“Time is a context to describe the art form of improvisation. There is short form and long form. (Bizarrely, it’s the only art form which categorizes itself in length of time.)”Mick Napier, Improvise. Scene From the Inside Out. Second Edition. Englewood, CO: Meriwether Publishing, 2015. p.5
Others before me have noted that there are, in fact, other genres of art that also classify themselves through time or length (one-act plays/full-length plays, short stories/novels, haiku/renga poetry and the like) but the nomenclature of Long-Form (in contrast to short-form) remains widely used at least in North American improv circles. Many, myself included, seek to deliberately elide or soften the boundaries between these two spontaneous impetuses as, increasingly, improvisers train and utilize skills from what were once at least in theory sparring camps. Players may prefer to perform in one modality over the other: this often corresponds with how they took their first steps in the artform. But it’s undeniable that these improv schools have thoroughly cross-pollinated, and rightly so, as both approaches have a great deal to offer.
The easiest distinction between long- and short-form is that the former tends to craft a connected piece while the latter provides discrete scene units that often take the form of competitive improv games or a cabaret-style revue. Even this description, however, quickly reveals how problematic (and pointless) it is to seek to draw a solid line separating the two spontaneous instincts. Gorilla Theatre, for example, features a series of improv scenes or games much like its kin Theatresports, but some scenes may in fact be connected through the directors’ themes or visions. And even franchises such as Theatresports and Comedysportz – which tend to serve as the poster children for short-form – frequently develop meta-narratives that grow and intertwine over the entire course of the competition: “Will the underdogs ever seize victory from the seasoned professionals,” or “can the improvisers appease the impossible-to-please judge to finally gain a perfect score?”
That being said, whether we like it or not, we have now inherited these prolific defining terms and improvisers often use them as a shorthand to explain their conceit or passion to friends and audiences (although I remain unsure as to whether an audience ultimately cares if a show defines itself as short- or long-form so much as they are concerned with experiencing a performance that is good.) “Long-form” increasingly has become an ill-fitting title that loosely describes a multitude of approaches to structuring and crafting an improvisational event. So, in an effort to further elucidate this energy, I offer an incomplete list of inspirations that can serve as a centripetal force uniting our “longer” spontaneous efforts.
Systems to Structure Your Long-Form
1.) Theme-based structures. Many Western improv long-forms embody a thematic approach to story-telling, providing a series of scenes that are connected by an over-arching concept or idea that may be provided by the audience as the original inspiration or that emerges gradually from the scenes themselves as they play off one another. These pieces often feel like an anthology of loosely connected and fragmented short stories amassed around a commonality. A major plus of such forms is that, by design, they are porous and inclusive: many ideas and characters can be thrown against the proverbial improv wall as there is ample room to edit and discard elements that aren’t particularly strong or don’t “stick” (to continue my pasta analogy.) Examples include the omnipresent Harold where typically one word or phrase gets the ball rolling, the Armando Diaz where a guest monologist provides fragments of a true story that morph into original scenes, and the Lotus in which thematic connections are organically discovered as players rotate between three different premises. I would also include most “organic” or “free-form” improv in this category too as it typically seeks to weave emergent threads and ideas throughout the duration of the play.
Host: “All of our scenes tonight are going to be – at least loosely – inspired by an idea that we get from you, our audience. So, who here has a favorite word that they don’t mind sharing…?”
2.) Location-based structures. Other long-forms rely heavily on location as a defining feature. In some instances this is a fictional or theatrical locale that unites all the action and characters. In other cases the action may take place in literal locations that are crucial to the performance conceit. Many long-forms assume a “poor theatre” approach to the craft, with physical elements, costumes and props all being manifestations of the players’ and audiences’ imaginations. Location-based structures allow for the possibility of a more sumptuous design approach (although this is, by no means the norm.) Incorporating more “traditional” theatrical design elements can, in turn, enable art works that are more easily recognizable and accessible to patrons who aren’t improv aficionados. Close Quarters provides a good example of a theatre form contained in one greater location that replays the same few minutes in time from multiple perspectives. Interactive and site-specific performances, such as Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding, Finnegan’s Wake and theme park strolling players engaged in Streetmosphere, illustrate modes that use actual “real” spaces to craft immersive events. While some of these forms certainly incorporate highly structured elements or moments, the very presence of an audience that is invited to play along demands an improvisational ethos and commitment.
Cast member welcoming audience guests into a real church: “We’re all so glad that you could make it to witness this special event. So, which side of the church will you be sitting on today? The service should be starting shortly…”
3.) Relationship-based structures. A third unifying possibility is that of character and relationship. While this element is undoubtedly featured in (most) other long-forms as well, in these particular cases the concept of exploring relationships stands clearly at the center of the endeavor. Often characters are deliberately shuffled into new and/or pre-set combinations that allow for the audience to see the cast of players in different lights and scenarios. Such forms often allow performers to dig deeper into their characters as they tend to only play one each for the duration of the piece. There is also great mileage in seeing how different facets or faces of a character emerge depending on their company. La Ronde strings together a series of two-person vignettes with each character performing in (initially) two scenes in a row with a different partner. Family Reunion utilizes a location-specific frame with a series of family members escaping onto a back porch or similar in dynamic combinations. Pass-Off Scene (you may know it as Follow the Leaver) explores a similar energy but with characters now in motion, moving through various rooms or parts of a greater location in real time.
Director: “For tonight’s show I’m looking for an event or occasion that might bring members of an extended family together, such as a baby shower or funeral…”
4.) Narrative and dramaturgical-based structures. I’ve grouped these two long-form approaches together as they share an interest and commitment to “the canon.” Narrative improv typically seeks to replicate the tropes, structures and story arcs of literary traditions, while dramaturgical improv digs deeply into historical antecedents and customs to inspire play. These two approaches may or may not be combined in the service of the one project. (I talk about this latter style in more detail here.) The resulting structures tend to be more linear – echoing their models in theatre, film, television and literature – although this is not to say that there may not be many threads and characters that the audience follows. These works can have the advantage of appealing to more “traditional” theatre goers and art consumers as attendees often have a better chance of understanding the central premise and basic rules of the game especially if they themselves are familiar with the source material in question. Parodies, style-work and homages generally fall squarely into this category. Examples include the wide array of improv Shakespeare, murder mystery, and musical pieces that appear on many improv stages.
Player King: “The bard has penned many famous epic tragedies and comedies. What is an original title that has never been seen before that can inspire our Shakespearean folly today?”
5.) Efficacy-based structures. Finally, I don’t believe that it is common (yet) to also include service-focused practices under the heading of long-form but many of the healing arts certainly belong here as well. These approaches may also incorporate some of the structural devices listed above but their unabashed focus is on efficacy and personal or social change. Playback Theatre organizes a series of warm-ups, short scenes and reenactments that are performed in the service of those in attendance. Players talk about the “red thread” that often emerges in any given performance that connects stories in an organic and meaningful way. Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed forms similarly deploy the tools of live performance as spect-actors can interrupt staged scenarios, replacing performers in the hopes of finding new more satisfying strategies and endings. While Viola Spolin and her contemporaries are often recognized for their contributions to more “mainstream” theatrical improv and sketch comedy, many of her games were initially developed with an eye towards increasing play and communication between children from different cultures and backgrounds. In each of these cases, although performances might include smaller units or scenes, there is an undeniable connective tissue uniting the events that reflects a long-form lens.
Conductor: “Did anyone come to the performance today with a story that they wanted to see enacted, or perhaps you’ve been inspired by one of our earlier shared experiences…?”
Obviously this is not an exhaustive list and many practitioners are actively pursuing and developing hybrid forms that combine these artistic impulses in exciting and new ways. And there are certainly other organizational taxonomies one could use to describe this type of work (language-based, movement-based, music-based…) But I think there’s a value in recognizing past historical trends and successes as we seek to chart an enticing and effective improvisational path forward.
You can read more about some of my own long-form efforts and experiments on my “Deviser” page here, or check out some behind the scenes details in my occasional “Firsts” series compiled here for your convenience.
Connected Game: La Ronde