We are pretty sure that Heather got COVID the week before the first lockdown in the UK. It was before tests were available, but she was unable to taste anything, so in retrospect, it seems likely. Being responsible people, and with a lack of clear information, we locked ourselves down. Then sat in our (very small) flat in North London watching months of work be slowly, inevitably cancelled.
So taking improv online was, for us, first and foremost, a necessity. Working in the arts is a hardscrabble existence at the best of times. Artists rarely have savings or safety nets, and arts companies mostly exist two bad weeks from bankruptcy. In order to eat, we had to make improv work online. So we did. We improvised.
I have written before about the surprising joy of making it up on a screen, the gradual realisation that across distance and in a tiny square box, human connection and shared creativity is remarkably possible. Brains are plastic like that. Sure, online improv isn’t easy to make into a saleable product for audiences, but the opportunity to open a laptop and be in communion with people across time zones and continents is kind of addictive. When I have a week between classes (as I did last week), I miss people that I have actually never met in real life.
Now of course, there are things you can’t do online. You operate at the speed of the internet and the caprice of the hardware, so rhythm is nigh impossible. It is hard in our bedrooms and kitchens to be very physical. Lighting and sound suffer. Eye contact is an approximation. But we have put the work in and let me tell you that it works. It’s not for everyone, but it works. I have learnt and taught as much in online improv as I ever have offline.
Because of, not despite. Let me tell you why.
When you start a class with a Los Angelina living in Texas, a Berliner (not the doughnut), a Very British Man and a Pakistani, you can’t just slide into it. Identity is complex and smashing together so many of them means we have to be careful and explicit about our differences. It becomes an essential part of the class to find your way onto the same page. How do we share something together when we are not even really together?
Sure, when I was teaching in London at the Nursery (I now live a little outside), our classes were mostly non-Londoners. We had a lot of folks from outside the UK and for whom English was not their native language. But they were all in London. The journey to the city and to the class had brought them together and established a degree of shared culture, or at least an awareness of one. This is not the case in online improv. Each improviser is simultaneously in their very own home (or sometimes work) context, and in a fluid, neutral one which is no more English than it is Spanish, Canadian or Indian. In this space, everything has to be noticed and negotiated. It’s what has made me more nervous teaching online than I have ever been off. At 3 pm, a explosion of difference will happen on my screen and it is my job to help us find a way to be together, without imposing myself on them. I have not always been successful, but I have improved.
And this is I think the biggest thing that I have learnt from online improv. How to be specific and explicit, more often and more helpfully. Knowing how to bridge gaps in knowledge and understanding, or at least that they are there. They might not need bridging at all, just acknowledging. Brains are plastic like that.
So as long as the people are there, I plan to continue teaching improv online. It focuses the mind, helps you not to take things for granted. It makes the world seems smaller and my little office seems a little bigger. I’ll keep that.