Friday 7 August 2020

Online Improv: Zoomed Out

Very few people would have predicted that we would all be doing our shows online so soon into the future. But that’s what has been happening. And as many of us discovered or are discovering, it’s not the same as doing it on stage. Whilst a lot of the core skills are transferrable, there are some things that are very different.

One huge difference is the lack of an audience and the direct feedback of an audience responding and thus shaping what we are doing. The shows lose a lot of that “live factor” which is a big part of the appeal of an improv show for an audience and is the reason that even the best improvised TV shows have none of the excitement of seeing it live.

Probably the biggest hindrance for performers is not being in the same place as our fellow players. We can’t truly look them in the eyes and get that deep connection. There is a lag in the conversation so our reactions don’t feel in the moment as much as in several moments ago. We can’t often be as big physically as we once were as we’re either performing within a narrow rectangle or we’re sitting down. This leads to a lot of ‘talking heads’ scenes where two actors just stand (or sit) there and talk with little movement or emotion.

Part of what makes it difficult is that we are trying to apply our skills to a new medium. We all learnt the core skills of paying attention and reacting constructively, and at the same time we learnt how to express them on stage, in a theatre setting. We call ourselves improvisers, but we could more accurately call ourselves “stage improvisers,” the same way you talk about “stage actors” and “screen actors.” The main reason we don’t is that screen improvising didn’t happen all that often, and when it did, it was usually done by stage improvisers and the setting was usually stage-like. Or it was done by screen actors and it was only part of a thing that was mostly scripted.

But now screen improvising is happening all the time and we realise they are different beasts.

As an actor, the transfer from stage to screen is often a difficult one. If you are used to performing on stage, you are used to projecting so the whole room can enjoy you. Bellowing like that into a mic will not win you many friends. You are also used to injecting your emotions into your whole body, often exaggeratedly so. In acting on camera, less is more.

The style of improvisation that many of us learnt (cheeky, exaggerated, stage comedy a la music hall/vaudeville) doesn’t really work. We have to take our inspiration from TV acting. It can still be exaggerated and comic, but within different parameters. Acting for screen is smaller, but still there is energy and intensity, it’s just very often internalised.

Sets are another limiting factor. In improv, because the action can be set literally anywhere, a group will either perform in front of a neutral curtain with some plain chairs for everything else or have a million pieces of furniture all lying back stage and a set of stage-hands ready to deploy. At home, the default choice would be to find a blank wall or hand a neutral curtain. As any visible furniture kind of gives a location. If you have the time and your device is portable, you can quickly create a location in another part of your house to best represent the next scene, but again, this is can be a distraction or possible delay although can be impressive if pulled off well.

Now there are virtual backgrounds, but not everyone can use them and quite often they are more of a distraction than something that genuinely sets the location. So be careful. Practice using them with your group but see how you (all) feel about the results. Unless everyone has devices that can handle it well (and not all can) and you know how to set them up quickly, they might just get in the way and take you away from being in a few moments ago.

The place where there is a real win is props. On stage, miming objects makes so much sense. In improv, most of the time we don’t use them, because you either have a large enough collection of them that you can find something usable or you have nothing and mime everything. (The middle ground is where you have a limited set of props because you know the setting / genre beforehand.)

Miming, however does really work on screen. Fortunately, we are mostly performing at home now, so we have within a short sprint, practically a full set of everyday household objects. (Maybe the history of improv ask-fors hqas been leading us to this moment. “Can I have a house-hold object and a room in a house?”) If you know there are things you are likely to want in a scene, it just takes a little thought to have them available within arm’s reach.

One other area, we have to adjust is in our director’s heads. As improvisers, we have different heads: we are actors, co-writers and co-directors all at the same time. But there are big differences between directing for stage and for screen. So instead of thinking about where we are on the stage, we can think about how far we are from the camera and where we stand in the frame. We even have extra choices we don’t often have on stage, such as extreme close-up. We can even play with angles in a way the stage doesn’t lend itself to.

All these are things an audience understands and to a degree expect having been watching TV for much of their lives. We also, really, should be thinking about what’s on screen: i.e. the shot the audience is seeing. A dialogue on TV will usually cut between the two speakers, but the convention for an improv show is that the two people keep their video on. The main problem being that as it usually has to be controlled by the actor and switching your own video on and off is clunky, but some conferencing software allows a host to control what is seen and I’ve seen some shows using live-TV software. Both of these mean that actually means the role of a director (or live editor) makes sense. Very much the way it makes sense to have a lighting improviser in many venues.

A director can swap between views and “pin” specific videos to simulate cuts between actors, they can share pictures or video to set up locations, they can share music for emotional or dramatic moments, especially when there is no dialogue.

Actually, music can be a place online shows struggle. With the lag and the fact speaking often cuts out other sounds in Zoom, for example, it’s impossible to improvise songs, except when the music comes from the same place as the singer. Indeed, speaking over music can be problematic on things zoom unless the speaker is the one sharing the music, which makes it yet another thing that most actors never have to think about.

I’ve very much taken the stance that our inspiration on how to produce content should come from TV. This is my opinion. 

Perhaps we should look at the other online phenomena such as podcasts and vlogs and make things that are less visual and more like stuff to have in the background whilst cooking. This is presumably why many improv groups have gone the way of live discussions about improv as part or all of their online output.

Or we maybe we should look at youtubers and go for lots of short content with running themes, with the emphasis perhaps on editing.

Or we could take our cues from TikTok and simply lip sync to sound clips from Whose Line Is It Anyway.

When I started writing this it was very early in the whole lockdown thing, other things kept usurping it. It seems less good timing with many places going out of lockdown. But with a potential second wave may be it’s pertinent still. Plus, I don’t think the concept of online shows will completely go away just because virus does.


Monday 6 July 2020

Improvisation and introversion

It had been a good, fun show in a cheap room above a popular bar. Chatting with an audience member after, they suddenly said, “You must be an extrovert!” I was surprised at the time, but I’ve heard it enough since that I can now be all cool about it. It is a common assumption that performers are all extroverts. It makes sense. But as you probably know, many, many performers are the opposite. We’re introverts.

The stereotypes are that extroverts are all attention-seekers and introverts are all recluses. These are definitely extreme and narrow views. However, even the standard dictionary definitions of the words don’t do either side justice:

Extrovert: noun: an outgoing, socially confident person.

Introvert: noun: a shy, reticent person.

It gets worse when you look at the synonyms:

Extrovert: outgoing person, sociable person, life and soul of the party, socializer, mixer, mingler, social butterfly, socialite, party animal

Introvert: recluse, lone wolf, hermit, solitary, misanthrope, outsider

You’re either a mingler or a misanthrope!

Graphic by Allison Plume.

The common psychological definitions are somehow better and much less concrete:

Extrovert: A person predominantly concerned with external things or objective considerations.

Introvert: A person predominantly concerned with their own thoughts and feelings rather than with external things.

The original definitions, popularised by psychiatrist Carl Jung, were about where we focus our mental energy, and again a bit fuzzy:

Introverts direct their psychic energy inwards and extroverts, outwards.

Really, introvert and extrovert are best defined, as I see it, by answering this: where do you get your energy?

Extrovert: A person who gets energy from being with other people.

Introvert: A person who gets energy from being on their own.


So an introvert can be happy in crowds, be the life and soul of the party, but they will go home for alone time to recharge, whereas an extrovert will get energy from being at the party and will get more quickly bored of being alone.

That is not to say people and parties can’t energise an introvert or that extroverts don’t like alone time. As we see with many human classifications, things are not defined as being completely one thing or another. We all have introvert and extrovert sides to us, but very often there is one end of the spectrum we tend to be. People you meet will never be entirely at the end of the in/extrovert spectrum as the extremes are actually disorders.

In a very unscientific poll of improvisers I made, the numbers of introverts and extroverts were pretty close, but over half the people identified as in the middle or ambiverts, having both sides in more or less equal amounts.

We’re currently experiencing a huge test of ex/introversion: the lockdown challenge. Those people coping very well, and even secretly enjoying lockdown more than they feel they should, are almost certainly introverts. If you were tearing your hair out after 2 hours, you are probably an extrovert.


it’s very difficult to tell who is an introvert or an extrovert on stage. Especially with seasoned performers. But you might get an idea at an after party, but even then, not for sure. Plenty of introverts love being at parties; some will be the so-called life and soul of said same party. And it’s possible to be an extrovert AND shy and retiring.


In the so-called “West,” we seem to favour extroverts. You are expected to be fun at parties, overjoyed to be part of a large crowd, and sparkling at interviews. And whilst you don’t have to be the life and soul of the office, it is frowned upon if you miss too many of the unnecessary meetings, social events, and teambuilding ordeals.

Improv, despite the fact a large number of performers are introverts, is really no different.

In fact improvisational theatre is often described in very extrovert terms. I was always told my energy should be outwards when improvising. It is definitely about focussing on other people. And of course we all know being in your head (a classic introvert move) is bad for improvising. All of which implies improv is for extroverts, even though a lot of us introverts are pretty good at it.

And offstage, there is a very social aspect to improv. It sometimes feels as though it is frowned upon if you go to very few social events and don’t hang out too much after shows. Of course, you should do some of that social stuff and many of us introverts enjoy it. Up to a point.

Nowhere is this more apparent than at improv festivals. I love festivals, but they are often framed as very social endeavours where there is an expectation that you will be there for every social activity, after party and meal. I do pretty well at festivals because socialising that much is a novelty and actually fun for a few days. Fun, but totally exhausting.

Now, it’s a fact of life that going to social events improves your integration into a community. There is probably no way to avoid this without devaluing human contact which is not my intention. I am all for human contact. But at some point, as an introvert, you’ve had too much of it, and you need crawl off back to your cave.

It does seem that extroverts rule the world, but that’s not surprising cos we’re pack animals and consequently social creatures and have built a society where social confidence is highly rated. Plus as an introvert I’d hate to rule the world. Far too many meetings.

My purpose here is not to vent; my only purpose with this post is awareness. (All right, maybe a little venting, but mostly awareness.)

It’s often hard for us to understand what goes on in other people’s heads as we tend to assume the other’s brain works the exact same way as our own, just with a different set of experiences. But given we had to program our own brain from scratch since the day enough cells fused together to make half a dozen synapses, it would be weird if two people did think alike.

What I would like ultimately is awareness that if someone leaves an after-party early whilst not being tired to the point of near death or so drunk they need to immediately check into a rehab clinic… or if they stay but are quiet or hard to talk to… they should not be considered anti-social, boring, reclusive, a bad member of the community or snooty.*

They might need to recharge their batteries.

Note: * Of course they might be one of these things as well or instead, but never assume. Be kind.



  • If you want to read more about what makes an introvert an introvert, there is an excellent book on the subject called “Introvert: The friendly takeover” (“Introvert: Den tysta revolutionen”) by Swedish author Linus Jonkman.
  • I found several useful articles on and and the dictionary definitions are on
  • And naturally, we leave the last word to Audrey Hepburn: “I have to be alone very often. I’d be quite happy if I spent from Saturday night until Monday morning alone in my apartment. That’s how I refuel.”