Archive for the ‘Long Form’ Category

Improvisational Styles

Saturday, January 8th, 2011

To some paintings are just paintings.  To others they break painting into styles, such as Realism, Impressionism, Cubism, etc.  To some improv is just improv. To me there is a big difference between different styles of improv.  And just like art, I have my preferences, but there is no “right” style.

In my last post I wrote about the differences between “Improvisational Theater” and “Improv Comedy”.

Form is what sets improv theater apart from improv comedy.  We are not stand ups doing improvised jokes.  We are players doing improvised theater.

Some people have asked me to further explain the difference as I see it.  I think both most improvisation plays for laughs, but I think the mindset can be very different between the two styles. So here is what I think are some of the different mind sets, in very general terms:

Improv Comedy is static.
Improvisational Theater is about change.

Improv Comedy is about little moments, or big moments downplayed.
Improvisational Theater is about BIG moments, or small moments blown out of proportion .

Improv Comedy is about thinking.
Improvisational Comedy is about feeling.

Improv Comedy uses wit, cleaver word play, ideas the players have thought of previously to get the laugh.
Improvisational Theater uses character’s honest reactions to elicit a reaction.

Improv Comedy utilizes patterns, games, black outs and one line scenes.
Improvisational Theater is based on the discovery, relationship, and change.

Improv Comedy there are no characters.  The player is always the same personae in every scene.
Improvisational Theater players have different, unique characters based on some aspect of the players personality in each and every scene.Improv Comedy the goal is laughter.
Improvisational Theater the goal is connecting to the moment, the feeling, and other players.

Improv Comedy the environment is a way to get a laugh.
Improvisational Theater the environment has an effect on the relationship in the moment.

Improv Comedy players will call out the ‘mistakes’ on stage to get a laugh.
Improvisational Theater players will build on and enhance “mistakes” to make them truth.

I have seen pure Improv Comedy, but it is rare to see pure Improvisational Theater.  Even in the structure of an improvised play, it is often too tempting for the player to get the quick laugh at the expense of the piece. Most long forms are a combination of the two styles.

To some Improv is just Improv, but when I see (or perform) moments of Improvisational Theater it always stays with me.  I can remember every beat, reaction, and line.  They linger with me like great art, beautiful music and amazing food.

What style do you like?

Improve Improv

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

An Open Letter to the Coaches Council:

I am very excited about the New Year and what we are doing this year with the Coaches Council.  I want to get us all on the same page for the new year.  In the last couple of years Denver has seen an explosion of different venues for improv.  It is wonderful.  As the number of improv spaces increases we need to make sure that the quality of our shows increases at the same time.  Our job on the Coaches Council this year is to Improve Improv.

We need to improve the experience for the audience.
We do this by making sure that the audience is getting what it came in to see.  On ‘Hoot’ nights and ‘Throwdown’ nights, they are coming in to see their friends and family perform improv in a fun, professional environment.  They need to see their team get supported and set up for success.  The house teams need to be warming up the crowd, setting the professional timbre and getting them excited about the evening to come.  For “Improv Royale” the show needs to be a funny, slick, professional, and an amazing high wire act.  Organized and professional with no nets and no failure. “Improv Royale” is and needs to remain the best night of long form improv in the region.

I think that we do this by not only giving them lots of playing time, but by having our teams use a form to play around and through.  A form gives the audience a point of reference to hold on to and understand. Form is what sets improv theater apart from improv comedy.  We are not stand ups doing improvised jokes.  We are players doing improvised theater.  A beginning, middle and end is something that every theatrical production has and is the bare minimum of which a form affords us.  It is what separates house teams from a collection of people trying to make funny.  It lends credence, function, professionalism and a level of theatricality to our sets.

Improve the experience for the players:
We have graduated over 500 improvisers and counting, we want to nurture new talent and people coming up, move players who are on fire to Thursday night where they can play more, and encourage plateauing players to brush up and develop skills.  Our Coaches Council is our vehicle for all of this.

  • New players coming up; we have auditions every 3 months to get new players and players moving to the area who are serious about long form improv a place to play, exhibit and develop their skills.  We need to set a standard for them to emulate and strive to achieve.
  • Reward great play; players should all try to get better on stage and some will skyrocket and shoot off the stage.  It is our job to ensure that the players who are rocking get moved to Thursday nights where they can play 3 times a month with the best players in Denver.  Getting players who are having fun and entertaining audiences more stage and letting hot players move to nights where they can shine with players of a similar caliber is the best reward we can provide.
  • Objective feedback and challenging plateauing players; Many players have no idea how they are doing on stage.  They think they are great and all we see is them thinking on stage, or they think they suck and they are doing great, or they are just having fun and they are lighting up the stage.  Our job is to give honest, objective feedback to all players, but especially the ones who need more classes and to let go.  We need to try to coach these folks to “success”.  If our coaching fails we need to get advice from other coaches and if that fails we need to match the player to a team that reflects their level of play. Sometimes being the best player on a struggling team can build the confidence that coaching can not.  Sometimes players just need more time in the classroom.  It is our job to improve everyone’s experience, the players, and the teams, and the audiences through honest, objective review and feedback.

Improv the Level of Coaching
Over the last 10 years one of my focuses has been on creating a culture of mentoring and coaching.  You are part of that culture now.  We need to improve our skills as coaches, we need to bring in more coaches and generate a culture of helping players (without getting to a place where players give each other notes).  I want us to read, take classes and give each other coaching tips, so that we can provide our players a fun, supportive place where they can get better at their craft.  Our job is to bring in great coaches, develop great coaches and become great coaches.  We need to be inclusive and encouraging while still being honest and giving constructive criticism that builds great players.

We need to get past getting everyone to “do the form”.  We need to get the players to transcend form.  We need to give individual feedback that will grow people as players.  We need to put the teams needs above our own.  We need to put the needs of the player above the needs of our teams.  We need to put the needs of the audience and the show above that of the players.

We need to Improve Improv.  The time is now.  We are in the right time and place and need the intention of creating a place where everyone wants to play, because the level of player is off the charts, the teams are smart, funny and talented.  We will take improv to the next level this year.  We need to make this a place where no one wants to miss a show because it will be great and it will be gone.  The thing to remember and you had to be there, every show, every night.  That is our charge.

Let’s Improve Improv!

Eric Farone
Artistic Director
Bovine Metropolis

Short Form v. Long Form & Me.

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

Improvisation to most people is people getting up and taking suggestions, coming out and being funny.  And for the average spectator that is all you need to know.  What most folks don’t know is that there is a split in the improv community.  I find that many improvisers divide themselves into two camps.  Short form and long form.  Short form being games played on stage.  Going to the audience frequently for more information to start new games.  Those of you who have seen “Whose Line is it Anyway” have seen game improv (short form).  The other side of the division in the improv community is long-form.  Long form can most easily be explained as improvisations that take one suggestion, normally have multiple ideas generated from the original suggestion and are scenic in their orientation Like Del Close’s Harold.   An improvised play could be considered a long-form.

Short Form and Long Form very in terms of format and content.  The difference is very easy for the audience to see.  You might say one looks like entertainment and one looks like art.  Let’s look at both a little more closely.

Short Form

Short form is usually a series of games.  The structures of the games are done in a way to allow you a very high success rate.  They all have beginning, middles and ends.  For example: Beginning, this is how the game starts, two players will come out and start a scene doing nothing but asking questions.  Middle, when one of them makes a statement someone from the back line will come in and take their place and continue.  End, it’s over when the lights go off, or when someone stops it.  If you know how the game is played then there is a freedom that comes from playing the game.

You can make so many choices.  If you know the rules of the road, the road can take you anywhere.  As long as everyone follows the rules of the road (the game) then the results can be hilarious and rewarding.  Once everyone is playing on the same page, games also allow you the freedom to play and the safety that comes from everyone knowing the game structure.

Games are so much fun.  They are fast paced and focused on eliciting laughter.  The goal is to make people laugh.  Because that is the goal, laughter is immediate positive reinforcement.  I say something, it gets a laugh I have succeeded.  There are few other forms of entertainment that the results are so immediate.  This is the reason that the audience is a necessary component.  If your goal is to make an audience laugh they are part of the equation.  Improv goes one-step further to make the audience part of the equation, performers take suggestions from the audience to give them inspiration for their games.  This gives the audience twice the payoff.  When the performers are successful the audience had something to do with the success.

Some of the other immediate benefits of improv are that there are no scripts to memorize and no homework.  You learn in workshops and on stage.  You must learn how the game is played and the rest is trial and error.

Performing “Short Form” you can “go for the joke” which simply means getting a laugh at the expense of the scene.  The improvers goal is to get laughs.  If improver goes for the joke and succeeds the scene is served.

Short Form is a blast!  I have been to shows that just do games and have laughed as hard as I have ever laughed.  It’s fast, fun and pretty safe.

Long Form       

A long form is where you get few suggestions and create scenes and or games for while based on that one subject.  I believe that there are essentially 3 circles of long form that cross over each other.

One style is the “gimmick” style long form.  This is the long form that is using a style or gimmick to keep it together.  Examples are Freeze tag, 20 Bucks, Slacker, etc.  All of these styles have one thing in common, that how you play it is predicated on the form.  If you must shout ‘freeze’ then assume one of the players positions and start a new scene.  That is how it must be played.  Everyone knows the gimmick and knows how to play the game.

The ”free form” long form is a long form that just goes.  Scenes, games, monologues, whatever may pop up.  Things just start happening.  This is my favorite form.  Stories may or may not happen.  Characters may or may not reoccur.  It only thing that matters is the flow

The third style is the “story” long form.  Some of these include improvised plays, movies, and some free style and gimmick long forms may have reoccurring characters and start to tell a story.  In my book this is the highest level of long form, just as it is a goal of most contemporary theater.

When performing a “story” style long form, sometimes what happens is people start introducing too much information.  The stories become convoluted and lost.  It is at this point (or hopefully before) that the experienced improviser will look back to see what should come next.  I think Alan Watts said that “Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone.”  This is much of the wisdom you will need for doing a long form.

The structure of a long form is a series of scenes.  This makes scenes the unit of measure.  Scenes in a long form should be open.  I bring this you bring that let’s see what happens.  Other players starting new scenes end most scenes that are taking place.  The majority of the time the lights are the final curtain.

The outcome should be the culmination of the scenes that we all bring.  We should have an amalgam of everything that happened as the result.  No one knows what it the outcome will be before you do it.

Some long forms don’t play for laughs, but I think these are the exception.  Laughs are just as important to Long form players as they are to short form players, but laughs are not the goal.  Having a successful scene is the ultimate goal of the long form improviser.

Long form is a blast.  I have been to long form shows and I laughed so hard and still remember some amazing moments.  It’s can be fast or slow, comedy or drama and it is never safe.  What is more long form has a tendency to be bigger than the sum of all it’s parts.  You can get done with a long form and laugh or be amazed.  Ask “how did that happen?”

Many long formers look at long form as an art.  Some look down on the short formers as if what they are doing is not tough enough.  Improv and Improvisation are both challenging and if long form is an art then so is short form.

My Take

I do not differentiate along the lines of short form and long form.  I differentiate between Improv and Improvisation.

Improv is providing entertainment through quick thought and steadfast, well worn gimmicks, control and pre-planning. 
Improvisation is the art of accepting the unknown gracefully without judgment.

These two entities are different, but have many things in common.  They both are created in the moment.  Both are un-scripted.  They are two different sides of the same coin.

There are always moments of improvising in improv.  They are mirrors of each other.  The same and opposite.  You can’t have one without the other.  Improv is the leader and improvisation is the follower.


Improv is the art of making up character, scenes, and games in the moment to entertain the audience.  Improv needs an audience. Improv can also be described as the art of making people laugh. Improvers can learn their art in front of an audience.  It has no script.  It relies solely on the person on stage and their ability to make people laugh.

Let’s compare Commedia with the average improv game played today.  In Commedia the actors knew what the next scene was and what was it’s importance in the overall context of the play, everything else was filled in by the performers.  In an Improv game the actors know the structure of the game and the rules, the performers fill in the rest.  Characters were physical and used set pieces to aid them in filling out scenes.  In most Improv games the bigger the character the better and there are set gimmicks in most games that some performers discover and use again to elicit laughs.

Players who improv with a goal in mind, fame, success, being funny don’t mind having an extensive list of gags and prat-falls to through in whenever they can fit them in.  It helps them be more “successful” when they improv.  Truth be told, comedia dell’arte was built upon this method.  Actors had characters with set routines that they could call upon and adapt for situations when they were in trouble in order to keep the interest of the audience.  They would tumble, sing, play instruments anything to entertain.

There is a place for this type of entertainment, it is low risk. but even in this type of comedy there are true moments of improvisation, moments where no one knows what is going to happen next.

The entertainment that uses established gimmicks, pre-planning,  jokes, directing of scenes, gags or using quick thinking in order to be successful I call “Improv.”


Improvisation is the art of gracefully accepting the unknown and accepting it as part of the known.  It is done in everyday life.  Theatrical Improvisation is the art of making up characters, scenes, games and story in the moment for the sake of going into the unknown.  It has no script.  Improvisation does not require audience, but it is much more fun with one.  It relies on the person on stage and their ability to go forward into the unknown without fear.

When you are improvising, even at the most basic level, there are moments when you come off stage and think, “What just happened?”  The moments that you were not thinking about what should happen and yet everything came together effortlessly.  These “magical” moments that grow out of the moment, are generated from pure improvisational moments.  When know one knows what is going to happen next, and everyone still moves forward, that is what I call “Improvisation.”  The funniest improvisational scene can not be explained because “you had to be there.”  It came from the moment and lived in the moment.  The life of it is over before I tell it.

Does this mean that improvisers are not funny?  No.  It just means their focus is not on what behaviors produce laughs.  Their focus is reacting to gifts given to them on stage.

So why improvise, when you can do improv and go for the joke and just have fun.  Improvisers focus is on the scene and creating a shared focus sounds like hard work.  For people like me, who love laughs, the laughs are richer and deeper and longer and laugh louder if the humor comes from the scene.  If improviser is not humorous, they can still be engaging.  In this way improviser does not fails often as an improver.  If improver goes for a joke and fails there’s nothing but silence, what is called “crickets,” so called because the silence is so deafening all you can hear is crickets.

If an improviser goes for a joke the scene is over.  The reason is, is that the improviser derives the humor from the situation.  The improviser negates the scene or makes the scene a joke by commenting on it from “outside” the framework of the scene.

The other reason people choose to improvise, is because improvisation can be a hearty meal that satisfies.  I remember going to an improv show with some friends that when we saw it we thought it was funny.  After the show we decided to go for drink.  We sat around talk about how funny the show was, but as we told the funny parts didn’t seem funny anymore.  We forgot more and more “bits” as the night went on.  Until the next day, when I got up, I couldn’t remember what was funny about the show all.  I went back the next week and saw the same jokes and lines.

Improvisation relies on everyone trying to attain an end with no one forcing it.  Much like a Ouji board everybody is pushing, no one is directing and messages appear.  Improvisation, when done properly, can leave you with that same feeling of “how did that happen?”  Those moments and lines that come out of those moments stick in your head.  20 years later I can remember scenes that happened on stage.  Pure improvisational moments that are embedded in my mind.

 To paraphrase Viola Spolin; Improv goes for the “Ha Ha” and Improvisation goes for the “Ah Ha”.

Short form or long form can be Improv or Improvisation.  The difference is not the form or the content, it’s the context.

An Exit is a Beautiful thing.

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

When we talk about editing in improv, too often what is heard is we must get rid of the old scene and get a new scene.   “This scene is sucking.  I’ll start a new one!”  This does get rid of the old scene, but it does not improve it or fix it, it just eliminates it.  Nothing is learned or improved upon.  The result is a bunch of well started scenes which never come to fruition, but instead peter out. Scenes should end with a bang! To have that bang we need to have the tension build until it snaps.  We can’t do that when scenes are edited too soon.

Usually we end scenes as they are just getting going. It gets a laugh and we sweep.  Laughs usually mean a connection with the audience.  If the laugh comes from the scene (and not from a joke at the expense of the scene) then we have found something that resonates with the audience.  We should explore that connection on stage and with the audience.

We are doing is Improvisational Theater.  Theater is more than just a series of failed scenes.  Playwrights look at the scenes they write and think things like “What does this scene need to build the tension?” and “What do I need to add to the scene or take away from the scene to make it pop?”  We as Improvisational Actors are the playwrights, directors and actors. I like to think of edits as a playwrights tool.  We always must serve the scene to improve it.

Sometimes we don’t know how to make a scene pop and then, like a playwright, we must scrap it and throw it in the recycle bin.  However, there are more ways to fix a scene than there are to scrap it.  How do we add tension, dimension to a scene?  First, we have to have an idea of what is wrong.  Edits can fix these things, but edits are like dental tools; if you don’t know where the problems are and how to fix them all the tools in the world aren’t going to help you.

Here is a quick and incomplete lists of some common problems scenes can have and one way you can fix it. (There are many ways to fix problems, too many to list them all here.)
Problem: Talking about the past or future

Fix: Time Jump/Tap Out to the moment you are talking about.  Or look at the other player and bring whatever emotion you are talking about here and now and heighten it.
Problem: Talking about what you are doing.

Fix: Monologue about the other person and your relationship.  Or say something that breaks the status-quo of the relationship.
Problem: Talking about someone or something off stage.

Fix: Enter/Tap Out/Split Scene to the thing you are talking about.
Problem: Transaction/Occupational/Teaching/First Day scene

Fix: Know them.  Say their first name, recognize them, seduction, envy, etc.  Anything that gets it out of the transaction and into the relationship.  The scene is always between the two characters.
Problem: The bad 3 person scene.

Fix: Have a unique relationship with both of the other players on stage. 2 against 1 = 1 relationship.  If you find yourself in a two against one scene or worse, a 3 way buddy scene, exit.  Leave.  Let the other people develop a unique relationship and then if needed come back into the scene.  The 3 person scene is easy if you remember to make each relationship different.  My Mom and I have a different relationship than my wife and I and subsequently, my wife and mom have a unique relationship too.  So Exit!  Let them develop their relationship and then come back into the scene.  That’s what the playwright would do to fix the scene.