“S” is for “Short-Form”

“The most important distinction of short form is that none of the improv games connect in any way whatsoever to any other games.”

Rob Kozlowski, The Art of Chicago Improv: Shortcuts to Long-Form Improvisation. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2002. p.116


I’ve tackled the thorny issue of self-designated improv labels in my earlier post here. Kozlowski voices a common distinction that Short-Form tends to consist of stand-alone scenes while long-form weaves together scenic elements in more complex ways to craft greater arcs and connections. There is unquestionably some (albeit simplistic) truth in this definition, but just as long-form has become a term that clumsily describes a vast array of performance styles, short-form deserves similar unpacking and complicating. So, here goes…

Common Short-Form Features

1.) Discrete units. Kozlowski observes that short-form games don’t connect – which can be the case – but I would tweak this definition to note that scenes do not generally require knowledge of previous improv vignettes to be understood and appreciated. Many short-form shows take on the format of a competition or sketch revue, and in these cases a performance will consist of a series of different seemingly unrelated frames. This is the modus operandi of Theatresports, Comedysportz and Spolin Games. Yes, each scene will generally be discrete – inspired by unique parameters, audience suggestions or director prompts – but this does not mean that connections will not emerge between the apparently disparate offerings. Characters or locations may recur, common themes can emerge and deepen, or material from a whimsical Gibberish scene in act one might reappear in the lyrics of a tag-team song in act two. Unlike many long-form performances, however, experiencing these earlier moments may not prove crucial to gaining enjoyment from a later scene (this is frequently not the case in more linear narrative traditions.) So while individual scenes are designed to provide fulfillment in their own right, connections are still possible, pleasurable and privileged nonetheless.

2.) Meta frames. Long-form performances can assume many various organizational frames – deploying thematic, location or relationship based foci, among others. In many cases, these structuring devices resemble other “traditional” theatrical genres and best practices. Short-form shows tend to utilize more meta framing devices that are not explicitly story or character centric. They are improv delivery systems rather than blueprints for creating dramatic meaning. In many cases, as noted above, shows utilize the tropes of professional sports and competitions: which of these great improv teams can ultimately emerge from the battle field victorious by the end of the evening after tackling a series of increasingly difficult improvisational challenges? In other instances, such as Disney’s Comedy Warehouse, individual players might perform in various shuffled combinations in an array of different improv games each set. While some specific scenes may deploy a faux competitive hook – such as Schmeopardy or Conducted Story – such shows don’t heavily rely on the conceit of a declared winner for a pay off. There are exceptions, of course, yet short-form shows rarely utilize more conventional narrative frames to provide a sense of completion or closure but rather exist within an accepted construct that tacitly provides a loose rationale for enabling play.

3.) Player centric. It’s also extremely common for short-form shows to embrace the personae of the performers as part of the overall event. In competitive shows, for example, improvisers will often step in and out of character between the scenes (and sometimes within the scenes as well) becoming themselves or a close approximation thereof as they interact with the audience, gather suggestions, or introduce the next improvisational high wire act about to begin. While this impetus can be seen on occasion in long-form modes – Harold players often line the backwall of the stage watching the action as themselves before donning a character to enter the scene – in short-form traditions the player is frequently elevated as a featured and fundamental component of the performance. The audience enjoys seeing this slippage between character and improviser that the scripted tradition, in particular, usually strives to hide in the service of realism. This impetus can also be seen in service-inclined practices such as Forum and Playback Theatre, although these modalities do not “celebrate” their participants so much as “recognize” their efforts on behalf of a greater community.

4.) Recurring pauses. Most long-form pieces seek an audience suggestion or input in the opening moments of the performance (if at all) but then will happily dance forward without further interruptions. Short-form shows are typically punctuated by multiple moments of rupture where the action pauses while players or a host elicit new ideas from the audience in order to inspire the next playful creation. Such pauses can be overt and inherent to the overall framing device – as is the case with Gorilla Theatre and Micetro – or, in hybrid forms with an avowedly short-form aesthetic, more stealthily woven into the performance event – as is the case with free form improv and some iterations of Life Game (where an audience member’s recollections can inspire a series of varied games.) One could argue that in addition to being player centric – as each pause allows players to reset to their own personae – this stop and start energy also prioritizes the audience in a qualifiedly different way than the majority of long-form pieces. Most short-form improv has little interest in elevating a “suspension of disbelief” but rather deliberately points at the act and conceit of theatrical creation. Which brings me to my final defining feature…

5.) Accessible. I love unwieldly and ornate long-form, especially of the dramaturgical ilk as I opine here, but I also struggle with the reality that a lot of long-form almost demands that our audience has an insider’s knowledge. Whether we’re exploiting the tropes of a niche genre, riffing on the archetypes inspired from a pop culture trend, or exploring the preferred frame variant of our improv training home, the resulting long-form can struggle to appeal to those beyond our immediate improv circles. In contrast, short-form traditions generally embody more avowedly and unapologetically populist ends. Performances provide the tools for enjoyment and teach pertinent framing devices as the event unfolds. New games or elements are defined and modeled as they enter the stream of the evening: “You haven’t seen this particular game before? Don’t worry. We’ll tell you everything you need to know before we play it!” This is not to say that long-form shows don’t seek accessibility; in fact, an inability to find and maintain an audience is a surefire route to closure for an improv show regardless of its long- or short-form trappings. But I think it is telling that if you ask an “average” theatre goer on the street about improv they are more likely to reference a short-form franchise than a long-form piece.

Final Thought

Although I don’t believe it’s always intentional, there can be a tendency to use the defining language of improvisation to create unhelpful performative duchies. Specifically, as a professional practitioner of short-form for over three decades (and long-form a little less) at times it can feel as if the very term short-form is used by fellow improvisers to dismiss or diminish the value and craft of this fruitful branch of the improv tree. I hope this is changing. Understanding the inherent values and gifts of all improvisational modes and practices can only ultimately elevate our own work and better equip our tool belts regardless of the style we currently call home.

Related Entries: Game of the Scene, Improvisation, Long-Form, Shape of Show

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Famous Last Words

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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