Tips for Online Improv
IMPROVISING ONLINE WITH BIG
There are many teleconferencing platforms you might use to improvise, but BIG's current platform of choice is Zoom.
To get started, download the Zoom app for free to your laptop/desktop. (You may choose to use Zoom in your browser, instead, but this greatly limits your options to view your teammates during your set.) If you do not have access to a laptop/desktop, the second best option is to download the app on your phone, but this also limits your ability to see everyone on a larger team.
Below are best practices for both working in Zoom and improvising online compiled by BIG's Artistic Director, Jennifer Withers:
SETTING YOUR STAGE
- Design your Set. Think about the background that will be visible to your audience and aim for something neutral and not overly identifiable. This allows the viewer to more easily imagine you in various environments. (e.g. a wall w/doors or bookshelf is preferable to having your bed right behind you). You may want to experiment with using a virtual background on Zoom; however, this could create more distraction, as it can overlap/distort your image.
- Aim High. If possible, set your screen up high, at or just below eye-level when you are sitting tall or standing. Avoid hunching down to the screen. Try placing it on a countertop, tall dresser or stack of books, so you may stand and move during the set. If you are on a phone, be sure to orient your screen to landscape to offer more lateral space (you may need to take off the screen lock to be able to turn it horizontally) and set your phone down in a stable location to create a steady shot and free up your hands.
- Frame your Face. Set up so you are framed in the center of your screen with your whole head and shoulders visible when close and your whole head down to waist/hips visible when far. Avoid being so close you cut off part of your face or so far you have walked away.
- Find your Light. Be sure that you have strong warm light aimed at your face. Overhead lights can work well if they are in front of you instead of behind or directly above. Or you can use a table lamp behind your screen and take the shade off of it, if needed. Watch out not to make your light so bright that it washes you out or whites out your screen. You may want to activate the setting touch up appearance to improve color and clarity.
- Disconnect. Aim to set up without the use of headphones or microphones. Independent mics tend to cause some interference and you come through louder than your teammates’ voices, creating an audio imbalance for the listener.
- Dress for Success. Wear what you might wear on stage (at least from the waist up!) as opposed to what you might wear if you are binging Netflix all day.
- Create a Quiet Place. Take some time to make sure there is no background noise or items that might make loud, identifiable, non congruent noises during your set. Think about any animals that may wander near you (like my loud cat!), do not order a pizza right before you begin, etc. Know that noises trigger your screen to be featured when in Speaker View, so be ready to hit mute, if need be.
- Watch your Back(line). Set your screen to Gallery View so you can see all of your teammates at all times during the set, not just the speaker. The host may switch between Gallery and Speaker View when streaming, but you want to keep every player visible on your screen to be able to receive physical cues and verbal communications your backline during the set.
- Stand Tall! It gives more energy to your performance and encourages more fluid movement and use of your space. If you must sit, sit on the edge of a firm seat keeping a long spine to keep your energy up and allow yourself free range of arm and torso movement - resist the urge to lean back and lounge.
- Stay Visible! Do not cover your screen or turn off your video when you are on the "backline." Your teammates need to be able to see you to anticipate when you are walking-on, tagging, editing, initiating, etc.
- Be Present! When not in a scene, maintain your stage presence with energy and focus just as you would on the backline in a show. Your screen may be visible to the audience when you are not in a scene. Even if for some reason you do not currently see a self-view on your own screen, the host may still have you in view, so a live stream could see you, as well (unless your video is off, of course).
- Give Space! Zoom helps us work on our listening and patience. Give plenty of quiet space to each line and allow time for each response; this will help to avoid the audio dropouts that happen when speaking over one another.
- Lean In! When you are in a scene, lean slightly forward to cue your teammates you are initiating, indicate your involvement in a scene, and let the audience see your expressions more clearly - this imitates stepping forward into a scene. When you are not in a scene, lean slightly away or step slightly back, to offer the feel of being on the backline.
(Do not lean in so much that you crowd the screen - the viewer should always be able to see your full head and shoulders; also, do not step further away than framing your waist/hips up - remain close enough that we can see your facial expressions the whole set, even when on the backline.)
- Be Yourself! Use real names as character names more often than usual; it allows you to specify who you are trying to call into a scene during tags, second beats and callbacks. Gifting very unique, memorable character names can also work for this (e.g. we'll all probably remember who Blaze is).
- Edit w/Smash Cuts! Edit by leaning in and initiating a new scene with a disparate opening line that cuts through the current scene. Make sure it does not relate to the current scene at all; use your emotion and physicality to differentiate it. The more disparate the tone, style, pacing, and base reality information is from the current scene, the more clear it will be as an edit as opposed to a walk-on.
(e.g. if there is currently a scene between two cool teens chatting in a high school hallway, a line from a cool character that introduces the idea of football practice may be interpreted as a walk-on, because it fits within that base reality; whereas a line that establishes a nervous mechanic in a repair shop speaking with a customer is a clear edit.)
-Edit w/Erase the Board! If you are not comfortable with smash cuts yet, you can call the edit verbally from the backline by offering a loud, clear "edit, edit" to end a scene. Use a physical waving gesture to reinforce the move in case the audio lags - wave both hands, as if wiping off a board. Then, as always, the editor is given the right of way to initiate; if they do not lean in to initiate, it is open to anyone. Calling edits this way can be clean and efficient. But the more your team masters smash cuts, the more seamless your set!
- Tag w/Imaginary Friends! When calling a tag, visibly move one hand in front of you as if tapping an imaginary person on the shoulder right in front of your screen or wave both hands to the side to wave off multiple players, like a classic wipe, and follow with a point, indicating there is someone you would like to keep in the scene. As you do this, call the tag verbally by giving a loud, clear "tag" when wiping one player off the screen or "tag out ___and___” to wipe multiple people off and initiate your scene idea to the player remaining. Clarify by naming to whom you are initiating. (e.g. WAVE "Tag-out Amanda and Jeff" POINT “So, Kevin, how was your day?”). Keep in mind “cut-tos” and scene painting can also work well in this form.
- Expand your Horizons! Use emotion, expression and physicality within your screen space to break out of low energy talking head scenes and explore all of the possibilities of this new medium! We can think of online improv similar to the BAT (improv in the dark). Just as in a BAT, while you are physically sitting still and cannot see, your options in scenes are limitless! You can fly, wrestle an alligator, or scale a 30 foot wall! Let's discover that limitlessness in our e-mprov!
Watch out for these pitfalls:
Reacting surprised by late additions/lines in scenes; if someone speaks who has been otherwise quiet, assume they were there with you the whole time. Again, if you are in a scene, remember to lean in a bit to indicate you are there, even if you have been quiet.
Utilizing virtual backgrounds or effects that become more disruptive than supportive.