This week we have a very special guest writing an article for Improv Corner. Steve Morgan is a British comedian and improviser who is a cast member with easylaughs in Amsterdam. So sit back, relax and read his Guide to Online Improv.
One of the many side effects of the Coronavirus pandemic has been a shift by improv troupes from the stage to the screen. With performances and jams no longer a possibility, the improv community has done what it does best and improvised alternative solutions to keep going. However, there has been no gentle learning curve with this progression into the online world, and very little guidance on the dos and don’ts. As part of Amsterdam’s easylaughs, we’ve done several shows this way to date, and while some things have been great, we’ve made great efforts to try to learn from the mistakes that we’ve inevitably made along the way.
As you can imagine, some formats work better than others, with two key limitations being lag and a lack of direct interaction. Just try playing Count To 20 or Bunny Bunny and see how much harder it is in this medium. Improv scenes are harder to control the more players you have, but with the additional lag, this is even more exaggerated. You’re better off doing most of the scene work with two players and to play up pregnant pauses. Wordier formats work better overall, but don’t forget to incorporate physicality and prop work to stop your shows becoming more like meetings. You’re at home, so have access to more objects and clothing than you ever normally would, so use it to your advantage. Combine this with custom backgrounds and suddenly there are a lot of things you can play with.
“…Set up a Facebook group with your cast and crew only, so that you can create a private Facebook Live videos for testing.”
Guessing games and backline games work well in this format, especially when it’s just the host that has access to the audience comment suggestions. Long forms can also suit the formats well, especially when you tailor it to naturally fit the scenario you’re seeing on screen. You don’t have to literally address the fact that you’re in a glorified teleconference, but that is also an option. Don’t be afraid to rework your existing formats to better suit this way of performing and better still, try something completely new. You can also be more flexible with duration of your shows. People watching haven’t left their couch, so whether your show is five or fifty minutes, do what works for you.
When we perform on stage, we put a huge importance on annunciation and projecting our voices and ensuring that we face the audience to ensure that they can follow everything that’s happening. The same thing is true online, but with each player essentially doing all their own tech, it becomes a bit more complicated.
easylaughs use Facebook live in combination with Zoom for our performances, using Facebook comments on the live stream for audience suggestions. There’s always a risk when depending on technology when putting on a show, and no matter how ready you think everything is, you should always run a full rehearsal the day before your show to be sure that everything is running smoothly. Set up a Facebook group with your cast and crew only, so that you can create a private Facebook Live videos for testing.
Ensure that your “studio” has enough space for you to move about comfortably in. Walk around the space on camera to understand where your boundaries are. Set up with a plain white wall behind you, preferably at a height where you can perform standing up. Standing gives you a different energy than sitting, and more flexibility to move around. Custom backgrounds that are available in Zoom can suddenly increase the number of locations that your scenes can take place in. You don’t have to have a green screen to use these, but it does work better if you do have one. If you are using custom backgrounds without the green screen, then ensure that you wear darker colours for a strong contrast.
Unless you have an expensive webcam, the best quality streaming camera you probably own is on your smartphone. It might be worth getting a little tripod for your phone to ensure it’s stable throughout the show. If you prefer to use a laptop then check that the camera quality is sufficient beforehand. If you’re using a laptop then connect it via cable rather than using Wifi to ensure a more consistent connection to the internet and reduce the risk of dropouts.
“…some formats work better than others, with two key limitations being lag and a lack of direct interaction.”
Ensure there is no light source behind you, as this will cause you to become silhouetted on camera. If possible get something like a ring light around the camera itself pointing towards you. For a cheaper option you can also put lamps either side of the camera source so that you are lit from the front. Remember to turn your camera off when you’re not in a scene, and to turn it back on when you’re in a scene.
For sound, a standalone microphone and Bluetooth earpiece are the ideal, but if you don’t have both of those things, then use the combined audio / microphone built into your device. When you use a standalone mic in combination with your device’s speaker, then there is a greater risk of a feedback loop or echo. Remember to mute your microphone when you’re not in a scene, though it’s better to leave it on when in a backline game. It takes a bit of getting used to the lack of laughter or audience response, but you get more used to it over time.
“If you are using custom backgrounds without the green screen, then ensure that you wear darker colours for a strong contrast…”
There’s a lot more to it, but these tips should give you some ideas to get started with. Most importantly, don’t forget that this is supposed to be fun. There’s so much you can do with online shows and never be afraid to try new things or customise your approach to best suit your troupe. Don’t be afraid to try new things that aren’t perfect first time around. It may not be the same as being on stage, but look at the positives, you’re bringing your improv to the whole worldwide community. Look at this as a time of excitement and that’s what it will become.