Coronavirus cell.At the start of 2020, we were set for a bumper year of improv. And then that thing with the pandemic happened.

Looking back, we were luckier than most. When the government introduced hand sanitising and 1.5m social distancing on 15 March, we immediately adapted our classes to suit. And a week later when the Sydney lockdown came into force, we were able to move all of our improv classes online immediately without interruption, running a number of “AOI Lab” Zoom sessions with students and staff to help refine the online versions of our classes.

These weren’t temporary or watered down online classes, these were full strength versions of our F2F (face to face) classes. We’d been planning online improv and sketch classes for a few years, but weren’t sure the technology and interest was there, so it was well timed to force our hand. We owe much of this success to having designed all of our curricula internally. We don’t teach improv the same as everyone else, the same traditional hit and miss training that has been used for the last 60 years – we’d already modernised the entire way we teach improv, so we knew what was important, why, and how to quickly update it for online delivery.

Online improv training is difficult, particularly with the “one solution fits all” approach of Zoom. You can no longer position students in a room for example. So you can’t order students in a line or circle, or lead a Space Walk. For some exercises this means just developing camera or verbal based signalling and hand gestures, or by using breakout rooms or just not using groups with ordering. But for many exercises where group and layout are significant, this means breaking them down into the key learnings, and redoing or replacing them without the physical space requirements. How do you do Pass The Clap or Zip Zap Zop online? You don’t. You replace it with something more suited to online that induces presence, divided attention, shifting focus, peripheral vision, and responding in the moment to simple cues.

Thankfully there are now tools coming online that address most of the issues with online improv training. Not just ordering, but 2D spaces you can move around in, localised audio which changes volume depending on how close you are to others, fixed room layouts for quick positioning of students, auto-mirroring logic so when you point in a direction it’s the actual direction, and other features that make online improv a more productive and fun experience. It’s now just a matter of matching your lesson logistics to an appropriate tool. And in a very competitive start up space, it’s often easy to make contacts and experiment with tool makers to help improve the tools we have available to us. In April we were thinking of developing our own platform for online classes, but quickly realised we’d be spoiled for choice before the middle of the year and thus it wasn’t worth the effort. We’re not comparing online improv tools to COVID-19 vaccines, but the rate of development of each is certainly comparable.

So for training that can be moved online it’s now relatively easy. But there are a few areas where online just doesn’t work. Touch, for example. You can’t touch another person and have both of you feel that tactile response. Some schools don’t allow touching in F2F classes anyway, so it’s not an issue, but we do and we know it’s a critical part of learning how to act, improvise and emote. Related to touch is physical presence. As humans we sense the presence of other humans. Our conscious and unconscious sense air pressure waves from other humans as they move, locating the sound of those movements as they reflect and reverberate within a 3D space such as a room. This used to be thought of as sensing the presence of their life force, but now we know it’s just physics. This “sensing” leads to emotional responses during both performance and group bonding. You can achieve some of this by coming close to the camera and sensing slight changes in vision and audio – preferably with Zoom’s compression and noise cancelling disabled – but the sound isn’t directional and it doesn’t have the same impact as actually being in the room together.

At Academy of Improvisation, we lost roughly 20% of our F2F students when we had to move online, mostly due to bad timing with work and families in lockdown. We lost an additional 20% of students once their classes had completed online, but mostly due to Zoom exhaustion. The rest have mostly stuck with us, taking the online versions of our classes and then transitioning back to F2F again in July. We survived mostly due to the students who stuck with us, those who stuck with us as much as they could, and those who couldn’t move online but are now gradually coming back to our F2F classes. We thank you for your support from the bottom of our hearts.

Like many businesses, we transitioned back to F2F at the beginning of July 2020, having registered with the government’s COVID Safety programme, implemented their safety requirements, and then going beyond and adding more of own. This meant once again changing lesson plans for exercises where safety would be an issue. And it meant really small class sizes, which was difficult when we – and other schools – needed financial support and small classes bring in very little income. Especially when we gave quite a few discounts to students when we transitioned to and from online. Incredibly we’ve heard some schools being a bit lax on F2F class safety, including on social distancing and other government requirements, but we’re extremely proud of how safe we’ve been and how much we’ve looked out for our students and staff. We’ve shown that you can be strict with safety and at the same time maintain the same class goals and level of fun.

As we run down to the end of the year, our online classes are now a permanent part of our schedule. We’ve had students from most English speaking countries and from many non-English speaking ones. But the students we’re most excited for are the large number of Australians in regional areas who can now take an improv class. With Zoom and a pretty good pandemic speed internet connection, even those in the middle of nowhere can learn to improvise.

COVID-19 has been devastating. To people, to families, to small businesses, to schools… You name it, and it’s been affected. If there’s anything we can take away from it all, it’s that maybe, just maybe, we’ve all found better ways to communicate, support each other, and learn more about the fragility of life and the planet on which we live. We love that these are all attributes of the foundations of improv.