There were over 750 online improv shows in the UK during 2020. That works out at twenty shows a week across the nation, a huge response to the challenges of lockdown and social distancing.
Almost all of these were runs of weekly shows, with a wide range of teams contributing to the scene. Two groups in particular produced a crazy number of shows in 2020: Comedy Sportz and Extreme Improv. Both have created multiple shows a week since April and the latter also organised the Xtreamed World Championship in August and an Improv Team Championship in November. Special mentions also for Notflix, Shoot From The Hip and Andrew Pugsley’s Isolation for marathon efforts throughout. Improv venues also did their bit, with Hoopla, The Nursery and the Bristol Improv Theatre enabling us to see a range of different acts in a regular time slot.
Short runs and one-off shows added to the variety. Particular highlights were Showstoppers Alternative Eurovision in May, a show from the Comedy Store Players in June and Tony Slattery’s first online performance in November.
The main contribution from the Midlands came from Board Game Smackdown which had weekly shows for most of the year. Each week James Cook hosted a panel of comedians as they played games specially selected to create an entertaining show. This show worked well online, a solid format developed at the Edinburgh Fringe over many years which also lent itself well to a Zoom-style approach. You can read what audiences are saying about the show here.
MissImp and Jumprov added multiple shows to the Midlands count, with Jumprov featuring in both the Birmingham Comedy Festival and the 5th anniversary bash for Improv Comedy Bangalore. Many other Midlands groups added to the list, and my personal favourite was a show in October by Rhymes Against Humanity. Rhymes were due to perform on stage that evening but a late cancellation led to a virtual show instead. Despite the disappointment they managed to create the most joyful improv I’ve seen online all year.
Looking back at pre-covid times, there were 133 improv shows in the Midlands in the first quarter of 2020. This was a 24% increase on the same period last year, showing the improv scene continues to grow year-on-year. The Leicester Comedy Festival in February had more improv than ever. The 40+ shows were a great mix of local acts and performers from across the country. Click here for a quick review of every show.
In contrast, a new charity improv festival was scheduled for end-March, with 10 great groups planning a day-long event for Birmingham Mind. Sadly it was not to be. A brief description of what we missed can be found here.
Taken as a whole, 2020 is as much about the things that did not happen as the things that did. The enforced break means the list of improv groups in the Midlands is bound to change. Some new groups will have lost their startup energy and some older groups will question if they really do want to return to the stage. That in itself is a sad thing. However, the move to online shows means there was more improv than ever available to audiences in the Midlands. Groups from across the country were suddenly accessible like never before, from small university groups to West End stars. A huge amount of effort went in to making this happen and doing something that had never been done before. And that, in itself, is kind of amazing.