Diginational Improv Workshops: Erasing Borders and Boundaries

The Diginational improv workshops started when members of Beijing Improv reached out to members of Formosa Improv Group (FIG)

“Proactively build improv bridges: 建立臺灣與世界表演的橋樑”

About a year ago, Formosa Improv Group 福爾摩沙即興組合 created its core values as a group. The above statement outlines one of the five core values that the group tries to abide by. During the recent and ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, members of FIG have accepted opportunities to connect with the greater improv community to “build improv bridges” on and offline.

Normally, one of the ways in which FIG connects with the local Taipei community is to provide a free, bilingual, workshop every Monday night at 23 Comedy. The space provides a platform for people who are curious about improv, and those who have some experience in the performance style to meet, greet, and take a two hour adventure into a bilingual improv workshop hosted by members of FIG’s performance group from 7 to 9pm. However, these are not normal times, and abnormal times call for extraordinary measures.

Members of FIG on a hike during a recent group retreat in Maokong, just outside of Taipei.

Due to the recent and unrelenting COVID-19 world pandemic, FIG made the decision to suspend the in-person Monday workshops throughout the month of April. These workshops are starting up again from May 11th, but during the month of April, the group has sought other ways to reach out to the improv community, as well as helping to build bridges with other communities who are reaching out. Although the COVID-19 situation in Taipei is one of the best in the world with a trusted government that has largely controlled and contained the spread of the virus, members of FIG and the greater Taipei improv community have felt more secure practicing improv from home, or in smaller groups. People are generally still practicing social distancing, and while FIG’s shows are still being performed live as usual, improv workshops normally require physical contact, close proximity, and a general disregard for social distancing in order for them to be successful. I once again stress the word “normally” because these are not normal times. In addition to increasing FIG’s digital presence with more posts and improv challenges such as the improvised one word story challenge below, FIG was also approached by another improv group across the Taiwan Strait for a new challenge and opportunity.

Members of Beijing Improv (BJI),China’s first and oldest improv group (founded in 2007) started and “launched [an online improv workshop] initiative for Beijing. They announced it in the WeChat BeijingImprov&Friends group and I was fortunate enough to spot it in time to join the first workshop. [They] were immediately really excited to have participation from this side of the strait and I really love the idea of cross-straits improv,” Olof Nordenstam, current member of FIG, former member of Beijing Improv’s bilingual group, BIG (Bilingual Improv Group), and founder of Xiamen Improv.

Beijing Improviser, Jay Wang, echoed Olof’s remarks adding that the concept of doing something that was “Cross-Strait” focused wasn’t necessarily the aim of these workshops at the beginning. As with most things related to improv, the general essence and core value of “yes, and….” involves saying yes to an idea and building on this idea to create a scene, story, or in this case, a partnership crossing geopolitical boundaries.

“I do like the idea of improv bridging cultural barriers and borders, and with the cross-straits thing, it’s also a political statement in a way. Like, there are some things that are common to us that transcend beyond politics, and by embracing the simple act of playing with each other, we are creating a different possibility. I think that’s really beautiful, in a way.” — Jay Wang

The idea of Diginational Improv that crosses borders and transcends politics hasn’t come without it’s setbacks or challenges, however. Due to certain internet restrictions which limit online platforms that work for both Taipei and Beijing, the workshops have been held on Zoom. Recently, Zoom has come under international scrutiny as a result of privacy issues and concerns. The Taiwanese government, including the Executive Yuan and Ministry of Education have even stepped in and officially banned the use of the app in governmental situations, due to these privacy concerns.

Zoom is the commonly used platform for facilitators of virtual improv workshops. Clockwise from left: Andrei Veja, Olof Nordenstam, Diana Liu, and Stan Seidan.

Diana Liu, another member of Taipei’s FIG, noted some of the other common challenges that have occurred as the Diginational Improv workshops are experiencing their growing pains:

  • People not being familiar with Zoom functions (knowing when to mute/un-mute, turn video on/off, etc.)
  • Poor Wi-Fi connection resulting in video and sound lagging
  • Most of the announcements being made on Beijing Improv’s Wechat group (not commonly used in Taiwan)
  • Sometimes due to bad connection, the host of the Zoom call would be kicked out
  • Naturally, not everyone would be fluent in both languages. When doing breakout rooms, there were instances of participants who only speak English being put in a group of participants who only speak Mandarin

While there may be many challenges that the groups have faced while putting on the Diginational improv workshops, Diana still promotes their positivity in bringing improvisers together across a common platform.

“Getting to know other improv communities can bring new insight as to different perspectives about improv, inspiration for games and show formats, can bring people together to create new interesting stories and make everyone feel as a member of a larger improv community. I am lucky to have attended the Manila Improv Festival, participated in an improv workshop in Seoul, and watched two improv shows in Spain. Every time that I had been exposed to a different way of doing improv has been a very eye-opening experience for me. Now that traveling is so very limited, I think online is the way. There is so much to learn from each other, we shouldn’t wait for a pandemic to hit to start connecting with others…” — Diana Liu

Members of Beijing Improv in a post show moment of euphoria.

One thing that should be noted is that while these digital workshops started out with members of BJI and FIG connecting with each other, the members come from many different countries and backgrounds and countries, and so to refer to them as only “cross-strait” workshops would be a misrepresentation, as they are truly international. One of the most recent facilitators of the Diginational Improv Workshops, Adrienne Losch, while an alumni member of BJI, is currently located in San Francisco. She recently co-hosted the online workshop with BJI/FIG alumni member Stan Seidan who is also currently not in Beijing or Taipei. Ever devoted to the passion that improv can bring to communities, Adrienne woke at 4:45 am in order to co-host her workshop as they take place on Beijing time every Wednesday evening from 8:00–9:30pm!

“In times like these, it’s so important to have an open and supportive environment and activity to sustain you. I think [Diginational Improv] really embodies this. I also find joy in reconnecting with people who I don’t get to see every week anymore. It’s also exciting to connect with people from all over the world who get to bring their insight and experience to improv. Improv communities can sometimes stagnate in their routines and games. While in Beijing improv, every time there was an outside visitor, we were always so excited because they would bring new things with them. Both the Taiwan and Beijing improv communities can cross pollinate in this way.” — Adrienne Losch

It’s not only BJI and FIG who are saying “yes, and….” to the current world situation to see and approach improv from a different way. Far from it, as other improv groups across the globe continue to rise to the challenge and bring their art forms and methods of connecting with audiences and the international improv community to never-seen-before perspectives. Besides the challenges that social distancing causes with regards to improv, there are also some positive outcomes and things that can happen online that might not happen in person. Groups like the Pirates of Tokyo Bay are now broadcasting shows live and online (see the video below), potentially reaching larger audiences than before. Manila’s Silly People Improv Theater (SPIT) has also been providing online opportunities for people to view their improv and ask improv-related questions as well, with improvisers from other parts of the globe joining in on some of their conversations. Even some games and methods of running the workshops may go a bit smoother online than they do in person. When a facilitator wants participants of a workshop to break-up into smaller groups, the system is able to “put people in groups in an instant! Super convenient. No more wasting a minute on creating a group, or friends sticking together in their own cliques,” Olof Nordenstam. Additionally, another “interesting function is the ability to change the background of your video screen (beach, forest, etc.). While we don’t use props in improv, it can be quite entertaining to watch the player in such realistic setting,” Diana Liu.

While the future is uncertain, uncertainty is one of the things that improvisers thrive upon. Although no one would ever say that the current COVID-19 pandemic is a positive thing, the world situation has forced improvisers to do what they do best and “say yes” to the current state of living in a socially distanced world and still stay connected to one another through “diginational” opportunities to proactively build bridges and construct a stronger improv community.

“This period of time has really opened up the desire to connect for all of us, all over the world. I love that we’re no longer bound by location with improv, it’s very exciting. And it’s definitely not something that I would’ve thought of doing had COVID-19 not happened.” — Jay Wang

American residing in Asia since 2004. Blogs focusing on life observations, improv, food, creating a learning organisation, management, and stretching time.