Many of our Covid hobbies and distractions have expired for most of us; thrash TV like Tiger King, baking banana bread, online improv, taking the same photos of the same places on the same daily walk… However for some in the improv community, one fad never went away, and has become a regular staple in social habits – FORTNITE!
Fortnite is an online Battle Royale style player vs player video game, where 100 players go head to head alone or in a team, and battle till the last player standing. In addition to battling players, the map shrinks throughout the game as an ever menacing storm circles the map. The game came out in 2017 and while not a new concept, has become one of the most successful and famous games since its inception.
“Fortnite Friday” is a staple in the week for a growing handful of improvisers including Chris & Laura Mead (UK), Ferran Luengo (ESP), Jochem Meijer (NL), Kate Herreras-Zinman (USA) and myself. Originally created by Chris as a way to spend more time with his nephew during Covid, the team size slowly grew with both improvisers and regular people, launched a WhatsApp group and christened ourselves, “The Chug Cannon Gang”
Every improviser knows the value of knowing a little about a lot of things, and while I’ve only ever done 1 video game inspired scene that I can recall on stage (with Chris Mead of course!), it became very clear very quick, that there is a lot improvisers can take from Fortnite to make us better improvisers both on and off stage.
You Can’t Die In Fortnite/Improv
While the goal of Fortnite is to be the last man standing, no one actually dies. Each player is a holographic projection on an island, transported from the yet-to-be-explained lobby somewhere outside/inside the Zero Point. When your health bar depletes, your holographic avatar merely disintegrates and you return to the lobby for the next game. There’s no blood or guts, just disintegration. While practice does make you better, inexperience doesn’t lead to more failure, not in the way you might think. Even the best of players can be taken out early in the game by an inexperienced player. We have to die a lot in the game to learn and develop how to play and different play styles.
Each game of Fortnite lasts up to about 23 minutes, not too dissimilar to an average improv show length. Acceptance of the risk of failure becomes part and parcel of playing. Instead of focussing on our failings, we instead learn to focus on just enjoying the experience, recognising that some games will go better than others. How often in improv do we get caught up over a bad scene or show? Or worse, fruitlessly comparing ourselves to others. All this negative thought can consume us and suck the fun out of improv. Something that can help overcome these stresses is by setting yourself goals, especially small ones. Fortnite has a variety of in-game challenges. Some play out over multiple games, some play out over just one. Most of the challenges are designed to help the players learn new skills or game mechanics. Adapting a similar mindset with shows and scenes help keep the mind focussed. For example, goals can be around editing more or initiating more scenes etc.
We also need to be humble in success. One sunny day doesn’t make a summer. Don’t let it get to your head and think that it differentiates you from others. Always be learning from every improv experience and bringing others along too.
Celebrate Your Teammates
Fortnite in my opinion, is best enjoyed as part of a squad. The craic of playing with fun regardless of whether you win or lose is liberating. The laughter, banter and acceptance is often more satisfying than the wins. But to gain those precious “Victory Royale” wins, teams need to work together. If a team mate splinters and goes solo or rogue, then they are likely to get in to trouble fast. The best teams are. the ones who constantly check where their team mates are and what they need. Success isn’t based on having a team of the best sharp shooters, it’s about balance. Support players who heal and share ammo are vital to success.
The same goes on stage. Could you imagine an improv team comprised of 4 Robin Williams. It would be awful. There is no such thing as a good and bad improviser. It’s an illusion. Every performer brings something to the stage (think Billy Merritt’s Pirate, Robot, Ninja theory). There are times on stage we lead, there are times on stage we support. Being a more experienced improviser doesn’t mean we lead all the time, nor does it mean we should ignore playing support. Be mindful of those around you, and take care of your teammates.
Bring Your Nerd To The Stage
There is no other game in the world where Ellen Ripley wear a proton pack, use Wolverines claws to take out Superman and do the Macarena dance to celebrate afterward. The franchise crossovers on Fortnite are massive. Fortnite celebrates all pop culture equally.
Jason Chin was the first to teach me to embrace the inner nerd. Bring what you know to the stage. Want to do a Star Wars show? Want to dress up like Middle Earth inhabitants and make that your thing? Want to do a show where you rant about the youth of today? Want to do a show where everyone thinks they are Bono? Do all of these things if it excites you. (and like all of these examples, it’s probably been done already!) There will be an audience for it all. Find your tribe, and play.
Don’t Forget Your Scene-work
Part of Fortnite’s success has been partly down to its constant evolution. The map, in game characters, crossovers, cosmetics and game mechanics – they’ve all grown since the start. But the basic fundamentals of the game haven’t change. The best way to improve is to play. The cosmetics are great, but the game doesn’t care whether you are an OG skin or the 1960’s Batman avatar, whoever deals the most damage gets the kill.
In improv it’s easy to get distracted by the shiny things, or seeking out the futile ‘best format”, or having the coolest people on your team. But at the end of the day the rock we die on is our scene work. I’d rather watch a montage of good scenes than watch someone dabbling in a format that they aren’t practicing enough with. Non improv audiences don’t care what format you’re doing, they just care about being entertained.
Similarly, not every season of Fortnite has been as much fun for me. Chapter 2, season 4 brought a massive MCU crossover that really started to grind after a while. It did feel like Fortnite was no longer punk and sold out!
Not every format, theatre, style of improv is going to appeal to you either. Find what you do like and focus there. I love anything narrative related in improv, it’s what I do best and I love the potential of it. There are other styles I don’t enjoy and don’t care to watch. It’s not that they’re bad, it’s just not my cup of tea.
It’s OK If Your Friends Play Other Games
While most of the “Chug Cannon Gang” are Fortnite purists, not everyone in the group plays it equally. In fact, one of our team probably plays more of Fortnite’s competitor games, “Apex Legends” even more. Should we kick him out of the group for playing with the competition? Of course not.
However, think about the improv scene in your area. How cohesive and open is it? Are there non-compete clauses in theatres? Does each theatre/school/teacher operate in a silo? If so, then you don’t have a community and instead run risk of creating a toxic environment that will only be to the detriment of growth. I’ve seen it happen in communities and even cities and its always sad to see.
Remember, audiences don’t care. Improv does not compete with improv. Improv competes with staying home, a night in a bar, gigs etc. The day when every seat in town is filled with audiences watching improv is the day improv competes with improv, and that will never happen.
Embrace each other, celebrate each other, play together not apart. Students can’t study at your theatre forever, and please, don’t act like you are the only gig in town.
Fortnite/Improv Is Free and Accessible
Despite revenues of $5.8bn in 2021, Fortnite is free to play and does not do nasty loot boxes. You can purchase avatar skins and cosmetics, and a seasonal battle pass (that uses gamification to unlock more skins and cosmetics), but no matter how much you spend, it offers no competitive advantage. This is something the EPIC Games are adamant about.
Improv can be similar. We don’t need theatres, or even teachers, to just practice and rehearse. We just need a space. Improv should be a fun experience and we don’t need to have to have a room or stage rented, or a coach booked, just to play and enjoy it. But the same goes for performances. Don’t have access to a theatre in your town? Get creative. Seek out other venues and opportunities. Cafes, workplaces, parks – in Dublin one group, Underthings, even has a performance in the style of a tour in the national art gallery!
Want to Play?
The Chug Cannon Gang welcomes any Fortnite players out there. Want to play with us? Get in touch!