the details of the scene, except that it was magical, and we both got laughs after each line, and more importantly, Del’s approval.

In the session with Noah, Dave and I did a scene where he played an artist and I was security guard at the art gallery. Even over this video conferencing where there is slight delay, our chemistry and rhythm was back. We had to listen a little harder, which is not a bad thing for an improviser. When I saw the quality of work that can be done on Zoom, I thought, “I can do this! It will not replace doing live shows or live classes, but it’s great alternative right now.” It made me excited.

On Monday, I taught my first online improv class to a group of very experienced improvisers, and I was impressed at how agile they were with the technology and how quickly they were able to adapt to the new medium. Their scene work was outstanding.

When the class ended, a couple people mentioned that they had been skeptical, too, but were really pleased with how it went. And one person said, “I even forgot about what is going on in the world.”

Even in our isolation, we need connection. We need distraction. We need to express ourselves even more than we usually do to reduce our stress and calm our fears. I cannot speak for my class, but I know that is what doing improv online did for me.

Today, more than ever, I have gratitude for the long-lasting friendships I have made in the improv and can say that up until now I have taken them for granted. Maybe that is one of the gifts we will get from this whole paramedic situation — new priorities of what is really important. But, just like predicting when the virus will end, it’s too early to tell.

Stay tuned and thanks for reading this blog.

Are you a storyteller who wants to make your stories even funnier? Don’t miss Jimmy’s Virtual Storytelling Workshop on April 18! Sign up today!

9 replies
  1. Edward Liu
    Edward Liu says:

    I was used to using Zoom to collaborate for the day job, so trying to adapt to using Zoom for improv wasn’t quite as big of a mental shift to me. It helped that one of my foundational ideas is that improv is resistance training for acting. Improv is just acting with restrictions, the most obvious being that you don’t know your lines ahead of time. But every improv game just adds some more restrictions. Doing improv over videoconference is just another restriction. The corollary is that the restrictions are usually for training a specific acting muscle (so the classic short-form two-line vocabulary game teaches you how to say one line in a hundred different ways) — we’re still working out the unique restrictions that videoconferenced improv has and what the restriction is trying to teach us.

    Reply
    • Michael Greenberg
      Michael Greenberg says:

      I can second your emotions. I was worried about how our class would work. I had been doing Zoom meetings with my partners that resulted in talking over each other and reduced listening. They are, however, not improv actors. Your class on Wednesday night was different, but amazingly fun and also productive. And I didn’t have to worry about parking or traffic or showing up showered! Isolation is emotional poison. Zoom classes or even time just hanging out with my improv troup remedies that, not quite 100%, but enough. Thank you for the courage to try— but that’s what we improv actors do. Some scenes or shows suck, but this time it didn’t!

      Reply
  2. Bill Russell
    Bill Russell says:

    This made me think of the film you and Dave did with a jar of loose change on an ice cream shop counter…

    Reply
  3. Rebecca
    Rebecca says:

    Yes, online classes are the only option at this time. And yes, the structure can be overcome. The challenge I’m running into is that some of my students Zoom all day long and need a break. They’re opting out.

    Reply
  4. Dave Ebert
    Dave Ebert says:

    Thank you, Jimmy for sharing!
    We’ve been doing a Monday night Zoom-to-Facebook Live show the last couple weeks. There are definitely challenges (i.e. if one person’s connection starts to hiccup). We’ve definitely avoided 3-person scenes, but 2 person scenes do seem to work fairly well. We lose a lot of physicality options, though, let’s face it, most of us are so used to being in one place anyway!
    It’s never going to replace live theater. I do believe practicing, learning, and performing this way will make things that much richer once we are together again.
    God bless! Stay safe!

    Reply
  5. Craig Price
    Craig Price says:

    I have been teaching improv classes for kids online. I also have had great success with my improv classes for kids with autism online. I have found that all kids are less intimidated by the technology and are staying more focused on the exercises. They all appreciate the break from on line school and the parents need the break too!

    Reply
  6. Andrew Tarvin
    Andrew Tarvin says:

    It’s a bit different of an experience to be sure, but we’re finding that people are enjoying improv classes over zoom. A few people have told me the joined specifically because it’s virtual. They had always been nervous about going to a class somewhere, but something about joining from the comfort of their own home gave them more confidence. Some groups like ComedySportz are also hosting improv shows, taking suggestions from the comments online.

    Reply
  7. Peter Grigorakakis
    Peter Grigorakakis says:

    What games or activities have you all found work best so far in online classes? Do you try to do stuff that seems authentic to the platform or just do any games? My group of improvisers will be trying “Late for zoom work meeting” when we play tonight.

    Reply

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