In improv terms, the spring 2020 semester could be described as a short-form challenge. Think Whose Line Is It Anyway?, with a seasoned team reacting to constantly changing, rapid-fire exercises. Each game lasts only a few minutes before the team starts fresh with the next challenge.
This fall, though, is more of a long-form endeavor. It’s still unscripted, with plenty of unexpected surprises, but a narrative arc guides everyone to a shared destination.
To navigate either exercise, improv performers have to begin by building camaraderie with their teammates. As with most things, for now, that means getting to know one another over Zoom.
“And that was tricky for them,” says Elizabeth Byland, instructor and head of improv performance in the VCUarts Department of Theatre. “The challenge for me was getting students acclimated, making them feel connected and supported, and honestly, helping them feel loved when they’d never, ever met their colleagues before in person.
“Improv is very much about being present with other individuals, whether we are onstage with masks and there’s six feet of distance between us, or it’s through a camera, or we’re right here with each other. We have to be just as supportive, just as present, just as loving, and just as kind over Zoom as we would be in person.”
While strong relationships among a team of improv performers gives members the trust and confidence to take risks, fresh perspectives are just as important in a craft that’s all about changing things up. And that’s where Byland has found one silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As everything shifts to a virtual environment, improv performers are finding opportunities to connect with colleagues across the globe.
“Improv is the perfect medium to bring people together,” she says. “It is thriving right now across Twitch and YouTube.”
As a teacher, Byland has been leaning into workshops from Liverpool Comedy in the UK, where she’s learning from teachers she would otherwise never have the opportunity to work with.
She wanted her students to have the same opportunities, and that’s now the goal driving the upcoming ImprovFest, set for Nov. 13 and 14.
Byland has planned a number of improv festivals in the past, bringing in performers from out of town for big, live events. But this past spring, she realized that a global pandemic might actually by the best time to organize a festival. The logistics would be considerably less complicated for the organizers. And colleges would have fewer barriers, like travel and cost, preventing them from participating.
“If we can’t be in person, then let’s double down,” she says. “Let’s lean into this. Let’s push the envelope and try to get as many people from different backgrounds, different walks of life to come together in this kind of academic setting.”
Throughout the festival, each university team will perform a set, which will be a mix of long- and short-form improv. After the performances, all of the improvisers can participate in open improv jams, where they’ll play games and do scene work together. Audience members can watch the show and interact with performers using Zoom’s chat feature.
Byland says she’s been in touch with college improv teams in the Mid-Atlantic, Northeast, and the Midwest to sign up for the inaugural festival. She even contacted universities in Alaska, just to see how far she could go. She says she’s also considering offering it as a virtual festival every year.
“It just makes it accessible for all of these universities,” she says. “Maybe this time next year, we’ll have teams from across the world, not just the United States. Because it’s virtual, we’re able to get a totally different batch of students than we might for more of a regional thing.”
She also thinks “Zoom-prov” will be around for a while, and performers should explore the new tools—like virtual backgrounds to set a scene, or the chat box to solicit audience interactions—at their disposal.
“We’re learning how to take these cool filters and use them for scenes now,” she says.
As the semester draws to a close, improv students would typically be looking to their relationships and advanced skills as they build to a final performance. This fall, they might be scaling down the production value, but their goals are no less complex. Learning to listen and be present with one another, how to roll with the punches when your partner’s video freezes, how to work with what’s available and have confidence in their choices—all of these lessons help them navigate life in a pandemic, but they’re also critical improv skills.
“It’s a different kind of roadblock, sometimes,” Byland says, “but it’s been a really cool thing to watch them claim their space and own their space. It’s empathy at its finest this semester. And honestly, I love it, because that’s the core of improv, right? We’re trying to master how to be great humans.”
Skills like active listening, being present in the moment, and quick thinking aren’t just for improv performers; they’re beneficial to professionals in all manner of fields. In addition to teaching in the Department of Theatre, Byland is also the Director of Applied Health Improv for the VCU Health Center for Interprofessional Education and Collaborative Care. She works with colleagues in VCU Health and the Sheltering Arms Institute to offer improv training for current and future health care workers. Through improv exercises, they practice teamwork, collaboration, communication, acceptance, and listening with empathy—skills that are especially important in a pandemic environment.
“They’re having to adapt to a whole new set of circumstances, just like everyone else,” Byland says. “Now that they’re masked and their patients are masked, they have to really connect with their patients, really listen and get on the same page with them. That’s what improv training is doing.”
On Tuesday, Nov. 10, Byland will lead a panel discussion about her partnership with the Center for Interprofessional Education and Collaborative Care. Register for the free virtual event, or watch the recording at arts.vcu.edu/community/faculty-lecture-series.
Image: Improv students practice on Zoom.