It’s like frozen strawberries. Someone I met in the virtual green room “backstage” before an online improv show gave me this analogy and I’ve been using it ever since. Teaching and performing improv online is like frozen strawberries. It’s got all the essential elements: it’s nutritious, it looks similar, and if you’ve never had fresh strawberries, it’s pretty great. And it’s much more appealing than frozen cauliflower (zoom meetings) or frozen chicken nuggets (some terrible e-learning). But it doesn’t quite feel the same. Fresh strawberries have a freshness, the connection to nature and living things, the subtle flavors that take over your senses, the juiciness and the hit of sweetness on the inside. When fresh strawberries aren’t available, frozen ones will do, but they aren’t a true substitute. Frozen strawberries are not going to permanently quell that hunger for the fresh strawberries of summer that you’ll still be waiting for.
So, will we ever have fresh strawberries again?? Will we get to do in-person training again? Will business come back? Will it be a trickle or a roar?
Here’s what I’m thinking. TLDR: YES! It will come back. And it will be, like everything in 2021, a little different than before.
For the last five years, I’ve seen an uptick in a certain kind of client for my team-building gigs. They are companies that have remote or distributed teams. Maybe they do sales nationally and have reps in markets all across the country. Maybe they are a tech company that hires talent wherever it lives and doesn’t require them to relocate. Maybe they have a handful of smaller regional offices in addition to a headquarters. While their team members do the majority of their work remotely during the year, they come together two to four times a year for a few days to have intensive in-person experiences. Together in a hotel conference room or a central office, they have kickoffs, visioning, training, meetings, cheerleading, and goal setting. Additionally, they have a lot of bonding activities: dinners, contests, happy hours, outings, and more to get people to loosen up and connect as humans.
They often bring me in on the first day to lead an improv-based team-building session to prime the pump for the rest of the event. In an hour or two I get people present and in the moment, really listening to each other, open to new ideas, feeling connected to the team and ready for the work ahead. I believe more companies are going to move to this model of having fewer in-person events that last longer and have higher quality interactive experiences. The one-way presentations are going to be pre-recorded or delivered virtually in webinars. And the valuable in-person time will be spent on truly interactive and relationship-building activities. And they will want to hire professionals in interactive and relationship-building activities so they make sure they get the most out of their face-to-face time. And that’s where we get those fresh strawberries.
So my first hope is that in Summer and Fall of 2021 there is an increased demand and priority for high-quality, interactive, in-person content. And once I was fully vaccinated in March, I started to do just that. I did my first in-person training in over a year with the KVUE Daybreak Crew, the on-air talent of a local news station. It felt very safe. It was a small group of people who were all at least partially vaccinated who already work together in the studio without their masks on. We met up outdoors in my neighborhood park (#MuellerHighLIfe), we kept our masks on when we got close and took them off when we were 6 feet or more apart. We did an hour of improv basics, games, and team building. One of the crew members filming said he saw a new member of the team open up like never before. It was so much fun and I felt (and I think we all felt) a little bit more alive at the end. (Although I did crash afterwards–I, like many, still have to build stamina with my interpersonal public-facing skills.) They edited together a fantastic segment telling my story and what happens in those magical Merlin Works team-building sessions.
I have another In-Person Team Building session coming up in June. This one is indoors, masked and distanced with the incoming first year medical students at Dell Medical School. Something we did on Zoom a year ago. My hope is that high vaccine rates among medical professionals combined with the release of my new TEDx Talk will lead to some new opportunities.
My second prediction is there will also be a rise of Hybrid Professional Development. This was echoed in a fantastic Webinar that Bjorn Billhardt at Abilitie hosted a few weeks ago. Many workplaces are going to have a mix of people on site and work from home. All hands meetings, regular trainings, and other routine gatherings will be adapted to suit everyone. The training industry is now figuring out how to serve students in the classroom and at home simultaneously. It’s somethingwe asked our public school teachers in Texas to do months ago–except without the luxury of time and resources. And it looks like the current standard model will be:
- Virtual instructor: so no one has the advantage of access to the teacher offline
- Remote Participants: on their own devices from their own locations
- On-Site Participants: on their own devices from the same office or location
Billhardt even shared the cool idea of everyone changing their virtual backgrounds to the same image, so no one can even tell who’s in person and who’s not. The main difference would be that in-person students break out rooms, activities, and conversations could happen face to face in the room while remote students will have to be in virtual breakouts. This solves the problem of virtual students being left out or having a second class experience in hybrid trainings.
My third prediction is either the tech will improve or virtual producers will become commonplace. When presenting or training in-person, I’m pretty confident about delivering a high-quality experience all by myself. And I’m happy to do it without a slide deck. But just like at all those conference ballrooms where you have someone working A/V in the back of the room, we’re going to need the equivalent to deliver a high quality, slick hybrid training. Maybe my brain and click fingers will adapt, but at the moment I feel like it takes all my energy and focus to deliver the training and engage the audience. If it’s a larger group, I’ll want a co-facilitator running the chat window and being available for technical assistance for the audience. If it’s a larger program with higher production values–music, multiple cameras, multiple hosts, sound effects, on-demand muting of any interruptions, spotlighting, intro videos, etc, you’ll need one or more producers for the event. I’m absorbing this technology and picking up tricks along the way, but for real quality virtual and hybrid production for conferences and events, I recommend Merlin Works Faculty Alumnus Michael Ferstenfeld and his company Make Every Media. (PS- This kind of work could be a great side hustle for stage managers who can do this stuff in their sleep while they wait for live theater to come back to the stage.)
For our Improv, Singing, and Storytelling Classes at our improv school, we are now targeting a return to indoor, in-person classes in the Fall of 2021 or possibly sooner. Although we’ve had some success with outdoor classes, nobody wants to do that in the summer months in Texas. And although our online classes have been surprisingly fun and mighty in 2020/21, it seems like people are full up on frozen strawberries and are holding out for the chance to be back in person for some fresh picked improv.
As with everything since March 2020, who the heck knows. But this is my best guess so far. And I want to let my clients, fans, and supporters know that while we continue to deliver virtual trainings, we are starting to book in-person events as well. I’ve missed you and I can’t wait to play face to face again.