Susan's fabulous insights to online -improvisation
– Susan Serrao
Susan Serrao along with JamieMatchullis, are the two halves of a comedy duo known as the Sketchy Beavers bringing comedy sketches to life from the Canadian female perspective.
Hello from Calgary, Canada! I’m Susan Serrao, a performer with a background in acting, dance, choreography, writing, sketch, character and IMPROV! I am a single mother of four gorgeous boys; Jace (14), Kade (12), Rhett (10) and Nash (6, but almost 7!;) who love to play, laugh and keep me engaged (exhausted?).
I’d like to share with you some of my insights into online improv classes.
Since last fall I have been taking classes online with Upright Citizen’s Brigade out of LA. but the really cool thing is that even though they had to close down UCB in NYC, the improvisers and teachers are still there. And because they are UCB teachers, they can still teach you through the LA branch of UCB, because it’s online!
Are you following me?
So… one of the coolest parts of taking improv, sketch and character online is that I’m in Calgary and I’m taking classes with the pros in LA like Betsey Stover, Monika Smith and Hal Rudnick and NYC, like John Murray and Sara Smallwood-Parsons!
Boom! That’s a lot more accessible and affordable than moving or
travelling for classes.
I’m not the only one who has discovered this. My classmates are from LA, New York, Chicago, Seattle, San Fran, London, some small town in England that I can’t remember, Saskatoon – all over, really.
Some people were stuck in their parent’s apartment 24/7 during the NYC lockdown. Some people have kids screaming in the background when the class is at bedtime while they barricade themselves in their bedroom (I have virtually been in many of my classmates bedrooms. And it no longer seems weird).
There was a hoarder, a person who looked like they were jammed in a closet, a guy zooming on his way home from the airport. There have been 2
classes with couples that we didn’t know were couples because they each have their own little box on the zoom or google screen. Then, one day, we see both of them in the same box due to one of them having a poor wifi connection or a dead computer battery and we’re all like,
“What?!?! You guys are a couple?!”
It feels like they met through our class and hooked up afterwards, but no, it turns out they are married! They fooled us this whole time! We lol away and share in the joy of our discovery and how close we all are now!.
Online classes give you a lot of info on your classmates and teachers lives because we get a 2”x2” glimpse into their personal world. I think that we are more open to sharing and trying things because we are in our own space. It’s safe and comfortable.
Saying that, my last improv class a couple days ago, I had just finished a scene with a classmate from England. It was the first of the day and below average on my part.
In playing “Top of My Intelligence” to my partners offer at the beginning of the scene, I basically blocked him (No, but) by denying his offer to smell his stinky hat.
The scene became an argument and no game was established. I got my notes from our teacher and gave my Canadian persona smile and thank you. Then I turned off the video and pounced on my bunny with a water bottle because he was pulling the paint and drywall off my wall to eat it (this can not be healthy for the little guy). I don’t remember what I yelled at him, but it was something like
“no, no, no! You have to stop this!!!”
while I gave him a few sprays then chased him to try to get the strip of paint out of his mouth.
He managed to munch that whole strip of drywall paper/paint down. Defeated, I returned to my class to find that I forgot to mute myself.
Hmmm…. What do they think just happened? I did a not so great scene, get my notes, turn off my video, then they hear me yell “no, no, no, you have to stop this!”
I”m sure they figured out that I was trying to save my bunny from paint poisoning. That this was not self berating behaviour. Right?! That’s what your highest intelligence would figure, right? Oh well, after this class I will most likely never see them again. Haha! Just kidding! I’m friends with many of them on social media and keep in touch that way.
It is kinda cool that I have some improv friends around America, England and Canada. Our own little UCB online community.
My previous experience in the Improv world was with Loose Moose Theatre, here in Calgary. Loose Moose focuses on short-form scenes and games. I performed in the Maestro Impro and Theatre Sports shows.
We would have a company class on Friday night – led by different improvisors, followed by a show in front of a live audience, followed by notes in the green room. It was a great opportunity to get time on stage and work/learn on your feet, but for me, I didn’t feel that I built a strong foundation or understanding of how to open up the scene or find an ending because I had never taken a structured course for beginners – I just jumped in!
Studying long-form improv with UCB is a much different experience. The most obvious difference being that it is online! UCB has a structured curriculum to work through in levels.
In 101 we are all working on the basics of starting the scene through games and scene work like the concepts of “yes, and”, the base reality (who, what, where), and gifting statements, not questions.
In 201 we worked on the “game” of a scene which is typically the first unusual thing in the scene if it’s met with an emotional response. Once the scene partners find the game, you escalate it with “if this, then what?”. For example, if I’m a kookie mom who is doting on my daughter and she is trying to do her homework we may have established the game with:
M – “I’ve picked out some of you’re favourite rom-com’s for tonight”
D – “Uuuh! Mom, I told you to give me space, I have homework to do”.
Now, as the mom, I can try to find as many different ways to stay in her space as possible –
“oh, your hair is a mess, let me brush that out”,
“You seem stressed so I picked up these charcoal masks for us today!”,
“Oh! You chipped your nail typing on that darned computer! Let me fix that up for you”
All the while, mom pulls out a manicure set with nail polish and starts giving the daughter a manicure. The game of this scene could be labeled as “Mom desperate for girls night with studious daughter”.
I’m currently in 301. We are working on the structure of a Harold show that was developed by Del Close and Charna Halpern (some books to read on this are Upright Citizen’s Brigade Improvisational Manual, Art by Committee, Truth in Comedy and Long-Form Improv)
The Harold begins with 2 monologues inspired by a one word suggestion from the audience. Next three scenes are performed using the info in the monologues as their premise or inspiration.
The goal is to find the “game” of the scene and escalate it 2 or 3 times to really establish the game.
Next up is a group game, again, inspired by the monologues. Then 3 more scenes are performed using the same games as the first round of scenes.
This is followed by another group game and 3 more scenes – ideally, this is the most escalated version of the game played from the first and second rounds of the scenes. Boom! That’s the show y’all!
At the end of each session, we get to perform a live online show for friends and family (… and THE WORLD!) to see. So you still get the live “what the hell are we doing?!” And “this is so much fun!” feels to practise and play with;)
I will leave you with this; having improv, sketch and character classes available online helped me learn, grow, connect with artistic performers, have something to show up for, have deadlines to work towards and find laughter with strangers in a time that was hard for performers around the world.
I am very thankful that online classes were/are available to me and improvisors everywhere. I am also thankful for people like Shawn Kinley, who keep us all connected.
To check out some of Susan’s sketch work click these:
Sketchy Beavers https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCbylILrim45i9-tPhmMU3_Q/videos