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Keeping Improv Alive During Coronavirus

Teaching improv online. Improv teacher Billy Merritt is in the top center square. (Courtesy Billy Merritt)
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Improv theaters are suffering -- they're closed, just like other public venues during the coronavirus pandemic. And the Upright Citizens Brigade's New York theater recently took it one step further and announced that it would permanently shut down.

"Huge concerns," improv teacher Will Hines told LAist. "I teach at the UCB, and I worry about it. I hope that it can come back strong...but I don't know -- a couple months of not bringing in any money? That'll shake your business to the core."

When improv theaters can open back up, Hines worries that the audience will be too broke to buy tickets, given the whole economic collapse thing.

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Improv teacher Billy Merritt also questions whether the industry will be seeing packed houses anytime soon.

"One of the reasons why I'm not teaching on my own, and I'm teaching at UCB, is I want the UCB to stay open," Merritt said.

Merritt's been teaching improv for 20 years, with three to four classes of 14 to 16 people each. Both social distancing and the economic downturn likely mean fewer people in each class when improv comes back, at least to start with, he said.


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Physical connection is also a huge part of not just improv, but acting in general. Merritt's last show before the coronavirus pandemic was with Hines, touring in Scotland.

"There are two photos of it, and in both photos, he and I were either in a deep hug or an embrace, or he was trying to choke me to death," Merritt said. "I worry that connection will take a while to get back."

Hines says small theaters that rent their spaces may be in a better position right now, able to shrink their costs during the pending economic downfall. But big theaters like UCB are likely to be hard hit.

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"I don't know this for a fact, but I would imagine they'd have the toughest challenge, because they have costs they can't get rid of while they're shut down," Hines said.

The end result could be what Hines calls a market correction, an end to what he described as an improv bubble.


One way that improv teachers are continuing to practice their craft right now is through online classes -- something that was rarely done in the pre-coronavirus world. Hines was initially against the idea of teaching improv online, but he's ended up enjoying the experience.

"I think of [online classes] like tempeh bacon, which is like, it's not as good as the real thing, but it is better than I feared," Hines said.

One of online improv's biggest advantages, teachers say, is a wider reach. L.A. teachers have students everywhere from Pennsylvania to Paris, Canada to Iceland.

"I pooh-poohed the whole idea of teaching online -- it didn't make sense," Merritt said.

But once he started doing it, out of necessity, Merritt started to see the advantages. It lets him more closely analyze each line in a scene, he said. Doing improv online also helps with pacing, as the bit of delay in video chat keeps students from going too fast, Merritt said.

While there could be a temptation for more lectures, remote improv teachers say they're trying to avoid being the only ones talking.

"Because of the pandemic, people are really bored. So they are willing to overcome the limitations of an online class just to talk to other people," Hines said. "The first couple workshops I taught, I was surprised that the energy was so high -- people were excited to just do it."


How do you teach people improv when they can't actually go see an improv class to learn how it's done? Hines said that he tells his students, "Hey, I saw this online improv show that was actually good."

One of the teams performing shows online right now is UCB L.A.'s PONY, which is doing livestreamed shows on Monday nights.

As a relatively new format, comedians are still figuring out what works in online improv - Hines expects it will be more developed by the end of the year.

One thing that's prepped people for the online improv experience? Podcasts, particularly improvised ones.

"This feels like Comedy Bang Bang, and Improv4humans, and Hello from the Magic Tavern," Hines said. "A lot of comedy fans are more used to the audio medium than they have been in years and years."

Without actors being able to interact physically, improv is bascially an improvised podcast practice, Hines said. "You just can't do body language stuff, and you lose a lot of nonverbal cues. That hurts you."

But online improv makes everyone focus more on what's being said, according to Merritt.

"I'm seeing people open up and get into scenes to dig a little bit deeper," Merritt said.

A big question for online improvisers, though, is whether to use the fact that they're online as part of the show.

A new online improv trick: using the video chat software's ability to turn the camera on and off to make your entrances and exits.

"I think very minor costume work can be very funny in an online show -- somebody just [entering the frame] with a dumb wig, or an insane hat," Hines said. "Normally that stuff is pretty hack ... but somehow in an online show, it works a little bit better. I think you're allowed to be a little sillier."


Shalimar Malimban doesn't usually teach improv, but she'd played improv games before with the elementary school children she nannines. Then she got drafted into being an improv teacher during the pandemic.

"When all this happened and we realized that schools weren't coming back anytime soon, I was really fortunate to have the parents reach out and ask me if I was interested in maybe teaching online enrichment for the kids -- and the first thing I thought of was improv," Malimban said.

Now she's teaching kids improv over Zoom.

"Being able to see everyone on the screen, it's really nice to see what everyone's thinking, how are they feeling -- oh, this child seems to be shy, so we need to bring them out more," Malimban said. "I love trying to get the kids who are quiet to open up, because I could see that's who I was when I was a kid."


Other than the kids, most of the folks taking online classes have generally been people who've already done improv, the teachers said. And even experienced improvisers can get tired on a video call.

"There's a little bit more attention to go around when you're in a class, face to face," Hines said. "It makes me have to step up my game and try to be more concise."

Merritt said that his longtime improv team, the Swarm, recorded themselves doing a show -- but planned to edit it into a five-minute best-of clip.

"That's my feeling of where it wants to go," Merritt said. "I'm personally having a problem watching an hour of improv online -- even my own."

Making it clear who you're talking to when making up character names is also more difficult online -- given the beginning level of the kids she's teaching, Malimban just has them use their real names for all their characters to avoid confusion.

Ultimately though, online improv will never be able to replace the in-person experience, according to Merritt.

"Long-form [improv], especially, is an empathetic artform that requires all of us to be in the room together," Merritt said. "It just requires us all to be there to share those little moments of discovery."


We asked improv teachers for exercises you can do yourself right now, if you want to practice or entertain yourself with while you're stuck at home, either with someone you're quarantined with or on a Zoom call.

  • Count to 20: With at least three people, try counting to 20 as a group. If more than one of you says the next number at the same time, you have to start over. Start with your eyes open -- then try again with your eyes closed.
  • One-at-a-time warm ups: These are games where everybody takes a turn doing something, and then pass it to the next person. Someone makes a silly noise, for example, and others try to copy it, and it slowly changes as it passes from one person to another -- like a game of telephone, but virtual! It's an exercise that Hines said works well in gallery view, watching the sound bounce from person to person. (You can also try to do a sound and say another person's name after to pass it to a specific person.)
  • Newscast: Pretend to be different parts of a newscast, like a weather person or sports reporter -- Malimban said this is a good one for kids, because it lets them get physical and jump around in their video chat squares, without having to be next to each other.
  • Storytelling: Go back and forth with someone, with each of you telling a story, picking up where the other leaves off.
  • Pretend you're doing a podcast: Hines said that he's heard about teams who are still holding practices -- and it's essentially like practicing podcasting together where you all play characters.
  • Two-person scenes with an added element: Merritt's been focusing his classes on scenes between two people, but he'll add small requirements, like having characters make some sort of confession during a scene.

If you feel silly or embarrased while doing these excersises, that's to be expected, Hines said -- "Practicing improv on your own is a particularly humiliating experience that all improv fans go through."
But being able to do in-person shows again, while we're fully social distancing, is probably going to take a minute.

"I don't want to go to a meadow and watch eight people standing six feet apart yelling -- I mean, that seems to be the most insane of art projects," Hines said.


Hines and Merritt both hope to keep teaching online, post social-distancing. They want to keep reaching students they wouldn't be able to otherwise, if the demand is still there. But the improv scene will likely be shifting in ways big and small.

"Speaking as somebody who's been at UCB since it was a very tiny operation, I'm sometimes nostalgic for the small days," Hines said. "So maybe this catastrophe is forcing us to be a little smaller. And maybe that will be nice."

Malimban worries about trying to get back into physical theaters too quickly.

"I'm on the side of, I'd rather wait until everything's safe -- I wouldn't want to put people in danger of getting sick," Malimban said. "Improv is always going to be there. How are we going to improvise and have fun with each other if we lose people along the way?"

Until it's all over, improv has taught Malimban how to take things day by day and accept the current situation. She's taking an improv "yes-and" view on life.

"I feel like I've just been 'yes-and-ing' this whole process, and it isn't 100 percent easy, but it's definitely made it easier for me," Malimban said. "It's not going to be a forever scene, but we're just going to keep yes-and-ing this until we get to where we need to be again."

You can find UCB's online improv classes here, and Will Hines' online improv classes here. You can also read the book about improv that they wrote together -- Pirate Robot Ninja.