Time to summarize 2020 from the perspective of improvisation and the improv community on a global scale – what happened and how did we deal with it? What we lost, what we gained?
I recorded this episode on December 22, 2020. I taught the last normal improv workshop at the university in early March. It was then that, before the workshops, I talked to the porter about the situation in Italy and the fact that we may also face a lockdown. We hadn’t finished our classes yet, when the porter came and said – that’s it, we’re closing, go home. To this day, the university has not opened (March, a year later). For a while, during the summer holidays, we had workshops with one of my groups in the park in good weather, then we barely started meeting at the community center and the red zones came … and that was it.
It was said then that improvisers should be the first to find themselves in the new reality, because we jump into the unknown and we find ourselves in new situations. In that situation, the natural path of development or escape was the Internet, and it continues to this day. Last spring, there was an explosion of online improvisation. I’m quite skeptical towards it, despite it’s been months – I just lack contact with a people in 3D. This doesn’t mean that these improv shows are bad … although most of them are not attractive to watch. In addition, people are tired of online and staring at the screen and ZOOM meetings, working in front of the screen and resting in front of the screen.
At the same time, new possibilities appeared. We are able to perform online, we can reach every home and we can perform on our living room floor. We’re experimenting with technology, backgrounds on Zoom, to help imagination move to other worlds. We engage the audience in commenting on the chat, we invite them to “rooms” on Zoom, which allows them to see different scenes during one event. We use music and film effects, we use different cameras. Live broadcasts from theaters are being produced on a larger scale, for example by the Ad Hoc group from Krakow, gathering over 1000 viewers in front of YouTube screens at once. You can lead online training for both business and improvisers. There you can divide people into subgroups, you can do a little show at the end for other participants.
It all works and it’s okay. I just miss some feelings. Immersing yourself in this experience with the actors and viewers. After online shows I feel that it was fun during the show, but after… you turn off that laptop and sit at home and feel nothing. A bit like a date, which was okay, but after you come home you don’t remember it anymore. It seems to me that it is hard to find love while playing online. It’s harder to get fully involved while sitting on the floor in the hallway between jackets and shoes, because there you have a clear background on the wall and a plug on the wall.
It’s harder to get absorbed in this situation and not to judge yourself, because every time you are not on the screen, you turn off your camera and suddenly you are alone with yourself. You are not standing aside, in the backstage. You don’t feel the energy of a hall full of people, improvisers, audience, your energy. It’s easier to be… cold. Through the prism of the intellect.
Paradoxically, the world had opened by shutting down. Now you can have an idea for a show with someone from the other part of the world and make it happen the next day in front of the audience. Before pandemic, it was always planned for “next year” or “when we can meet” or “when you come from Berlin”. There are now a lot of shows with people from all over the world. You can work with improvisers from everywhere, sometimes you just need to get up at night and open your laptop. Today it is not enough to put a place and time in your FB event, you have to add the time zone. What if someone from the USA or India wants to watch you? In the Beforetimes you probably wouldn’t have the opportunity to work with teachers from far away, and now you can take their workshops a minute after you brew your coffee in your own kitchen.
Time zones are my nightmare and I often get lost in them. A few months ago, I was a judge at the US College Improv Tournament, invited by Jonathan Pitts from Chicago. So… Chicago time zone. And I figured it would be 22:00 at my place, so I went to the store for some sugar, to stay up until 2AM. And it’s 8:45, Jonathan texts me that if I’m ready, I can log in there. To be sure I’m asking if the event starts in an hour and 15 minutes, and he says that the first team will start in 15 minutes. So I was running!
Another time, as I got ready to teach a workshop for Seattle-based Unexpected Productions, I was convinced that this would be before noon form me… but I counted the 8 hours the wrong way and ended up with a series of workshops at 4:00 am. I was waking up at 3:30, putting my sweater over my pajamas, opening my laptop on the couch, then running a workshop … then closing my computer, taking off my sweater and just going back to sleep on a couch. I think I had jet lag after the third workshop. I’ve seen all the people who had the energy of their 7:00 PM and my brain was confused. I was getting energy, as if it was the middle of the day, but later, around 5:00 pm, I felt “Well, I guess I have to go to sleep now.”
When it comes to online workshops, Impro Fest Online, organized by German improvisers, is in the lead. You can take workshops with teachers from all over the world for a good price. More and more theaters and schools organize online workshops and this is an amazing opportunity to work with someone you might never have a chance to work with.
Additionally, the lockdown time is a good time to focus on writing. More and more comedians, improvisers and stand-upers are starting to write and sketch comedy, I will spare you Polish examples, I’m sure you have your own.
Writing and recording my podcast have been my preferred creative activities in recent months and I have accepted that the stage have to wait. Zoom stage is not my favorite place. There are also more and more podcasts out there, and if you want to start listening, you can start with the Canadian Backline Podcast, which recently hit the 200th episode, run by Rob Norman and Adam Cawley. The pandemic also brought In Conversation with Dave Morris and Jason Geary, a Canadian-Australian duo. In last few months I took part in various recordings and talks from Hong Kong, Moscow, London, Helsinki, Seattle and Sarasota … the world is small. If you understand time zones.
However, there is one event that happened IN REAL WORLD. In October, in the middle of the pandemic, the international impro festival Spunk was held in Zurich, Switzerland. Until the last moment I didn’t believe with Bebe, my sister, who also taught and performed there, that we would be able to leave Poland at all. The corona cases were growing like crazy and every day Poland was getting closer to the limit of potential quarantine in Switzerland and went over it. Until the last day before departure, we didn’t even get excited, not to give ourselves hope. Other teachers had to cance, Omar from Spain, Alex from UK, the next players were eliminated. We made it. We joined the improv Hunger Games.
Every day of the festival we wondered if everyone would come to the theater the next morning. One of the organizers picked us up from the airport and the next day ended up at the covid test, some heavy-hearted organizers had to miss the whole festival they worked so hard for. Some of the improvisers from the performing teams didn’t come, the duo turned out to be a solo, we filled another show with a festival cast, and another group had to flee the country under cover of night, right after their show.
Imagine improvisers at a festival who can’t hug. They can’t touch each other and can’t show their smile from under the mask. However, everyone was disciplined, we had masks in our rehearsals and workshops, what’s more, the masks were off only on stage, and when you returned to the chair on the side of the stage, you had to put it on again. At the pizza party, everyone had their own individual table. The viewers could not shout a suggestion, they just had to raise their hand and were pointed out so that they would not spit at each other (wearing masks, of course). They entered the room with one side and left the other side. Nobody even groaned. The organizers took care of everyone, thanks to which we brought the whole festival to the end without having to cancel anything. As guests, we had a great time, despite the difficult circumstances. If you want to know more details about the artistic program, listen to the episode available at the top of the page.
…but the sense of smell has not returned to me until today.