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Improv theaters move online, outside to keep sales trickling in amid pandemic shutdowns

Improv theaters improvise to keep sales trickling in
Posted at 8:42 PM, Jan 20, 2021

Live in-person performances have been nearly nonexistent since March. So improv theaters are improvising to find a new way to reach their audiences.

“In a non-pandemic year, we’re busy every single day of the week,” Matthew Terrell, communications director at Dad’s Garage in Atlanta, Georgia, said.

Since mid-March, that hasn’t been the case for improv theaters.

“Until we open up, we are expecting to lose at least half a million dollars of revenue, which seems like a big number. And it certainly is, but we’ve done so much to bring that number down,” Terrell said.

He said the team simply had to do what they normally do -- improvise the second their doors closed.

“Within days, we had literally launched a new channel on Twitch,” he explained. Twitch is an online streaming platform often used by gamers, but it’s growing in other areas as well.

“We’re learning to be improvisers in a completely new arena so it’s almost like you're learning to improv all over again,” Terrell said.

With the new solution came new challenges for performers like Whittney Millsap.

“Instead of working with the full function of a stage, I’m working with how can I play to camera to create drama,” she said. “You can't hear the audience, which is odd.”

“Yes, it is a lot different because the performers can't hear the laughter from the audience on the other side, so things like live chat has been very very important,” Terrell said.

From LOL’s to repeating funny lines, this is the new feedback for improv performers, which can actually have some real time feedback benefits, too.

“You're in the scene and you can incorporate something they just said on chat into the scene,” Millsap said.

Just up the street, Whole World Improv Theater is also using Twitch, on top of outdoor performances. Yet, in what would normally be their high season with sold out shows, that's not the case.

“It’s a fraction of what we’re used to,” Emily Reily Russell, managing director at Whole World Improv Theater, said. The theater was recently renovated to adapt to the times.

“We completely remodeled the theater. We ripped out all the audience seating, and originally sat 123 people and now we seat 28,” she said.

As the pandemic continues, she said they are holding onto hope.

“We’ve been holding so tight and we're holding it down in the budget. The budget is this big but, you know, we’re going to keep going as long as we can,” she said.

As Americans begin to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, it gives people who run live venues some hope, but maybe not fast enough.

“Dr. Fauci said that live theater may not be able to return until a year after the vaccine has been released, and so right now that's what we’re preparing for,” Terrell said.

For now, these improv theaters are making it work digitally, another tool in the toolbox they’ll use in the future.

“When we do open up, we can sell both an in-person tickets to come to the theater or a digital ticket to watch online,” Terrell said.

“This is the world that you're living in, so instead of looking at what it’s not doing for you, how can you look at what it can do for you,” Millsap said.