During a normal year, the performers of Mr. Gad’s House of Improv, the college’s oldest improv comedy group, sit face-to-face with their audience. Each Monday night, they would take audience suggestions, run into the crowd and play with the intimate dynamics of live improv comedy. But what does that become when the audience is a grid of faces on a screen?
Since transitioning to Zoom, Gad’s has worked to maintain its standards and identity while also using the unusual circumstances of a virtual platform to home in on what their style of comedy truly is.
Jenna Wyman ’21 took over as director of Gad’s in the fall of 2020, just as Amherst entered its first full semester during the pandemic. Leading the group during uncertain times was a challenge at the outset. “This is never how I thought my year as a director was going to go, so I felt a lot of pressure,” Wyman admitted. “I just had no idea what the audience numbers were going to be — if it was going to be a total train wreck [or not].”
Wyman and the group spent the first few months of the pandemic-stricken year struggling to recapture their live chemistry on Zoom. “The first semester, we had a really limited number of games that we felt comfortable trying over [Zoom], just because it can get confusing, and you never want to cut people off with the technological issues,” she explained.
Many of the issues they faced were out of their control, like bad weather before an outdoor concert. Having a bad Wi-Fi connection, for example, can completely disrupt a show, randomly cutting off one of the performers in the middle of a game. But Wyman noted that improv comedy is more resilient to disaster than other live performances. “It’s not like if you were in a show with actual lines of dialogue, where there was suddenly just a hole,” she emphasized. “With improv, you can fill anything that happens. So we do practice what to do if something really goes wrong like this.”
After continued online rehearsals and virtual performances, Gad’s has grown to appreciate its new medium. “It allows the audience to have more of a sense of what’s going on [within the performance],” Wyman stated. “Even with the awkward quirks of Zoom and improv over a computer, we kind of just push past them because it is such a valuable part of our Amherst experience.”
Now, with months of Zoom experience under its belt, the group has settled on an organized routine, heavily based in practice, planning and weekly Monday night virtual shows. Zoom, however, has limited which games Gad’s is able to perform and forced the organization to scrap some of its favorites from previous years. They practice often, but for improv comedy, there’s only so much you can do beforehand. “You cannot prewrite anything — everything has to be in the moment. But the games provide a loose structure for everything,” says Wyman.
Gad’s has been able to preserve some of its special shows even on Zoom, like the annual Murder Mystery show, where each performer takes on an eccentric character and persona.
But the changes to their performance medium cannot be overstated. “Everyone’s on mute, and a lot of people turn their cameras off, so we’re just performing for this void of faces, and we can hear no laughter,” Wyman said. “When you’re performing a show live, you put so much weight into how well you’re doing, whether or not people laugh, so you get really stressed in a real life show if there’s going to be silence or not. But now we’ve all had to grow so comfortable with just silence the entire time and just people’s faces looking at you.”
As for their audience, Wyman noted that a lot of parents and grandparents of current students and alumni come to the shows, “which sometimes is funny because our shows can get a bit raunchy,” she remarked. “But it’s been actually nice to have an older audience engagement, because a lot of times, they are more willing to give suggestions and type little comments in the chat box.”
To the student body, Mr. Gad’s House of Improv is not only known for its entertaining performances but also for its highly selective auditions. The group, unfortunately, did not have auditions in the fall while it adjusted to Zoom. At the beginning of the spring, Wyman and the other members were able to hold tryouts over Zoom, spending more than 10 hours on auditions, callbacks and deliberations. “We were worried [because] it can be really hard over Zoom to get a full feel of someone’s personality and whether they’re going to click with the group,” Wyman noted. “So much of improv is knowing the people that you’re performing with and having a good relationship and lots of trust.”
The group ended up taking on three new performers, resulting in a smaller group than in previous semesters. Although Wyman feels that the size has put pressure on the new recruits “to step up to the front of the stage and really take on a bigger role,” she also believes the smaller numbers “have really allowed them to develop more independence and confidence on the stage at an earlier point in their Amherst improv career than I did.”
Mr. Gad’s House of Improv will continue to hold weekly virtual shows on Mondays throughout the rest of the semester, with a final senior showcase in May. Even though the semester is ending soon, Wyman has high hopes for the future of Gad’s, mentioning that Zoom has notably helped the group break away from stagnancy.
“From the time that I was in Gad’s, there wasn’t a lot of room for change. We had a very clear cut view of what we do as a group. But I think with Zoom improv, we’ve had to break away from that and be willing to go off of tradition and do what works for Zoom,” Wyman said.
Gad’s has developed a long-standing history of traditions since its first show in 1988. With its unprecedented move towards an online format this past year, the group has had to abandon some of these outdated practices, dissolving what Wyman calls a “hierarchy in the process.” Now, she believes that “the young members feel they can really have as much of a place as the older members do.”
Just like the rest of the world, Mr. Gad’s House of Improv has worked to survive and thrive in the world of the pandemic. But beyond adaptation, there may be something lost when comedy leaves Zoom. Maybe it will be the ease of clicking on a link, or the sights and sounds that make Zoom what it is. Regardless, I’m sure we will all have something to be nostalgic over when productions like Gad’s returns to the stage.