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Behind the business: Unexpected Productions transitions to digital

Picture yourself in a 214-seat theater. Famous for its improv shows and with nearly 40 years of history in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, Unexpected Productions normally has a full house on any given show night. 

That all changed in early March, when one night there were just 28 seats filled, separated by large open spaces due to occupancy restrictions. COVID-19 had begun to raise alarms in the state of Washington, and this non-profit improv theater was just starting down the long road of uncertainty, unsure of how its model could continue to operate during these challenging times.

Kent Whipple, the Marketing and Development Director for the theater, sat down with us virtually to talk about what those beginning days of shelter in place looked like and how they’ve continued to evolve and connect with their community. 

Unexpected Productions is not only a theater that has historically hosted 14 live shows a week, but it is the home of a world-famous improv school with more than 20 classes and workshops ranging from beginner level up to skilled performers. Their entire business would have to be shut down under the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic unless they could bring everything online.

What first went through your mind when you were considering going virtual?

Improv is an art form where we interconnect with people. It’s really hard to do improv on screen because then it becomes television. If you’re watching people perform and doing bits and gags, it’s Whose Line Is It Anyway? For us, it’s not just about “hey, let’s laugh together,” it’s “let’s create something together.” And that’s been our biggest challenge, but we had to pivot.

What has the transition to the “new normal” looked like for your staff?

Well, we have 60 performers who are now sitting at home. We have an entire box office staff sitting at home, and we have a team of managers trying to put stuff together on Zoom or creating new things that our community can engage with online. Nothing happened overnight. 

We have a stellar reputation for education, so we wanted to use that and maximize it, but there’s been a learning curve. You have to remember that, unlike tech businesses, Zoom was a new challenge for us. We had to figure out how to utilize it on a basic level for staff meetings, and then we quickly transitioned to hosting online Q&As with our education director and artistic directors who could talk about improv and what we do. 

The early days had a lot of in-depth conversations about how to use technology and really create something that was worthy of our audiences. We have a long standing reputation to uphold, so we didn’t want to put something out in a rush that isn’t our typical high quality. 

How did you communicate with such a large staff that was so significantly impacted?

Well, it was incredibly hard. We had to start by saying, “Hey, we’re sorry. We’re trying to figure it out, and we’re going to do the best we can to take care of each other.” We’re a family, and we’re a community. It was horrible to have to shut our doors and tell our staff they can’t come to the theater right now, but that’s what we had to do. We didn’t have work that they could currently do.

Since then we’ve been keeping open communication about ideas and working to figure out ways that we can continue to do classes online. We’re doing everything that we can to create opportunities, but it’s a process. 

We’re also trying to continue looking forward to the day that we can be back together again, celebrating life and celebrating improv. We would love to say it’s going to be on this day and we could plan for it, but we don’t know when that will be. For right now we have to focus on staying safe but also staying excited for the future and getting back together in person to celebrate. 

What has been the biggest challenge?

We can’t teach people to be funny. We teach people how to tell stories on stage and how to connect their stories. Figuring out how to connect their stories through a screen has been our biggest challenge. Our business does not easily translate online.

We’re not going to throw something up quickly just to do something on screen and make money. We’re going to do something that our students and our community deserve. If that means we’re doing it a little later than some other businesses, then we’ll do that because it’s going to be good. It’s going to be quality, and something we can be proud of. So then, even after the fact, maybe we’ll have an online component when we’re all able to be back together again. But it’s going to be the quality we’re known for, and that’s the challenge. 

What has been the biggest bright spot in the past few weeks?

We’ve finally figured out a way to take our classes and performances online. It didn’t happen overnight, and we’re still learning as we go, but we had a very busy April. We successfully hosted beginner classes, intermediate classes, and even a mime course. These online classes are donation based, which has been a great way for us to continue to support our community with entertainment and improv development while also getting the help and funds we need to continue creating more online resources.

We also started Duos Open Mic, which is Seattle’s only improv open mic. Improvisers of all experience levels will gather to create virtual improv fun. This is just one of many new ideas to perform improv virtually. We’re trying things out as we go and figuring out what works and what doesn’t. 

What’s one piece of advice you would give other business owners during these challenging times?

Connect with your community. I have been so blown away by our community. They have come together and supported us, and people are donating to our theater. We’re a nonprofit, so those donations are keeping us alive. They’re keeping us afloat, keeping us employed, and allowing us to continue to figure out how to make more online classes. 

If you have a way that your community can support your business during COVID-19, tell them. Tell them on social media, on your website, tell them anywhere you can. It’s really so hard to go out and say, “We know there are businesses that are closing, and not surviving, and people who are out of work… can you give us money?” But that’s what you have to do. You have to ask.

Photos from Unexpected Productions


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