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The Pandemic’s Effects on Improvisational Theater

Brad Knight

The Pandemic’s Effects on Improvisational Theater

We are regularly hearing about thousands of businesses over the last 12 months struggling or even closing their doors for good. It has been a tough year for just about every organization.

One of the many industries hit hard is the performing arts, specifically the live stage arts. 

What are performing arts?  


performing arts noun

  1. forms of creative activity that are performed in front of an audience, such as drama, music, and dance.

The improv world, as a performing art, has been no exception to being affected by the shutdown of live stages to perform upon. Improv relies on the very proximal relationship between each of the performers and between the performers and audience.  Also, since there is no script, improvisers are trained to be hyper-aware of the present moment.  This means things like eye contact, awareness of subtle body language, facial expressions, and movements critical to good improv cannot occur without the proximity. Like most performing arts, improv feeds directly off the audience’s energy.  What sets most improv apart though is that we literally ask audiences for suggestions to use in the performances. The pandemic has hindered improv in ways that are core to the very art. 

It’s pretty hard to have any of these important improv elements when our venues are closed down and our stages are dark.

The same is also true for both teaching improv classes and conducting improv-based corporate training.  Like improv performances, teaching and training with improv are collaborative, interactive processes.  Many exercises and games require people in pairs or small groups interacting closely together.  It’s very experiential in nature and difficult to obtain the intimacy and vulnerability required to make improv truly have an impact without the physical togetherness.

When our venue and classes were shut down, and all of our private events and trainings began to cancel, things felt very grim indeed.  

However, the improv world had two things working in its favor.  One, the inherent energy and people of improv are quite positive.  This energy has kept us from full-on collapse.  Second, our improv mantra, as you know if you’ve ever taken a class or performed in a troupe, is YES, AND.  While this is most often used on the improv stage (YES, I heard and accept the idea you’ve offered to me, AND, I agree to pursue and build upon it with you), improvisers and those studying improv also try to use it to relate to reality.  

During the pandemic, we’ve had to say “YES, COVID is a reality, with all the ways it is negatively affecting lives and our industry,” then follow it with “AND, what can we do in response?”

The improv world asked itself, “Can we improvise without being in physical proximity?”

The answer was not so much “Yes!” as “We have no other choice.”

Improv, like so many other industries, began making the unprecedented move to go 100% online.  Many troupes had little or no experience with virtual offerings and had to learn on the fly.  But soon after the world shut down, you began seeing live virtual improv shows, live online classes, and other offerings.  

This necessary transition has been a double-edged sword.  On one hand, we lose many of the wonderful parts of improv:  the physical, tangible connection; the ability to make eye contact; the energetic connection to the audience; live laughter in a single room sharing a group experience.

But we also gain the benefits which are unique to the online world:  the ability to use technology to enhance the experience with virtual backgrounds, sound effects, and breakout rooms; easy recording and editing; connecting with the individuals more personally through livestream chats and slower interactions which allow them to think a little more; perhaps most significantly, engaging with an audience, student or client anywhere in the world. 

The improv community is eager to return to its in-person roots, but it’s not without challenges ahead.  The pandemic has caused many improv companies to lose their performance and training spaces, and much thought, planning, and resources will need to occur to ensure in-person events remain as safe as possible.

Until we improvisors can get back to performing in-person for you, (and ourselves!), we’re using our flexible thinking and creativity to embrace our shift to the virtual environment.  It’s just another stage, microphone, and interactive medium. We hope you’ll support theater in its many forms, including attending our biweekly virtual shows or getting information about our virtual trainings and private shows for your organization.

And when the pandemic subsides, YES, we’ll gladly return to the stage AND, we’ll continue offering virtual events to our communities and those across time zones and continents.