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 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.
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.
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.