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.
Keep the introduction and closing tight, and pre-write game explanations to be crisp and clear.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Spotlight” options.
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.
Be sure to enable “Share computer sound” on the bottom- left corner of the window if you want to also share audio. To share only audio, go to the Advanced tab and select the option shown.
NOTE: If you’re doing this for the first time, Zoom may prompt you to install a plugin that enables audio sharing. Follow on-screen instructions to complete the process.
3.3 Good Housekeeping Practices
Ask all viewers to enable Hide Non-Video Participants in their Video Settings.
Click on Participants on the bottom of the screen. In the “More” section, enable “Mute Participants upon Entry” and disable “Allow Participants to Unmute Themselves”.
You can manually disable video or mute audio for any participant by clicking on the video camera and mic icons against their name in the Participants screen.
3.4 Some More Advanced Hosting Quirks
Breakout Rooms allow you to break up the participants in groups and allow them to experience different things with a different set of performers in each room.
(To learn more about this, click here)
Meeting Polls allow you to collect anonymous feedback from the audience or let them vote between different options.
(To learn more about this, click here)
Manage Participants like a Pro: For a detailed look at all participant management features in Zoom, including renaming others and transferring hosting, click here.
Step 4 - You're Ready to Host
This was just a glimpse of the basics of hosting your first improv show online. Remember that in spite of all these challenges, hosting can be a rewarding experience. Just trust your teammates and yourself... when in doubt, just refer to this guide again!
If you feel the need for more helpful resources, fret not. We've compiled some of the best ones we found on the Interwebs below:
Simple, Straightforward Guide to Hosting Virtual Events (Link)
Comprehensive Guide to Hosting Virtual Events (Link)
Zoom's Guide on Running Engaging Online Events (Link)
Excellent Guide for Performers & Performances on Zoom by The MAIN in Santa Clarita, US (Link - See page 3 onwards)
Good Basic Guide for Musical Performances on Zoom (Link)
10 Super Tricks to Optimize your Zoom Experience (Link)
A Step-By-Step Guide on Enabling Registration Page on Zoom (Link)