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Or "I never knew how much I missed you until we met".
Yah, I’ve done a bit of improv. Short form, specifically Theatresports, and then a bastardized version of it in bars. Bar Improv, wow! Wanna test your mettle? Try doing one-word-at-a-time for drunks. Still, improv has been good to me. Pity I got to hate it so.
It wasn’t always that way. I was a passionate performer. My whole week was geared to that 10min chance to play onstage. It took a while to get good, but when it happened, my addiction was set. More time passed, and I got to instruct and even direct a company. Paid to play, man, that was the pinnacle. I became a disciple. I got obsessed with the theory. I wanted to know how this shit works. Reaction, motive, action, repeat. I thought I had it down. So, why was it getting boring?
I started getting sick of the games, which felt artificial and constraining. I didn’t want to speak in one voice with another player, or in rhyming couplets. There’s got to be more to performing than being a sci-fi cowboy with laser spurs. In the end, I was only interested in a fill-in-the-blank type of scene called the “What if…”. Think stuff like “What if pigs could fly” or “What if men were housewives”, explored in a scene. At least these didn’t have some dumb-assed gimmick that typically became the raison d’étre of the scene.
Seriously, sometimes it’s like, what’s the reason for even getting a suggestion for something like a puppet manipulation/moving bodies game? Just get to the point where the audience member makes one guy perform oral sex on the other then dry hump. “Hang on” you say, “that’s just in Bar Improv.” Er, no. It’s not.
Hey, don’t get me wrong. I thought I was brilliant the first time I did that …and the next 249 times too. But something snapped in me for lucky 250. I didn’t want to do short form games anymore. And it got worse yet, I was trapped because I couldn’t improvise without short form games. As was inevitable, I went into improv exile.
Not much changed for ten years. Occasionally, I’d check out the local improv chapter and, except for seeing new faces on stage, it was still the same old show with the same old gimmicks. And God Bless ‘em for that. I wouldn’t take from anyone the exultation of discovering the gag in a game, even if dozens before them did so exactly the same. The audiences still roar with laughter and cry “Maestro!” and everyone gets their money’s worth. Good onya, go forth.
But then 12 months ago, something appeared on my radar that I only ever heard spoken of in hushed tones and in coded language: Harold and long form improv. Wait, that’s that Voodoo stuff those heretics in the Eastern US do?! It couldn’t be worthwhile or it would’ve been licensed and franchised by now. Well hell, maybe I should check it out.
I got lucky enough to jump in on a workshop a coupla sessions into the curriculum on a referral from a mutual acquaintance. They were looking for experienced performers with solid foundation because this stuff was a bit advanced. Advanced?? What’s advanced about long form? You just crap on longer with no breaks. What’s the big deal?
It was a big deal. I learned more useful stuff about improv in those two hours than I did in the previous 20 years. Good thing I had some experience too. I was able to deflect most of the epiphanies into the soft parts of my brain, narrowly avoiding shitting my pants. This was not like any improv I ever knew.
If you haven’t seen long form (Harold or otherwise), it is a marvel. From what I’ve found, the best definition is; an improv performance typically starting from a single suggestion, lasting 20-25 minutes with no stoppage of performance. This could be a single scene or many, but the key is the performers don’t stop for more suggestions or to break the ‘fourth wall’ by telling you what they plan to do next.
It’s quite the treat for audiences, there is something magical about watching a reality unfurl and develop over successive scenes. The tiniest reference finds its way back to dominate a situation. A series of unrelated events coalesce to become the force behind a grand unveiling. Maybe most importantly, because there are no pre-ordained games to guide the improviser, the long form improv is inspired to build on stuff that that audience likes and cares about. It makes for a show as unique as the people watching it.
The long form techniques are quite different to what I was used to. Point of view is heavily relied on to generate content good enough to sustain a concept over the long period of performance. What you end up with is situation comedy that occasionally breaches the walls of conceptual humor. Shocking, I know. How dare anyone force me to laugh above the waist? I‘ll go into more depth on the concepts I’ve come across in upcoming posts but for now, I just hope I’ve piqued your interest in this strange new world.
So, yes, a year has passed and I’m still on the verge of doing kaka in my khakis. It’s challenging stuff and I can’t see it getting old. It’s not built on a framework meant to hem you in for it to be successful. Quite the opposite. And there are layers. Oh joy, layers! And freedom! And cookies, and cakes, and fairies… and well, you get the point.
Anyways, some bone-head thought it would be good to let me teach a class on long form, and like the reborn disciple I am, I recommend you come and have a go. No experience necessary for our Level 1 class as this is ground up instruction. As a matter of fact, it turned out I had to unlearn a lot of what I knew to really get a handle on it. So if you’re new to improv, you’re in luck. As for the rest of you, it's time to take off the training wheels and really learn to ride.
Jack Smith is one of the earliest members of The Improv Conspiracy, and currently teaches our introductory Level 1 workshops. He performs with The Peeping Toms.
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