July 27, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

After summer’s racial reckoning, a Groundlings member reports

Part of a year-end series revisiting the subjects of some of our most popular arts articles of the year.

Actor and comedian Leonard Robinson has no problem with Tom Cruise’s recent on-set rant about COVID-19 safety. After being shut in and shut down for so long, he gets why any behavior that could compromise a successful return to set or stage would be upsetting.

“All you have to do is follow these protocols!” Robinson said. “Even if you believe COVID is a hoax, your paycheck doesn’t.”

Robinson would know. He’s prepping to return in January to the Season 5 set of Issa Rae’s HBO comedy “Insecure,” in which he plays the recurring role of Taurean Jackson. He’ll be required to test up to five times a week, he said.

A few months ago, Robinson tested three times before spending two days on the set of a forthcoming Kristen Bell film, “Queenpins.”

“I had more testing days than shoot days,” he said.

Robinson is also a main company member of the Groundlings, the sketch and improv comedy troupe that this summer, along with Upright Citizens Brigade, came under fire for a lack of diversity and inclusion. As one of three Black main company members, Robinson spoke with The Times in July about his belief that the Groundlings could and would do better in the future.

Five months later, Robinson said the company has made meaningful strides. It has hired an equity and inclusion consultant who regularly holds educational and training sessions on Zoom. More attention is paid to bias when it pops up in the classroom, either with students or staff. Recruitment efforts have been amped up, as have scholarships, and the company is making room for more people to get seen onstage, he said.

Leonard Robinson will return to the set of HBO’s “Insecure” in January.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Robinson landed his first Groundlings directing gig overseeing the company’s inaugural attempt at livestreaming sketch comedy via Zoom for the annual holiday show.

“The biggest challenge for me as a director was, in a strange way, just convincing them that it could be done,” Robinson said, adding that throughout the pandemic the company has done Zoom improv. But sketch, with its reliance on a script and its need for a more structured narrative, was far more difficult to pull off.

Despite the obvious pitfalls of performing live without physical human interaction, Robinson said that Zoom sketch comedy has its silver linings. The Groundlings’ physical theater holds 99 seats; the Zoom theater is infinite. The holiday shows, Robinson said, were watched by about 300 people each night, some from Brazil, South Africa and Germany.

The chat room morphed into a raucous forum for laughter, commentary and communication during the shows. Even the actors were able to chime in from time to time. The more lively a chat room, the more Robinson and the cast knew a particular sketch was hitting its stride.

“As much as everybody loves bingeing on Netflix, that relationship is not interactive,” Robinson said. “TV doesn’t talk back to you, it doesn’t care.”

Directing Zoom shows, Robinson said, does have one very specific quirk: “Every scene is your close-up, which is exhausting.”

With your face in the Zoom box, there is no room to have a false moment, and because the show is streaming live, nothing can be hidden in an edit. Robinson had a limited amount of Zoom views to choose from. Two boxes, or a full grid? Maybe three? How about four?

“We basically pushed Zoom way past the limits of what it’s intended to do,” Robinson said.

During a recent livestream, audience members in the chat room clearly enjoyed a series of sketches grounded in the coronavirus-era world of online communication. Jokes that tapped into the possibilities of digital miscommunication and faux pas were particular favorites.

The shows worked so well, Robinson said, that the Groundlings will likely do a few more sketch shows before summer arrives, at which point hopes are high that maybe, just maybe, actors and audiences can return to the theater. For Robinson that means doing regular stand-up at the Comedy Store in addition to his work with the Groundlings.

Until then, Robinson said, “I’ll perform as many shows online as they’ll let me.”