“S” is for “Shape of Show”

“An important element in improvising is the balance between using procedural formulae and pre-existent material, and creating new material, new combinations of material and new procedures. Improvisations are not entirely self-generating and most improvisors have a bank of ‘personal cliches’ to which they resort.”

Hazel Smith and Roger Dean. Improvisation, Hypermedia and the Arts since 1945. Amsterdam: Overseas Publishing Association, 1997. p.29


Formulae and structures house the creative freedom of improvisation, giving it meaning and direction. In short-form traditions it is common to talk about the Shape of Show or the ways in which organizational and rhythmic choices influence the greater audience experience. Well-crafted franchises, such as Theatresports and Comedysportz, incorporate ingredients and benchmarks that greatly assist in this regard – the host welcomes, the stacking of competitive scenes, the declaration of the ultimate winner… Similarly, long-form and the healing arts utilize rituals and traditions in order to frame and shape the performance event in such a way as to (hopefully) maximize effectiveness and appeal. While spontaneous shows address issues of pacing and build in their own unique ways, I contend that the elements built into polished short-form structures can offer helpful guides and focal points for the broad array of other spontaneous works that self-select the label of improvisational theatre. Through this lens, a consideration of the shape of show can become synonymous with the concept of building a dynamic dramatic arc, artistically arranging a collection of improvised scenes or acts, or aesthetically crafting the frame of a long-form piece.

Shaping the Show

1.) Set the scene… I think we all hope we are fast approaching the day when we don’t have to define the very concept of improvisation for our audiences before each show (I’m not sure we’re actually there yet) but it is important, none-the-less, that our shows are framed and contextualized. An audience may struggle to enjoy and appreciate the skill of our work if they are not given the tools to do so, especially if our goal is to play to a diverse audience demographic as opposed to a gathering of insiders who are already in the know. It’s difficult to appreciate something you don’t know that you should be looking out for so it’s helpful to have an attitude of “calling your shots” a little. This may involve explaining the general rules or conceit of your improvisational enterprise, introducing the major characters or roles, or outlining what you are hoping to accomplish or create. If there’s something particularly unique or impressive about your take on the art of improv, there’s no harm in making that known too. While much of this framing work is typically done from the stage, it’s also important not to overlook what can be achieved through your marketing materials – including online campaigns, graphics, programs and lobby displays – that can help quickly establish a mood or sense of focused expectation. If we don’t want to exclusively perform to fellow improvisers, some effort needs to be made to open the door to our world for those who are uninitiated.

2.) Warm the lights… Not everyone enjoys the short-form staple of the audience warm-up which generally functions to get the audience laughing, engaged and ready to freely share their own energy with the stage and players. I appreciate that this can appear pandering or ill-suited to pieces that do not crave a more sports-like interactivity and interplay. And there’s no denying that such a full-throttle audience energizer would rarely serve more august or thoughtful performances with an eye towards service or social change. That being said, in most instances it strikes me as important that companies consider how to invite the audience into the improvisational performance. In lieu of host banter and applause rituals there is value in finding a mission-appropriate way to introduce the audience to the company of players or characters and to give them a user-friendly taste of the play that will follow. In short-form shows this usually consists of a playful warm-up and Decider; in Playback Theatre you might utilize gentler audience introductions and simpler exercises that don’t yet demand more lengthy or vulnerable narratives. On a simple level, while the explanation noted in my first bullet point might describe the puzzle to follow, this performative phase strives to give the audience some rudimentary pieces or examples.

3.) Pace the build… As the performance unfolds it’s helpful to consider ways to increase the apparent challenge, finesse or substance of the event. To return to the metaphor of a short-form show, it’s unlikely that the most (seemingly) difficult game will be slated as the very first offering of the competition: the arc of the show needs somewhere to go. The same holds true for long-form pieces. If you are weaving together smaller discrete units there is an innate value in saving something a little more dynamic or impressive for later in the work to help propel you towards the climax. This is not to suggest that players shouldn’t be challenged earlier in the work. Firstly, I’d argue, without some sense of challenge or risk you’re probably not inspiring your players nor enabling particularly fresh improv to emerge. Secondly, some well-planned (but honest) stumbles early in the programming serve as important and palpable reminders of the true impossibility of improv for the audience. But a full evening of improv where there are few peaks and valleys will quickly cause restlessness. In my current home venue we’ll often end our short-form shows on one of a small handful of games (currently Crime Endowment, Scene Three Ways or Lines From the Audience) but this is because these games have a record of giving us a thunderous out for the evening.

4.) Pursue helpful contrasts. An additional strategy for crafting a dynamic shape of show is consciously looking for opportunities for contrast and variety. One of the great values of a pattern is that it makes ruptures all-the-more effective and dynamic. Look for chances to surprise or tilt expectations. In either short- or long-form traditions scenes that become too uniform in length or style can start to feel oddly monotonous or even oppressive. Throwing in a well-situated quick-hit vignette can keep everyone a little on their toes. If your standard scenic casting unit has been two characters, seeing a larger ensemble moment (or a solo vignette) provides a new spice. (I’d argue that the same is true when it comes to character energies in our long-form too and that it can become tiring to see a character always in the same context and emotional climate.) In short-form shows, good hosts always have an eye on shuffling through a nice variety of scenic handles, bouncing between musical, physical, expert, narrative, called and open scenes – to name just a few bundling potentials. Once the audience has learnt and feels comfortable with the overarching rules of the game, there is something innately delightful about setting everything off-kilter a little with an element that doesn’t at first glance replicate the patterns experienced thus far.

5.) Tell this story… When we talk about the “shape of show” this often refers to the inherited norms and rules that have been passed down which provide a somewhat reliable and successful outcome. Franchises are particularly adept at this as they strive to provide a product that contains unpredictability in ways that maximize entertaining risks while minimizing clumsy failures. Such “quality control” can feel ill-suited to an artform that privileges process; but, in reality, aimless work that needlessly eschews the lessons of the past may quickly alienate and lose its audience. Yet, while there is clear value in embracing and exploiting the structures that have served us and our projects well in the past, shape of show also embodies a commitment to elevating what has uniquely occurred during this one performance that sets it apart from the expectations entrenched in the inherited structure. To return to Playback Theatre, some practitioners speak of the “red thread” that invisibly ties together the seemingly disparate narratives of the audience during any one particular event – the greater theme, tension or communal story, if you will. I love this image and believe whole-heartedly that it can apply to most improvisational endeavors. So, while we uphold structural wisdoms, we should simultaneously embrace newly forged pathways and games that are unique to this here and now.

6.) Provide some closure… I’ve scattered pet peeves through many of these entries and here’s another one! There is a recurring “out” for many long-form shows that loosely consists of some variant of “…and that’s our time” often following a decent laugh line or pay-off. This probably speaks to my own preference towards forms with more narrative instincts and my parallel background in scripted theatre, but especially if I’m watching numerous sets in a row that leave the stage in this manner I start to feel rather unsatisfied and even a little cheated as an audience member. Just as shape of show considers how to best wade into the waters of improv, so too should this thoughtful mentality prioritize a clean and fitting extraction. There are many looser forms that do tend to riff on a theme or idea without intending to land on a holistic or climactic payoff (and I like many of these forms greatly) but even if your preferred style of play doesn’t privilege a pivotal moment of peripeteia there are still ways to frame an outro with some sense of pizzazz. Short-form competitions typically wrap up with quick acknowledgments and a celebration of the winning team so that even if the final scene of the night was a little iffy, there is still a greater celebration to provide closure and energy. Improv forms should consider seeking an equivalent to this dynamic out, whether it’s tying up and honoring any contracts of the performance, exploiting structural components more likely to afford a climactic exchange, or providing a robust and playful curtain call. Our audiences have invested considerable time in our enterprises by the time they arrive at their final destinations and an abrupt or almost apologetic button can needlessly call the value of this journey into question.

Final Thought

I began this entry quoting Smith and Dean’s observations regarding how improvisation balances both the old and the new. The old for many of us consists of our designed or inherited frames and games, and all the wisdoms contained therein. The new embodies the relentless spontaneity of the here and now that seeks to explore hitherto unknown pathways. A healthy consideration and appreciation of the shape of show marries together these two creative impetuses, providing patterns that have stood the tests of time while also encouraging us to strategically disrupt or seek out new designs when they can serve the moment more effectively.

Related Entries: Hosting Antonyms: Chaos Synonyms: Structure

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

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Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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