Improvising in a Pandemic: 3 Ways to Apply Improv During COVID-19
By: Mary C. Parker, Dialogue & Workshop Facilitator, International Comedic Performer & Certified Professional Coach
On March 13, 2020, my world changed just like everyone else. I was living in London and this was the last day in my flat and my scheduled last day at my part-time job. After spending most of my morning packing, I checked my phone. It was then I learned that my flight to Barcelona the next day was canceled, the professional development retreat in Javea was canceled, the cities I was planning to travel to after Barcelona and Javea were now entering into a lockdown, and the improv festival I was headed to after leaving Spain was canceled. All of these cancellations were due to COVID-19. As an improv comedian, I relied on applying improv concepts of presence, choice, and collaboration to get me through this challenging time. Here’s how.
PRESENCE: BE IN THE MOMENT
I had 14 days until my UK visa expired and my lease was ending the following day. At that moment amid all these cancellations, I was facing homelessness. I knew I needed a new plan to find temporary housing until I could figure out a secure way to depart the UK before my visa expired in 2 weeks.
In improv, you are taught to respond to the last thing that was said. This creates presence and heightens your listening skills. Presence and listening create space to be in the moment. After reading the notices about cancellations I responded with increased awareness which allowed me to be in the moment. Being in the moment provided clarity to quickly decide where I should focus my time and provided me space to prioritize what I needed to do next.
On that day, I intended to go in-person to my part-time job to close out and say my good-byes. At the moment after reading about the cancellations, I made the onerous decision to not physically go to my part-time job. It was a tough phone call to make to my supervisor because at that moment, I felt like I failed at my commitment to follow through. In actuality, I was responding to the last thing said, and needed to shift focus make a plan to temporarily relocate within London when I never intended to stay there past the 14th of March. And at that moment, I needed to prioritize finding accommodations.
Luckily, having lived in London for the last 18 months, I was able to reach out to friends and stay temporarily with someone until I eventually booked a flight to depart safely back to the US.
CHOICE: YES, AND…
Once I arrived in the United States, I had to, as much of the rest of the world, accept the new reality that we are now in a pandemic. In improv, there is a concept of yes, and. It is about acknowledging an offer (yes) and making a choice on how to respond to move the current reality forward (and). While the current reality was unexpected, I accepted the offer that the pandemic existed and I had agency in how I choose to respond.
So I said Yes to myself. In the first 3 months, I secured a new client, joined a cohort of humor professionals, and co-authored and published my first academic article. Being able to be flexible and open to offers, provided me with opportunities that moved me forward in the pandemic that would have never been possible had I made a different choice.
COLLABORATION: COLLECTIVELY BUILD ON IDEAS
Despite isolating myself for a year, I have never felt more connected to others. The opportunities to virtually meet and connect with strangers and create work together have had an incredible impact on my business and reminds me of the joy of collaboration. In improv when you’re in scenes with someone else, you’re taught to build on the other person’s ideas. That in essence is collaboration. And in this pandemic, I was able to build on ideas folx had to provide training for organizations to create sustainable change related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), create affinity spaces for Black people to play using applied theatre forms of theatre of the oppressed and playback theatre, and produce original workshops on anti-racism and allyship in academia. All of these ideas were birthed out of collaboration. These collaborations were founded on partnerships where collectively we built on each other’s ideas. Several of my collaborators in the last year, I have never met in person and our collaboration was possible because everything was virtual due to the pandemic.
About the Author:
With over 12 years of experience, Mary provides clients with a variety of skills rooted in dialogue facilitation, leadership development, life coaching, and performance comedy. She has written curriculum on race, inclusion, and leadership for students and communities in London, Kuala Lumpur, Pittsburgh, Plumtree, Zimbabwe, Atlanta, and Seattle. Her experience includes seven years of virtually facilitating dialogue sessions where folx learn how to constructively approach differences, lead with empathy, and thrive in an interconnected world. Currently, Mary uses comedy and theatre to support individuals and corporations who are ready to deepen their self-awareness, interrupt bias, and actively dismantle oppression through services of playshops and coaching sessions that build confidence, connection, and communication skills.
Mary has a background in improvisational comedy, playback theatre, theatre of the oppressed, and stand-up comedy. She has performed in Pittsburgh, PA, Washington, D.C, London, and Edinburgh. Mary holds a Master of Arts in Applied Theatre from Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from Emory University, and is a Certified Professional Coach (PC) through Duquesne University’s Palumbo Donahue School of Business Professional Coaching Certificate Program. Through her work, Mary creates one-of-a-kind spaces for communities and corporations to process oppression through storytelling and play, one laugh at a time.