Learnings of an Improv Comedian trying to host drama jams without being too dramatic
For the past two years my Sundays had a set pattern — Wake up late, go for Improv rehearsal in the afternoon and Improv Comedy show in the evening. While the words “Improv” and “set pattern” may not go together, this was my schedule in the pre-pandemic world as an Improv Comedian with the Playground Improv Collective.
We had performed over 70 shows across multiple venues in Delhi-NCR, and I must say with all humility that most shows went really well. As performers we got used to receiving an applause for every scene and laughs at almost every line. Anyone who has ever been on stage knows that when the audience participates so much, the performers’ energy automatically goes up and the performers too start reacting and playing with the audience. In most of our shows we made people laugh their lungs out. We freely interacted, na, played with them. We not only asked them for scene suggestions (as the format of any Improv show requires) but also took their bags, their cellphones, and in one particularly memorable show — an audience member’s hat!
It’s been more than a year since I went up on stage. Sitting at home I can feel my body becoming rigid and my creative juices drying with each passing day. Zoom shows have been rare and not half as fun as live, “physical shows”. The emojis and heart reacts on Instagram lives and reels have unsuccessfully and partially replaced the raw energy of the auditorium.
However, since many weeks now I have got the opportunity to be a part of Drama Jams by Aagaaz Theatre and have played the host/facilitator for a few sessions as well. Switching from the stage to a “zoom stage” was one challenge, transitioning from a performer to a facilitator was another.
I had conducted multiple theatre workshops and Improv jams for college students, school children and even young professionals in the pre-pandemic world before I started working with Aagaaz. However, this was a very new space for me for multiple reasons:
1) Zoom stage
Playing drama games online is fantastic as it allows you to connect with people from around the world from the comfort of your home. At a time when you can’t move out of the house due to the pandemic, Zoom is a blessing for those like me who are as much dependent on drama games and theatre exercises for survival, as they are on oxygen.
However, fantastic as it might be, zoom theatre has its share of issues. In addition to the obvious (and somewhat rectifiable) internet connectivity and audio-video issues, there are many limitations of the platform and the setting that pose a challenge in performing a show or even doing theatre exercises.
For example, the zoom stage is limited to your camera frame. Whatever your webcam/phone camera can capture is visible, and nothing else is. In contrast to this, the whole body of a performer is visible on a regular stage. Add to this the fact that many participants (including theatre makers and stage actors) are camera conscious! Zoom takes “the stage” to people’s homes, which is their personal space, and which they may or may not want to show to the world. It mixes the personal with the professional and sometimes puts people in tricky (and embarrassing) situations.
2) Aagaaz Drama Jams are free and open to anyone and everyone
The cohort at every Aagaaz Jam is quite diverse. Each Sunday the jams are attended by people from all walks of life — school teachers, corporate trainers, college students and even primary school kids. This is in contrast to my previous facilitation experiences where I have largely worked with middle school students and college dramatics societies. With each jam I realize that when it comes to drama facilitation there is no one size that fits all. The facilitator has to be careful about selection of games and exercises and also package and present each game differently for different age groups. A complex memory game that is popular with college students is bound to fail with primary school kids. Similarly, an exercise with lots of dancing and pictures might be loved by school children but will be off-putting for adults. It is important to understand the world of the participants, design games according to their needs and use their language. Language and more importantly, choice of words, play an important part in such settings. We always use both Hindi and English in our interactions accompanied by written instructions on the screen and visual cues at times. But even using multiple languages may not be enough if the instructions are not given clearly or the choice of words is incorrect. For example — one can’t be using phrases like “breathe from your core” and “maintain eye contact” for a workshop with 5 year olds! The idea while facilitating (as opposed to performing) is NOT to entertain the participants with every word that you say. Instead, the instructions have to be clear, specific and easy to understand.
3) Familiarity & energy
Imagine dancing with your best friend in your own room on your favorite song with no one around.
Now imagine, being forced to dance on the stage by an unknown relative at a wedding party in front of 500 people. Familiarity with the group and with the setting is a big factor in making the participants (and the facilitator) feel comfortable. Participants at drama jams are encouraged to share their stories, to play using voice, gestures and even move/dance. It is thus important that a safe space is created where even the shyest participants feel relaxed and enjoy participating. Every step of every game should hence be introduced one at a time. For example, a game that involves movement/dancing should be broken down into multiple steps before participants are asked to dance in front of each other. The first step could be to dance with videos off, then next could be to follow the facilitator’s steps or mirror each other’s movements, and then after warm-up the participants may be introduced to the final game.
As a performer one always tries to bring a lot of energy to the show or performance. Whether it is a comedy show in my case or any performance such as a dance recital or a puppet show;
However, as a facilitator it is perhaps more important to gauge the energy in the (zoom) room rather than always bringing too much energy. Joking and laughing are integral to a comedy show but can seem out of place in a zoom room where participants are unfamiliar with each other and do not know what to expect in the session
4) Facilitator, not performer
The audience at a show comes with the expectation to be entertained and a performer is to make the audience laugh and cry and to deliver a show to them. The audience members are (largely) recipients and the performer is the centre of attention. The facilitator-participant dynamic at a jam or a workshop is completely different. Here, the idea is not to perform in front of an audience but to actively engage the participants into playing the games. Audience at a show laughs and claps, but participants at jams and workshops play along, share ideas and perform exercises themselves! As a comedian used to laughs and claps, and more importantly undivided attention, I found pauses and silence at drama jams unsettling. The “passive” audience at a comedy show laughs at every second moment. The “active” participants at a jam or a workshop take time in processing and thinking. It is important to realize that participants are engaged even when they do not show it out-loud.
The facilitator may know about the game/exercise in great detail and be familiar with it. However, that knowledge with the facilitator is of no use if he/she does not break the game into various elements and introduces it step by step to the participants with proper scaffolding. The participants at a jam are there to collectively learn and devise games together. Unlike the audience at a comedy show, they are not going to forget one joke once the next one comes up! Hence, each step and the presentation of each step is crucial.
A jam space is not a productivity or efficiency contest between facilitators. It’s not about playing the maximum number of games per jam but about playing and coming up with multiple games together, as each game/exercise gives way to another game/exercise organically. The success of a jam space cannot be measured as laughs per minute or in terms of the number of tickets sold. A jam can be successful even when the number of participants is less and the same game or similar exercises are done repeatedly, but differently with new insights being drawn at every step.
These are some of my many learnings as I transition from performing to facilitating drama jams for diverse groups. Share the challenges you faced and your learnings in the comments below!
Rochan Mathur is a stage and screen actor based in Delhi. He has worked with multiple theatre groups as an actor and as a production assistant with others. He has acted in digital advertisements and TVCs for multiple brands.
As an Improv Comedian, he has done 70+ shows with Playground Improv Collective.
Rochan is interested in Applied Theatre and works with educational institutions and NGOs alike to spread the joy of drama.