Jonathan Murphy: How WIT’s community programming grew during COVID
Believe it or not: WIT expanded its community work during quarantine. Through new and existing partnerships, WIT’s Education Director Jonathan Murphy was able to connect community organizations with WIT’s amazing teachers and provide them with a much-needed dose of levity.
Jonathan took some time to reflect on the year’s work and the lessons he learned along the way.
A lot of people may not realize this, but WIT’s community program actually grew during the pandemic. How did that happen?
Over the course of the pandemic there was a lot more need for people to feel connected. It’s one thing to simply have a catch-up conversation on Zoom. A lot of online classes end up being this one-way communication with a single teacher and a solo skill. WIT’s online improv program provided this wonderful opportunity for people of all ages to connect with each other socially and collaborate on fantastical escapist humor. That remains a rare and beautiful thing.
It was also easy to plan! You just need an internet connection and device. There’s no homework and no planning on the part of the participants. Part of what allowed WIT to grow our community program is the complete removal of barriers. When you aren’t constrained by space logistics it’s easier to take a chance on something like an improv workshop. And what we found is that people LOVED it. One-off workshops turned into multi-week programs faster than I’ve ever seen.
In the immediate aftermath of lockdown we were able to jump in and launch virtual improv programs directed toward youth. We re-started our programming with Sitar Arts Center and ran a weekly program at Lane Social Club, which had previously focused on bringing families together in person.
What were some of WIT’s biggest successes during lockdown?
Our first big success was launching our first in-school program this past fall at Capital Village Public Charter School. It’s twice weekly and part of their in-school enrichment curriculum rather than being an optional after-school activity. The kids at Capital Village love it.
Their executive director Monica Green and I started planning a collaboration pre-COVID in January 2020. We met every six weeks or so to figure out how to navigate around the pandemic. (People might forget that DC was telling us we’d be back to in person activities in a couple months!) Once it was clear that lockdown was going to be our new way of life we kept up the meetings and got Jack Novak involved and we launched a virtual program last fall.
Our second big success was partnering with Project Create to add to their amazing list of after-school arts programs in Anacostia. Their team provides a lot of great feedback and support. We are part of the summer camp as well and look forward to in-person this fall.
We also recently had our first big NitWITs show for a middle school in Chevy Chase. Over a hundred kids! Virtual improv opened a lot of doors for us because we are so flexible.
Was the programming well received? What did people say about their first improv experience happening virtually?
I’ll be honest, the partners and myself were not always sure how these were going to be received. Some partners definitely experienced some hesitancy.
As the pandemic continued, we began piloting virtual workshops with previous partners to see if their community liked them. The response in every case was universal praise from the community! They wanted to know when improv was coming back immediately after the first workshop. I think this is a testament to our amazing teachers
For example, our latest program provides improv to seniors through Capitol Hill Village. That started as a one-off workshop with faculty member Samatha Watson and they asked if we could expand it to weekly. The same thing happened when we went back to online classes serving women experiencing homelessness at Calvary Women’s Services.
Do you have any examples of how WIT’s community work made an impact?
At Capital Village PCS we worked with the school to schedule an improv showcase. It ended up being scheduled for an all school meeting in January. I watched the show and the kids were so confident and funny! As a result of that showcase, a lot of other kids in the school all of a sudden wanted to get into Jack’s class for the spring semester. I always think about how rewarding that must have felt to perform for your peers and inspire them to do improv.
My other favorite story is from Calvary Women’s Services. Our teacher Samantha Watson led a virtual workshop back in December. Everyone seemed to really enjoy being goofy together but there was one person who just wasn’t ready to be vulnerable and held back in participating. As the workshop progressed she started to open up more; when she did, the other women gave her a ton of support. She finally let go and started laughing and playing along with everyone else. At the end of the workshop, the whole group didn’t want to go and they were like, “What more games can we do?” That is amazing to me. It really speaks to the power of how improv can develop people’s sense of trust.
What have you learned about doing this work over the past year? And how is that going to impact the work moving forward in-person?
I’ve learned that people really have to experience improv with one of our amazing instructors before we know if it’s the right fit. Planning improv programs with partners takes a lot of time. It can be months of ongoing emails and Zoom meetings before a potential partner is able to get something scheduled. For youth work, there are multiple background checks that take time to complete. You can’t let the pace of that planning deter you. What we’ve found is that it doesn’t matter if you are a kid, or an adult, or an entire family: once you are all doing improv and laughing together you want to do it more.
The second big lesson is that kids and community groups love doing improv to have fun. We don’t need to start with a program designed to tackle specific problems like mental health, or social emotional learning, or job skills. Improv helps with these things without having to force it! We can provide the sandbox for people to play in and make their own discoveries for how improv applies to their lives.
Moving forward, I want to remove more barriers for potential partners. When I first started building out these community partnerships I was very careful about planning. There were a lot of unknowns. I didn’t want us to overcommit and not be able to deliver. We now have three times more youth instructors in the pipeline and a lot more experienced teachers. WIT is able to be more proactive.
WIT has found more partners able to budget for our improv programs. We have more donors in the community investing in this work. I’m excited about the future of sustaining these youth and community programs so that everyone has an opportunity to have improv in their life beyond just one workshop.