This blog is a part of the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable’s new blog series, “Teaching Artists Speak Out: Blogs from Quarantine.” As schools remain closed, we’ve invited some “Teaching Artists of the Roundtable” to help us curate a series of blog posts written for and by NYC teaching artists. We’ll be posting new blogs each Tuesday and Thursday for the next several weeks. To view other blogs in the series, please click here.
You can make sure you are stocked up on hand sanitizer, canned food, and toilet paper, but you can never be completely prepared for going into quarantine during a pandemic. Sure, I have enough to eat in my house. We are very fortunate and we planned ahead; however, I had no idea what my brain and my heart and my soul were going to need during this intense time.
On Thursday, March 12th I was in the middle of teaching an improv class for The Peoples Improv Theater when we got word there would be no more classes for a while. My students looked at me. I looked at them. I didn’t know what to say, but I talked anyway.
I’m an improviser, that’s what we do.
I told everyone I had no idea what was going on or when we’d be back, but I knew that we all needed to set one quantifiable and attainable mini-goal for however long we would be quarantined. I told them I would check in the next week and see how the goals went. I offered up my goal first.
I decided that I would finally get myself to drink 10 glasses of water a day.
Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I could even accomplish this one small goal. It seemed like a lot. Quarantining seemed like a lot. Everything seemed like a lot.
Every week after class we all swing by the bar and then head to an after class improv jam; however there was no jam. Everything was cancelled. The situation was getting real and scary really fast.
We all looked at each other and not knowing what else to do, we started our own makeshift improv jam at the bar. Someone grabbed my phone and we put it on Facebook Live. We all laughed and tried not to touch each other. People at home were happy to see that some of us were still together. This improv jam and the silly video meant a lot to a lot of people.
That was our last night out.
I went home scared and unprepared emotionally for what life would be like in the coming days/weeks/months. I imagined myself laying in bed and crying and feeling lost for a long time, missing my students, missing my people, missing laughter and art and creativity and the stage. I wondered what good all the hand sanitizer, canned food, and toilet paper could do without the things that I knew I needed to survive.
I woke up on March 13th and a few of us decided to record some two person improv sets since we were each quarantined with another improviser. That sounded fun and would make my mom pleased to get to see me perform so we did it. We knew we could all stream from our personal accounts; however it felt more powerful if we all streamed from one account. I quickly made a new Instagram account.
Socially Distant Improv.
Instagram account made.
My friend Kim made a graphic advertising our show.
It gave me something to look forward to. It gave us all something to look forward to.
I have not stopped working from March 13th until now at the time of this publication. We’ve been working around the clock.
Socially Distant Improv is now a fully functioning channel on Instagram Live.
We stream 75+ weekly shows.
We successfully ran a 25 hour international comedy festival this past weekend.
It’s 3 weeks in and we have over 1300 followers.
It’s modest, but it’s growing.
Every single day Kim and I get some sort of note from someone telling us why Socially Distant Improv is important to them. Performers are thankful for the encouragement to create and perform and to have a show their far away family and friends can finally see. Our viewers are thankful to laugh and to have shows they look forward to catching. Everyone seems thankful for a continuation of something normal and for something that stays on a schedule in this time of uncertainty.
I have never worked this hard in my life. It’s early mornings to late nights for no pay; however, I’ve never been more fulfilled. I am performing new characters and improvising with new people every single day. I get to reconnect with my current teammates and we are learning to listen and play with each other on a whole new, deeper level. I am making new friends and teammates all over the world. My new friend Rafa who is an improviser in Mexico City will come visit NYC as soon as he can, and I know that we will perform at The PIT together. We are breaking down the walls of theaters and connecting like never before.
This virtual improv theater we created has meant more to my family than I ever could have imagined. At 11AM every day I do improv with my niece and nephew in Boston. They love getting to perform for the world and I love getting to guide them through it. It’s absolutely priceless. Yesterday was a tough one for me, and I didn’t feel like doing anything today, but I knew I had to get up for those kids…so I did and it was beautiful and exactly what I needed.
I have not stopped working from March 13th until now at the time of this publication because when I stop, even for a minute, I feel lost and I cry.
A huge part of my new “job” has been reaching out to performers to ask them to grace our “stage” with their talents since March 13th. Most were not in the right place to do that on March 13th and we completely understood; however, we kept building Socially Distant Improv. We knew that when and if these performers became ready to get back in front of a “crowd” we’d be ready to make it happen for them. Most eventually find it comforting and rewarding to get back out there and perform in this new virtual format.
Nobody was emotionally prepared for going into quarantine during a pandemic. Most people I talked to in the first week were laying in bed and crying and feeling lost…AND THAT IS OK. That is great. That is surviving. THAT IS OUR ONLY JOB RIGHT NOW.
So cry, laugh, lay around, get super buff, eat a cake, write a novel, call a friend, take a vow of silence, do anything…JUST SURVIVE. If you survive, that helps me survive and then we’re getting through this together. That is the only way.
Last week a show was cancelled because one of our performers was suddenly feeling sick, and I lost it. What am I doing? People are sick. People are dying. I’m facilitating playtime and laughter. It felt wrong. I was angry and sad and confused, but I wanted to cover the show so I logged on to Socially Distant Improv and went live. I improvised for 20 minutes with an old friend. It was some of the best improv I’ve done in a long time, and I needed that. My scene partner needed that. Maybe one of the people who witnessed the improvised magic needed that too. So I guess that’s another reason to keep going.
On that note, my thoughts here are done and it’s time for me to take a break and have a good cry. Afterwards, it’s back to work for me because I have a job to do. My job is to survive and this is how I’m doing it.
None of us were prepared for going into quarantine during a pandemic, and we are all just improvising as we go along.
I’m still not drinking enough water. I’m working on it.
If you’d like to follow Socially Distant Improv, please click here.
Dana Shulman is an actor, improviser, teacher, coach, and silly long distance runner originally from Boston and currently in a long term relationship with New York City. She is a long time faculty member, producer, and performer at The Peoples Improv Theater and is a founding member of independent improv team Student Driver (est. 2010) who headlines and produces one of The PIT’s longest running show Indie Road (every Sunday) and their longest longest running festival Indie-Pendence Day (every Fourth of July). Dana teaches improv, stand up, & coaches running through Opening Act & Manhattan Youth, two organizations which do amazing work to support NYC public school students. You can also find Dana playing with ComedySportz NYC and she was a member of the first main stage cast of Improv Asylum NYC. She is a recent graduate of Freestyle Love Supreme Academy and would like to believe she is getting better at rapping. Dana is a co-founder of the brand new and thriving Socially Distant Improv which streams 75+ live comedy shows a week on Instagram Live.