Baltimore Improv Group moves shows online and opens up classes to offer a much-needed laugh

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The Baltimore Improv Group has performed performances and classes online. Image still via the Baltimore Improv Group.

Like a lot of performing arts organizations, the Baltimore Improv Group has had to quickly retool and move shows online in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Terry Withers, managing director for BIG, said the group is now up to five free improv performances a week, broadcasting live on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

And just as office workers are using Zoom for company meetings, BIG is using the conferencing platform to bring performers together as they broadcast from their living space and take on various prompts and improv games.

The software has its challenges. Withers said performers must have razor-sharp timing because of the built-in feature that focuses the audio once a particular speakers starts talking. It can get static-y when there’s cross-talk.

And even though the technology has improved considerably, there are inevitably glitches along the way.

“But it’s way better than being isolated in your apartment,” Withers said. “It’s far preferable to that.”

A group of BIG’s regular players performed 90 minutes of material last week without missing a step, he said.

BIG is also rolling out a new online improv class with a slight twist. Ordinarily, the course work is pretty intensive, Withers said, noting that many of the group’s performers were previously students. Typically, the goal is that once someone completes five or six levels of training they’ll be able to perform a 30-minute set on stage.

It can feel a lot like work.

“We kind of think right now people don’t need that,” Withers said. “They need a laugh, they need a break.”

Instead, BIG will focus on entry-level activities or games, drawing in newcomers to improv and giving people who had never considered the form a much-needed dose of humor during the pandemic.

They’ll do games like “What Are You Doing?,” where someone will perform an action–like, say, brushing their teeth–and the rest of the group will give answers other than that. Another is “One Word Story,” during which participants go around and build a story a single word at a time.

The classes are four two-hour sessions over the course of a month for $90. But knowing that a lot of people are out work right now, Wither said BIG isn’t going to hold people to that price.

“We’re pretty egalitarian about access,” he said.

One rule of long-form improv, Withers said, is that people are asked to play close to themselves and bring their own experiences as they develop characters or scenarios. With many people isolating inside their homes to avoid the spread of COVID-19, this maxim allows participants to make a real connection with other class members.

Improv also lends itself to team-building and developing better communication skills.

“What it’s working on is collectively building a story together, and also sharing leadership,” he said. “Because you have to sense when is it your time to follow and when is it your time to push.”

Last week Withers, who previously taught and performed with the famed Upright Citizens Brigade in New York, said he led a remote improv workshop for a local business. Many of the workers were skeptical of such an activity during the middle of a pandemic.

Following the event, Withers solicited testimonials from the staff, including from one man whose workload had increased as a result of coronavirus. He was under a lot of stress and didn’t even want to participate.

“But now I feel recharged, and I feel motivated to work harder,” Withers recalled the man saying. “And I feel lighter.”

Brandon Weigel

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