On improvising how to improvise

Wednesday, August 5, 2020 - 2:26pm

.

Illustration by Hibah Mirza

I hear music reverberating throughout the lecture hall. The speaker is shuffling my playlist titled “special fridays.” It is a special Friday. It’s show day. 

I never thought I would be somebody who partakes in a show day. I do sing show tunes in the shower, and I am loud and theatrical. Not to mention my infamous lead role in the eighth grade play, which may or may not have been due to my willingness to play the male love interest. However, despite my enthusiasm for the arts, I had never been a theater girl, or a singer, or a dancer (though I tried my hand at all three at one point or another, to the dismay and expense of my parents). Before college, I had always happily been in the audience. I loved the smell of sweat at a crowded concert, the taste of a king-size Kit Kat at intermission, and the lively chatter among my fellow spectators before a show. I especially loved when the glaring overhead lights in the theater dimmed to let us know the production was about to begin.  

It’s showtime. 

I stand backstage — and by back stage I mean in the narrow brightly lit hallway next to Angell Hall Auditorium A, where I took my comparative politics exam earlier that day — with the nine other members of my improv comedy group, ComCo. My playlist continues to blast through the speaker which sits just beyond the auditorium door. As per tradition, we pace through the hallway with our heads down, meditating and thinking. My mind floods until my brain feels like it is drowning. The obtrusively bright fluorescent lights wash out any shadows, leaving the hall feeling somewhat eerie and still. It becomes so quiet that I begin to hear ringing in my ears. 

I drown it out with my own thoughts. My eyes are heavy and my skin is sticky. I am nervous, but also, I am hungover. Really Sammy? Red wine? Tequila? The night before your improv show? I forgive myself hastily and move on to my typical pre-show thoughts. Nothing matters. Everybody is weird. You are weird. People who aren't weird suck. Nobody is judging you. If they judge you, they suck. You have nothing to lose. Being confident is cool. Nothing matters. Philosophically speaking, my thoughts are not the most profound. But at the end of the day, they get me on a stage in front of 500 people not knowing what the hell I am going to say or do. 

Eventually, we move down to the stairs that lead to the stage. We begin to make eye contact with each other. “You are so funny” we say to one another, switching gazes until we have confirmed this for every other person in the group. These words are validating — but they also indicate that in just a few moments, we will have to open the heavy door, turn off the music, and then, well… we don’t know what will happen next. 

My mind goes numb from the moment I walk through the door to the moment I stand on the stage. Then, laughter. The crowd cheers and chuckles as we make fun of the world around us, each other, and ourselves. 

Suddenly, every movement and every word is meaningful. Time becomes increasingly valuable, yet somehow, two hours pass in what feels like 20 minutes. The room is hot, almost boiling. I look out into the auditorium and think Damn. It's Friday night and all of these people came to see us. They had to find their way here. And they did. I feel important, and empowered. The audience is a force. They belch and they banter. They suggest objects, people, places. Their laughter validates our humor and propels us forward. Their gaze reminds me of my humanity and ignites my confidence. 

They are in the show. Without them, there is no energy, no event, no atmosphere.

Improv has become an integral part of my life at school, though it serves me in ways that are less obvious than an acting hobby. When I am improvising, I am free. I am being my most authentic self, while playing the character of somebody else. I am challenged to listen intently, and react instinctually, but with a purpose. As people, including myself, are dangerously absorbed by technology and social media, I am grateful to have something that brings me deep into the present moment. Improv is therapy, and my group is my family. I trust them with my secrets, and I trust them on the stage. In order to make this all possible, we meet twice a week and perform once a month. Now we find ourselves in the middle of a pandemic, talking and laughing through masks, and performing…. where?

“The improv experience is energizing, spiritual, ritualistic” Finn Maloney said, a beloved friend of mine and another member of ComCo. Improv through the screen will likely be static and isolated. Not to mention the improv itself, which in its nature depends upon raw human interaction: eye contact, body language and movement. 

“Losing the audience is arduous for those who need the audience to remind them that they are in fact capable of improvising in the first place. I am my hardest critic, so having to be the only person in my own crowd is tough ” Finn said. This comment resonated with me beyond improv. Quarantine has left many of us alone with our own thoughts, performing for ourselves. Finn is right — it takes courage to improvise in front of an audience. As the show goes on, the validation from the audience gradually puts me at ease. By the end of the show, I trust them, and they trust me. 

Improv is one of many performing arts that are suffering in light of  COVID-19. It is especially unique in its dependency on the audience, but the ambiance that any live performance generates is at risk of completely disappearing. I watched Billie Eilish perform a cover of “Sunny” by Bobby Hebb at The Global Citizens Festival, but my dad was making popcorn in the background. My sister has been recording a tap number in our living room which will be edited together by her musical theater program, but it is constantly interrupted by me, a sophisticated college student, looking to play. People are making it work (ish), but we will now be faced with constant setbacks. And when will anybody want to be in a crowded room full of strangers again? 

Realistically, the answer is when there is a vaccine. Human connection is a basic need, while the performing arts are a luxury. People are having trouble resisting small gatherings with friends to crack open a bottle of wine, or sunbathe. But when it comes to the arts, a privilege that humans have come to enjoy, people might be more risk averse. Just last week, however, the Chainsmokers hosted a charity concert in the town of Southampton and attracted a massive crowd. Although it set out to be socially distant, videos of the concert showed what looked almost like a regular moshpit, revealing the unsettling and dangerous reality of the event.  New York authorities are now investigating the scene. It is clear that some people are craving the performing arts enough to risk their own lives and those around them. 

It’s also important to note people's livelihoods are on the line. The entertainment and arts industry has had the largest decrease in job openings of any other industries. The financial burden that has been placed on the performing arts could permanently damage the business.  Theaters are closing, and directors are rightfully wary to put on such expensive productions when costs might not outweigh the benefits. 

Finn additionally mentioned our newfound need to compete with anything else available on people’s screens: streaming, social media, etc. They could just be watching our virtual show and decide to finish an episode of The Sopranos, or check their twitter feed. Middleditch and Shwartz, an improvised comedy special that has found a home on Netflix, exemplifies the potential invisibility of online improv shows. It sits among thousands of other Netflix shows and comedy specials, and must therefore compete to be watched with big names such as Amy Schumer and The Office. I love performing and watching improv, but I can not say that I was incredibly eager to watch the show in isolation, from the comfort of my own bed.

All of this being said, technology has a lot to offer those who already live and think creatively. Although it might not be able to completely replace in-person performances, virtual arts might have their own unique value. My improv group discussed the new found space we have to try our hand at sketch comedy. The cast of sketch comedy shows, such as Saturday Night Live,  were certainly able to make due from their own homes. I would even go so far to say that the two “SNL At Home” episodes were higher in quality than many of the disappointing episodes this past season. Other late night comedy show hosts, such as Jimmy Fallon, have also been successful in sustaining their positive and engaging energy. Fallon, who typically performs in front of a very enthusiastic live audience, has managed to continue his celebrity interviews and musical performances via Zoom. Despite the safety of being behind a screen, the show feels more intimate and raw. Video calling somebody in their own home, as they endure the same pandemic and obey the same guidelines as the rest of the world, is endearing and meaningful. I also don’t want to glorify how I feel about the current success of The Tonight Show. Fallon’s punch lines are falling flat without an audience to affirm his jokes and keep the momentum of his monologues. Frankly, he is lucky he has such a contagious laugh and two cute daughters to distract from the awkwardness. 

Perhaps going virtual will grant a larger population access to arts that they have not yet explored. Maybe those unwilling to physically attend ComCo will indulge in shows and skits to cope with boredom and a desire for entertainment. Additionally, as our president threatens to prolong the election and hundreds of thousands of people around the world die from Coronavirus, comic relief and artistic engagement are more valuable than ever. When you can't control the things that happen, you can at least control the way you perceive them. I, for one, have arguably inappropriate comedic tendencies when times get tough. Just moments ago, I sent my hospitalized friend a meme because her unstable blood pressure is simply out of my control. The improv and performing arts communities alike surely recognize the unique uncertainty that COVID-19 has brought, and the evolving role that their groups hold. I am ready to spread the love and the laughter, whatever it takes. 

And while the near future of the performing arts is unclear, we will have to improvise how to improvise.