This month is a very exciting one as we are getting to know all about the brand new Improv Social media website The Improv Place. It is a website community where professional improvisers share their joy for the craft and the comedy form. Katy Schutte and Chris Mead are well know improvisers on the UK improv scene and between them they have really impressive improv CVs as well as performed all around the world. Today we sit down and talk about the one thing that we are celebrating this month – The Improv Place!
How did the idea for the improv Place come about?
CHRIS: It had many inspirations. From my side – two events. Being told I was “everything that was wrong with improv” for expressing my views on a global improv Facebook group and having to create a digital community for campaigners as part of my day job. I began to imagine that there was a better way to do community than the main social media hubs. Somewhere with better safe-guarding, a diverse moderation team and no adverts, no spying, no hoarding of your personal data and interactions. Then it was just a matter if finding the right platform. I knew I wanted to do it in partnership with Katy and she definitely brought in the teaching platform element.
Tell us a little bit about the website?
KATY: It’s a digital platform that looks and feels like a social media platform, but as Chris says, it’s not evil. If you’re paying for the product, you’re not the product!
Why did you choose the name the Improv Place?
CHRIS: It was originally going to be The Improv Space (as a small nod to our sci-fi roots) but that name was taken. The Improv Place was an easy jump and I had just cried my eyes out to the finale of The Good Place anyway so it seemed appropriate. There’s actually another Improv Place that started at almost exactly the same time in Washington DC but we chatted with each other and decided we could co-exist (as we’d both spent money setting up companies in our respective countries by then).
There are a lot of Facebook groups, websites and twitter feeds for improv, what makes your site unique and stand out above the rest?
CHRIS: I’m getting good at this now. Here are the features that I think distinguish us from a Facebook group.
- Complete control of what you see in your timeline or newsfeed
- No monitoring or digital spying of your data and interactions
- Moderation by a team of improvisers who come from different backgrounds and traditions
- A code of conduct that you have to sign up to before you join (this might not be unique but we take it very seriously)
- A mentorship programme
- Community spotlight videos to introduce new members to the community
- An open Zoom space every Friday to talk with the community in real time
- Monthly themes and daily conversation starters so that, in essence, we are always getting better, always learning from each other
- Paying to join means that everyone there has made an effort to be there – it makes for a more connected and interested community
- But we also offer full and partial scholarships to access membership, classes and courses. And there’s very, very few hoops to jump through to claim that scholarship
- A curated drop in class every month that comes with your membership
- Weekly jam nights
- Because we can pay ourselves – we actively work on the site every week, The Improv Place will never become sleepy or unpopulated with content, we are always making new things
KATY: And Chris and I are there. We’re great.
There are so many interesting sections of the website, it feels very well organised and easy to connect with other improvisers. What are some of your favourite features?
KATY: As a teacher, I love that our teaching platform is super great. We can unlock class handouts and videos internally, so people just visit the Materials section for everything they need. We also have an Activity Feed for every class, so there’s no awkward gathering of emails or WhatsApp numbers, you are connected with everyone in your class as soon as you sign up to that class. Discussions about things that came up can happen live and we’ve had loads of our students meeting up to practice in between classes and having online socials.
You also have a ‘Office Hours’ even every Friday – tell us about that!
KATY: Chris and I open our ‘Office’ once a week so that people can come and hang out. Chats can be anything from serious chats about improv and improv issues to a lot of waffle about tea and lighting. People can come and go as they please. It’s lovely.
CHRIS: It’s a genuine highlight of my week.
Tell us about the courses you have on offer?
CHRIS: Our flagship course is our Masterclass in Teaching Improv. We facilitate a course to help improvisers be better teachers basically. We’re passionate about it because the more people feel they can teach their own perspective on improv, the richer and more diverse the scene will become. We’ve had over 100 people take the course so far and we can already see the fruits of the work people have put in. So many interesting and brilliant teachers and workshops. We’ve also got an amazing Inclusion in Improv class taught by the brilliant Stephen Davidson and Monica Gaga starting in November.
What has it been like launching a brand new project in a lockdown and a global pandemic?
CHRIS: I think if I’d ever thought about it in such clear-eyed terms, I would never have started. Thank goodness for incremental steps.
KATY: It must look from the outside like we made The Improv Place because of the global pandemic, but we had started the pre-launch business before COVID hit the world. It was both a positive and negative environment for us. Negative because we thought we were stepping into a gap in the market, then everyone joined us in that niche! We were hoping not to be competitors for any of our improv school friends, but we believe in abundance anyway, so… Positive because a lot more people went online for improv out of necessity. I think we grew much more quickly because online was initially the only way to connect with other improvisers.
What have been the biggest challenges launching at these challenging times?
CHRIS: Balancing making it an actual business venture that pays the bills for both of us whilst maintaining accessibility for as wide a range of improvisers as possible. That’s quite the tightrope.
KATY: Agreed. We don’t want to be greedy, cutthroat, exclusive or gatekeepy, but we do want to be able to run The Improv Place (really well) without compromising our own wellbeing.
What has been the key three things you have learnt from performing and rehearsing and teaching online?
KATY: The top and perhaps most obvious thing is that online improv is different. A lot of people are trying to squish stage improv into a screen and that has limited success. We sure learned a lot in live spaces, but there are loads of cool things that we can do in Zoom etc. that just aren’t possible on stage. Let’s not dwell on what we lost, but explore what’s new and exciting.
How has it been going so far?
CHRIS: I’ve loved it. It’s so weird to recognise a need in the wider community (and yourself) and then custom build the thing that answers that need. It’s been wild to see that other people needed that thing too. And super gratifying.
KATY: Brilliant. I’ve been comforted and excited by it. I’ve forgotten about Twitter and almost never check Facebook since we made it!
What has the feedback been like for the site?
KATY: Really great! We talk to our community a lot, so we can respond to questions and ideas straight away. We are using an experimental mindset, so we’re constantly trying new things and seeing what works for us and the community.
This year there obviously hasn’t been any festivals how do you think it will alter the way people interact with improviser for future years at big event such as Edinburgh Fringe?
KATY: We’re excited to find out! Several of our members have commented that the platform feels a lot like a festival in itself.
CHRIS: I am already a bit over-excited for The Improv Place meet-ups at festivals. It’ll be weird to see people out of Zoom boxes.
What can people expect from The Improv Place in 2021?
CHRIS: We have plans. Oh we have plans. And some of them might even be … offline?
Will you continue to do any online content in the future once everything goes back to ‘normal’?
CHRIS: That’s a 100% YES. The Improv Place was conceptualised before the pandemic, we wanted to help support a global improv community. That’s not going to change. Our vision for the Place is completely independent of any apocalypse scenario that might be unfolding at any given time.
KATY: It’s a good job we do science fiction shows, it seems to have prepared us pretty well.