Harold Ramis Film School Forges Ahead
March 20, 2020 by Screenmag
The current coronavirus pandemic prompted the famously funny Harold Ramis Film School at The Second City to get serious, and in very short order. As Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker placed bans on large or even mid-size gatherings and stated he is prepared to order travel and quarantine restrictions to limit virus spread, the in-person, improv-based curriculum at Second City and its film school seemed to be at risk. At the end of last week, Second City, to comply with said mandates, closed their stages and Piper's Alley was placed on lockdown. Training Center classes in Chicago, LA, and Toronto moved to 100% online-only. As did their heralded film school. SCREEN spoke with Harold Ramis Film School Program Director Jack C. Newell about forging ahead through these trying times.
SCREEN: The challenge facing HRFS and Second City, in a nutshell...
JACK: One of the main things people come to Second City and HRFS is for the community and the power of ensemble and collaboration, so the challenge we face here is how do we continue when you take away the in-person work we do here?
SCREEN: Plain and simple, how did you solve the problem?
JACK: At Second City we have this idea in improvisation of "yes, and" which, to simplify, means if you say something I say "yes, and" - so if you and I are doing a scene together and you say we are florists and I say yes, we are dueling florists... or florists who are step-siblings, or florists who are afraid of the color pink, or... something. I take what you said and embrace it and then expand on it.
So, we solved the problem by "Yes, and"-ing the situation. Thinking like this allows for an incredible capacity to deal with a rapidly changing situation, like we find ourselves in right now. It's about taking the constraints that life has put forward and finding a way to make the best of it.
SCREEN: What was your greatest obstacle to overcome here?
JACK: Technology aside, the obvious challenge is how do you teach improvisation and film production in an online-only environment. Some classes seem like no-brainers to make the transition to online - screenwriting, film watching and discussion classes - and they did seamlessly transition. The real surprise was how well improv worked online... or... should it be surprising? If the attitude is right and the ideas around "yes, and" - mutually respecting your classmates and supporting members of your ensemble or team - are in play, then it shouldn't matter in what form your class takes.
SCREEN: How are students responding to the new approach?
JACK: So, you take all of the anxieties of being a young artist in film school and you add a global pandemic on top of it. Probably the biggest challenge is just dealing with this new paradigm and the uncertainty that comes with it. For anyone in the arts, the future is always uncertain - this is just exasperating. We're combatting that with more one-on-one time with the teachers and finding all the different ways you can work virtually.
I think that one of the positive side-effects (no pun) to staying in school is giving these folks continuity with a set schedule to show up to class. It maintains their community and keeps them from isolating. Also, as comedic storytellers, our job is to take what is happening in the world and make it make sense and make fun of it.
SCREEN: What do you see the Harold Ramis Film School and the greater Second City community looking like in six months?
JACK: Back in the building and learning, and adopting things we've learned in this transition to improve the experience. Maybe you're a little sick or can't get to class - now we know there's a real opportunity to stay on track from a distance. For us, we think it will open up a whole new world of distance learning and online guest speakers.