Enabling magic and brewing attention; A guide to hosting improv online

Let's get real – a host forms the narrative backbone for any event. In the case of spontaneous improvisation (aka improv theatre), they must strike a delicate balance between explaining what’s going to happen and leaving the unpredictability of the improv art form intact.

Not only is the host is directly responsible for the pacing and tone of the event, but they must also ensure that both the performers and the audience feel safe, get involved, and enjoy the experience. The host may also have to moderate audience responses or step in to course-correct the performance, should the need arise. However, this should be done sparingly, and only if the tone of the show starts deviating strongly from its intended one.

Here are hands-on some tips for potential improv professionals hosting their first (or perhaps, their 100th?) online improv show.

Step 1 - Crafting The Narrative Structure

Like an abstract painting, an improv show is composed of parts that individually are unpredictable and have limited meaning, but can together create something powerful.

  1. Keep the introduction and closing tight, and pre-write game explanations to be crisp and clear.

  2. The audience typically tunes out if you are unable to get their attention within the first few minutes. So be sure to start off on an energetic note, and keep the initial games easy enough for a layperson to follow.

  3. It is important for the audience to feel involved in the show, so include games that require audience participation. However, always frame the questions for these suggestions in a way that has an emotional or narrative effect. For eg., ask “Where did you go for your last holiday trip?” or “What was your dream job as a kid?” instead of “Give me a location” or “Suggest a profession”, respectively.

  4. The show starts when the audience comes in. However, the warm-up routine is equally important as it helps the performers get in the zone, and builds trust in the host to lead them through the show. A good warm-up begins with some meditation and includes both physical and mental exercises. Try including different games that cover aspects of movement, quick thinking, impulsive reactions and “yes, and”-ing.

  5. In case of short-form or hybrid formats, remember that a particular game might be a lot of fun to play, but might not be as much fun to watch. So prioritize the audience’s interest in case you’re looking to decide between a few game options.

  6. Once a setlist is finalized, write down all the key points you want to get across and all the emotional notes you want to hit. Keep this reference handy on show day. The performers should be the ones improvising, not the host.

Step 2 - Interacting With The Audience

An audience can be your best friend or worst enemy. Be on their good side, and make it easy for them to enjoy your show. Help them appreciate the art, but don’t deconstruct the performance.

  1. The host is the primary source of energy for a show. Even though the performers are responsible for delivering the laughs and developing the viewers’ interest, the audience responds strongly to the host’s energy levels. Hence, it is very important for the host to be well-rested, be in the right headspace and be mentally prepared to exert themselves as they strive to maintain consistent energy levels throughout the show.

  2. Every time the host comes on, it is a palette-cleanser for the audience between different games. Hence, it is a good idea to have a simple conversations with the audience. This draws the audience back in and primes them for the next game. You can even use this chance to get people to share stories/details from their lives in the chat. These can serve as inputs for the improvisers later and will delight the audience when referenced.

  3. When a game or performance is ongoing, the host can occasionally drop reactions in the chat to keep the space active. Also, if the host references chat reactions or comments during the space between games, it helps to reinforce the idea that it’s all one common shared space.

  4. The host is the face of the team before the audience. It is vital that they maintain a positive and inclusive demeanour. The performers may be excused for saying or doing something offensive, as they’re playing characters. But any distasteful act by the host will likely be taken personally.

  5. The host must always stay on their feet and moderate the chat section. If you see any audience member trolling or intentionally offending others, step in to warn them and remove them from the event if they refuse to cooperate.

  6. Every audience is different. Read the chats carefully, and if possible get an understanding of the viewers beforehand, so you can tailor your conversations as needed.

Step 3 - Leverage Online Technology's (aka Zoom) Capabilities

3.1 Fixed Video Order & Spotlight

Drag and drop participant windows into the desired order. Then, on the top-right of your screen, click on View and enable “Follow Host’s Video Order”.

The host can also set upto 9 performers to always be shown, regardless of the viewers’ settings. To do this, click on the three dots icon on a performer’s video window and select Spotlight for Everyone or Add Spotlightoptions.

3.2 Share Your Screen & Audio

Click on the Share Screen button on the bottom of your screen to access the menu. You can share any particular window by clicking on it or share your entire desktop.