The globalization of improv

Improv is now a global community

Dasvidanya.

I waved goodbyes to a multilingual online improv workshop in Moscow with people from 7 countries. I switched to a duo with an old Dutch friend in Den Haag. “Goede dag!”. But we can’t stay long, because I have lined up for a Desi-style improv jam in Delhi at 2.30pm Norway / 7pm India (the half-hour time difference is growing on me), while my Dutch partner has a zoom reunion with her improv troupe in New York. In Delhi, I bumped into a Polish friend. Later deep into the night I was choosing to take an improv Q&A in Baltimore or a class in Austin. By noon the next day I was watching Pirates of Tokyo Bay from, you guessed it, Tokyo. And later that day, a zoom reunion with a friend in Brussels and a dramatic improv class in Chicago.

This is one weekend.

This is the Global Age of improv.

This is also a terrible pandemic with unimaginable high number of casualties and heart-wrenching stories. This is a disastrous global lockdown. I do not belittle the hardships that people are enduring. They are terrifyingly real. For improv, theatres are struggling financially. Major theaters had to shut down. Communities get fragmented due to the sudden disconnection.

But it is this time that improv reinvents itself, like it is made for. What is a community now?

Nautaankibaaz Improv Comedy, India

Suddenly my community is no longer Impro Neuf International in Oslo. Suddenly, my community is part in Russia, part in India, both warmly welcoming me into their homes (in Zoom, often quite literally). Earlier this year I had grand visions of Impro Neuf, now the biggest improv community in Norway, being a vessel to outreach to other parts of Norway — in particular where there is little-to-none improv to help others build communities. The global outbreak has made that vision laughably small, like a Lego-sized piece compared to the global scale we see today.

“What an amazing time this is for improvisors. By no means do I want to minimize any pain and suffering happening. But in terms of improv, we are now able to reach a global audience like never before. You’ll meet people throughout the world. Your tribe is now global.”
— Jay Sukow

Access to Improv is a Privilege

I come from Indonesia, a country where improv is non-existent. There are more important problems than the lack of arts. But in improv, when I am home for the holidays, I was looking for any traces of anything. I might see an obsolete group playing in some expatriate areas in Jakarta or a improv beach retreat in Bali. But there is nothing that is sustained yet. There is(was) simply no teaching resource available. There is also no model to look after, except old Whose Line Is It Anyway clips on Youtube.

Jakarta Improv Meetup.. hmm, no past events

Most communities are built by an ardent improv evangelist who comes from abroad and spend a gazillion amount of time and energy to inspire others. This seems to be a random process and a matter of luck.

Ankur Sardana, an improv community builder as part Nautaankibaaz Improv Comedy in Gurugram India, happens to be one of those guys. A life-long theatre lover, he got hooked onto improv shows on a business trip to Seattle, loved it so much, made a trip in New York to get more and vehemently say this artform has to be brought back to India. Now there is a running community in Gurugram.

“Improv is and will always be a community building art form. It is remarkable that the kind of people who stick on with this are so similar in their giving mindset. Initially people are like, really — make your partner look good? And then everyone is walking with this smile and halo around their heads. It is so satisfying to see this grow. It does take time and perseverance, but the results are humbling.”
— Ankur Sardana

Ankur Sardana, Nautaankibaaz Improv Comedy runs a community for improv in India. “It is us improv nerds, who have gained so much in these times. I am watching and learning from these legends of improv, who were completely inaccessible. It’s mayhem! It’s a party.”

However, not every place is yet a success story. Indonesians have brought back NBA fandom and NY cheesecakes after their study abroad in the States, but not yet for improv. As you can tell, it is a matter of luck. And the fact that building a community is fucking hard. It’s like the biblical Noah asking other dudes to help build an ark — when the other dudes have no vision what the ark will look like, or even more, do not believe in the ark. That’s probably why he built it alone. You need a shared vision and a a shared belief, and that comes with having access to improv.

But access to improv is a privilege. Earlier this year we were talking about the Middleditch & Schwartz on Netflix that while it’s good for improv, it could help a little for diversity to have the first (longform) improv on mainstream entertainment to be represented by more than two white males. Now, M&S is great. But it shows that privilege is a topic close to heart for improv.

My cause is representation of another kind — a privilege of a massive scale that no one is even aware of — the third worlders. Millions of people lacking access to any improv. My cause is not only representation of Asians in Norway (which I am a part of), but representation of Asians, period. Not the minority over here, but the majority over there. While there are plenty of good talks on representation and diversity in improv communities, the improv world has largely not noticed the 200 million people in Indonesia lacking any access to improv. That’s about to change with all the online workshops offers.

Workshops, workshops, everywhere!

It’s a weekend in Las Vegas now. There are absurd riches in workshops and jams and nerd-outs. You can practically wake up in any hour in any time zone and there is somewhere, someone doing improv right now which you can get access to. Improv is no longer local — it’s GMT +9 Tokyo to GMT -8 Los Angeles (I’m still looking for Impro Fiji/Samoa to complete my clock, if you know any, hit me up). If you are awake anytime you can join improv, you will become insane.

An improviser’s delightful menu only Monday and Tuesday from gonnahappen.live

There is all different styles of improv that one used to have to travel for. Even for European improvisers this is a luxury — we travel to USA to learn this cache of knowledge that would not have been available otherwise. Chicago-style, New York-style, West Coast-style, each a family of even more styles. And now that’s right here. We can go to USA. And US-Americans can also go outside and learn from Europe or South American improv (I’m brushing up my Spanish so I can join a Colombian workshop).

If that’s already overwhelming, you can imagine what it feels like for places where there is NO improv to suddenly have access to this wealth. We hope, no, we pray that when the coronatimes are over, this is here to stay.

“It is us improv nerds, who have gained so much in these times. I am watching and learning from these legends of improv, who were completely inaccessible. It’s mayhem ! It’s a party. Yes, the nights are longer, the stares from family members are stern and the weight is piling on with no exercise ! But then who would miss this ! Improv was never ever an online thing, it’s a thing which is done in theatres in remains there, but look at this explosion, providing us with this opportunity and treasure which needs to now last forever.”
— Ankur Sardana

It is this time to give credit to people who are handing out improv, sometimes for free. Why do they do it? Josh Wilson of Improv Generator Moscow provides a free space to learn and jam, often singlehandedly four times a week, with loyal participants from Romania, Poland, India and more.

“I think as community leaders we have always been of the thought that facilitating improv events is a boon for our own communities. It is a way to lower the bar and get people involved with improv by encouraging people to sign up for courses, or to come see shows.
Now, though, I’m finding that I’m not offering workshops and shows for the everyman, but rather for the improv community as a whole. I’m doing it to bring people together in this time of separation, and to show that we don’t have to lose the things we love. Even in crisis we can grow, adapt, and overcome.”
— Josh Wilson

Josh Wilson runs Improv Generator from Moscow, provides free spaces to learn and jam. “As community leaders we have always been of the thought that facilitating improv events is a boon for our own communities… [But now, it is] for the improv community as a whole.”

The ability to “grow, adapt and overcome” lead to the next phase of global improv: the Renaissance.

The Renaissance

The Renaissance was a fervent period of European cultural, artistic, political and economic “rebirth” following the Middle Ages. Generally described as taking place from the 14th century to the 17th century, the Renaissance promoted the rediscovery of classical philosophy, literature and art. Some of the greatest thinkers, authors, statesmen, scientists and artists in human history thrived during this era, while global exploration opened up new lands and cultures to European commerce. The Renaissance is credited with bridging the gap between the Middle Ages and modern-day civilization.
— History Channel

Today is The Renaissance Age of Improv.

Zoom is our modern-day Guthenburg printing press.

Every time the floodgates open up, there is a massive exchange of ideas and old ideas being re-evaluated. What is improv old and improv new. We can remember that when improv communities/theaters in one city start to open up and exchange between theaters that the art form really start to explode.

I’ve always felt that we are already in the brink of a revolution, if not in the middle of one. In our Impro Neuf community, every year there are multiple improvisors who came back from a summer intensive bringing in fresh ideas from Chicago. This has sparked a revolution with the mix to older DNA strands from training in Norwegian improv, which has grown and developed into its own over the past 20 years. Impro Neuf International is a young community of 5 years, but it is a melting pot. The influx of ideas and the creative lab have inspired many, and we practically have doubled our improvisers every year — from one house team in #Year1, to THIRTY house teams in #Year5, each with their own internal artistic values, which I encourage and will defend.

This is now going to happen in a global scale, I can feel it in my fingertips.

Online improv is not the future of improv. Traditional improv will live on, much like traditional wet markets still play a central role today. But it is the exchange of ideas that will resonate globally and reverberate down to your neighborhood improv theatres. During this time, I have re-equipped my improv game with new ways to improvise, from narrative improv (Hideout Theatre, Austin TX), dramatic improv (Theatre Momentum, Chicago), new formats (Nursery/Maydays, UK), improv as social actions (Improv Generator, Moscow) or simply rediscovering joy (Jay Sukow, LA). This will trickle down to my theatre subconsciously and make our local theatre richer.

But a key in the Renaissance, is that the exchange of ideas make the great artist, thinkers, scientists and philosophers change the way they think. And similarly this makes the source rethink of improv. And what improv is really about.

“Teaching improvisers in different [countries] for me has shown that we don’t have to be physically present to have emotional connections and share real moments together. We can explore big ideas, laugh, play, and have important discussions all while being half a world away from each other.”
— Josh Wilson

A Sense of Home, and Empathy

Impro Neuf International is our home in Norway. We say this in the most loving way. While we enjoy the norwegian waffles with brown cheese, (try to) ski and join a barnetog (kids’ parade) waving the Norwegian flag on Norway’s Independence Day, our international community means something special. It is when we can express ourselves as individuals and where we come from, and wear it proudly on our sleeves without being less Norwegian. (Trevor Noah had a behind the scene segment regarding the French World Cup champion team, that we don’t have to choose one. Are you French? We are French. We are also Cameroonian and Moroccan and Senegalese. One does not have to let go of one to be the other. This is the same.)

For the entirety of my improv life, I have been trained in the Western hemisphere, which is my home. There is also a default shared Western culture that I put myself in. That means, medieval kings and castles, first dates in French restaurants, college beer fests, suntanning on the beach. These are scenes I have done a million times, even though it is only a familiar culture to me by proxy. I didn’t grow up with French restaurants or beer keg parties. When we go to the beach, no one ever suntans, we hide under an umbrella. But I have done these scenes. Heck I’ve done American football scenes so often; I have never got anywhere close to a field.

That’s why I am refreshed when I join Nautankibaaz’s jams in India. There are scenes playing out with street food or price haggling in the market, kings in vibrant silk colors, which is closer to my roots. There I feel that I do not have to adjust myself. We can use my childhood games to celebrate MY Independence day. Not walking in kid parades waving flags, but my stuff — chasing chickens, climbing coconut oil-laden poles and speed-eating prawn-cracker contests. I think improv has always been great at using our real life experience. This will be even more in the globalization of improv. We play on our court and explore the richness of our lives.

“Something I would love to do is to bring more voices onto the stage, because I think it’s so valuable, not just for the community, but for the artform itself. The more voices you have, the more interesting stories you can tell. It’s not interesting to listen to a song only played with one note, you want to have many many different notes.”
— Josh Wilson

Pirates of Tokyo Bay does a show in English and Japanese, bringing together Western and Eastern voices to the stage.

And globalization of improv will bring you to other homes to, and see how they do improv there, and how their culture influence their improv. I have been doing that for over 12 years as an expat in Europe. It’s excellent for the other side to do the same thing. I encourage every (Western) improviser now to look into Indian, Singaporean, Japanese improv — not to tell how improv is done, but just to immerse yourselves in the cultures.

“It’s gotten us to play with other people we normally wouldn’t play with or have a chance to. And that’s opened up some really cool collaboration and reminded us why we got into improv: to connect with humans and create something fun and cool together. And the more we play with people from all over the more we realize we’re all pretty much the same.”
— Jay Sukow, who runs 10 Minutes With… everyone on the planet

Venturing out in this global era of improv makes people even more empathetic to other cultures. Improv has always been an art of empathy, and this is the golden age to do so. There is less emphasis on where we are, but more on who you are. The playing field is not the physical theatre; the playing field is on the players.

“Jamming never came easy earlier. Classes were great but Drop Ins in Seattle, NY were always tough. Folks who joined knew each other had a similar context in life and I tried hard to fit in. I did mostly, but it felt superficial. Once someone played a character which was an animal I didn’t know of (I still don’t remember), I just did the whole scene smiling and giggling, feeling miserable inside. Online improv has turned this whole thing upside down. There’s much more diversity and respect for diversity. Every jam is an international jam! We all are quarantined, it’s all the same, everyone has one stage — the stage is Zoom.”
— Ankur Sardana

It is a testament to the artform that in this social distancing time, the community of improv on a global scale has never been closer. Improv online is not for everyone, of course, and that’s okay. But through its practitioners, the world is suddenly very open and the benefits will reach everyone online and offline. For all of us to advance our art and community. Improv online is not a fling. It allows many of us to reach new territories previously unreachable and will create new homes for some. I often question myself, what is home: Norway? Indonesia? Europe? Asia? But now I know. World improv, that’s my home.

Dedicated to Jonathan Pitts, world traveller.

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An Impro Neuf blog. Evolving thoughts on improv from Aree Witoelar, teacher/founder of Impro Neuf International in Oslo, Norway.