by Jules Munns.
I have just had the privilege of working with the excellent Katy Schutte and Phil Lunn on an Improvised Musical in a Weekend.
Ten improvisers worked together from Friday night until Sunday evening , then put on a improvised musical. And it was great. Really, really good, much better than I ever imagined. A lot of fun yes, but also, very high quality. Partly because Phil and Katy are great, but also I think, because doing the whole thing in a weekend avoided a Big Trap that companies fall into.
Improvisers often only rehearse once a week. For two hours, or maybe three. We meet in an evening, chat a bit about the next gig, then warm up in the way we always do, and then do the exercises or games we always do. And that leads to stasis. The brain loves to form habits, walking the same route, always shaving in the same order. It reduces the load on your brain, makes life easier. So the scenes end up with a similar quality. Not the same content, but the same texture, the same types of moves. It’s reassuring and cosy. Oh, yes, you think, that’s what rehearsal is going to be like, and surprise surprise it is. And that’s not very good for the quality of your work. Improvisation requires you to be constantly trying to do the things you are bad at, pushing the boundaries of what your brain can do. And that hurts. It feels risky, unpleasant and just plain upsetting sometimes. It’s not fun to be bad at things.
This weekend we had no time to normalise, get habitual, settle down. There was always another exercise, another scene coming. Shit, we have a show in five hours! We were feeling the burn. Several people mentioned a sensation of being on the verge of getting somewhere, being lost in the work, like what they wanted was just out of reach. I think that’s the feeling of neurons rewiring. Of the level of your skills being raised rather than merely reinforced.
Don’t get me wrong, a weekly rehearsal is normally necessary, and if you are aware of the dangers and specifically aim to combat them, as I hope and believe the Maydays do, it is very valuable. But if you’re a member of a group, try this:
Get everybody’s diaries out, look into the future and find a WHOLE WEEKEND where you can work together, ten till six. Even better, a bank holiday weekend, or a whole week. Make sure EVERYBODY is there for the WHOLE time, and then have dinner one of the evenings. Get an outside eye or a coach for it, and work. Do a whole day of something you never do, get lost and confused, feel like you never did a scene and have no freaking idea how to even start. You’ll be better at improvising after, I promise. (If you're not a member of a group, just grab four people whose improv you enjoy and do as above.)
And if you’re annoyed you missed this weekend (I have said it before, but it was awesome), don’t worry, The Maydays will be doing it again in the autumn, both in London and in Brighton.
by Alexis Gallagher
This post is for improvisers who haven't had the chance to visit Chicago. Please forgive me! I am going to risk wasting a few minutes of your time by telling you something that you probably already know. Why do I do this? Only because right now, somewhere out there, is an improviser who doesn't know this yet, and because this thing is easy to miss even though it's pretty fundamental. I was once that improviser, maybe you were too.
Here's the point: longform is not about being long and shortform is not about being short.
You can have a longform show that lasts five minutes, and you can have a shortform show that lasts an hour. I've seen both. Length is not only incidental, it is completely irrelevant.
Then why is it called longform? The truth is, that's an accidental and misleading name. It is a lot like if we called Shakespeare's sonnets not "sonnets" but "ten-line poems", and the poems of ee cummings not "free verse" but "poems that are longer or shorter than ten-lines". It misses the point.
Longform is not narrative, shortform is not non-narrative
Here is another thing it's not about: narrative. Longform does not mean "all my scenes add up to make a long story".
Let's say you're in a shortform troupe. Let's say your troupe is great at improvising funny scenes that fit various shortform games.
Now you get bored and want to do a show where you spend an hour telling a story (perhaps in a genre, perhaps showcasing your special skills with singing, or acrobatics, or puppets, or whatever). So you sit down and think about how every story has parts X, Y, Z, etc. (maybe: hero, villain, love interest, etc.). Then you outline a loose sequence of scenes that will use all those parts.
And you perform your show, and it's awesome. Congratulations! You've just made a one hour shortform show, with a narrative. I have also done this. It can be great fun!
And when I did this, my troupe and I all thought it was "longform". Why? Basically, because we didn't know any better. Because we were in Boston, where there was no longform for any of us to see. Because what we were doing had a "long" story and that's what the word sounded like. Because -- although we didn't know what longform was -- we had the vague idea that it was something ambitious and a bit pretentious (which appealed to some of us and annoyed others) and it must be longer, so this must be it, right?
Longform is not the absence of games, shortform is not the presence of games
Here's the thing about my old college troupe's attempt at longform.
Although we weren't playing our old shortform games, our "longform" show ended up having exactly same feel as our shortform show. The scenes had a lot of random, whacky elements. They had a lot of quick thinking to make all the elements fit. They were spirited and fun. They were fast. They communicated a vague undercurrent of "Oh my God can you believe we're doing this tricky thing!", which was fun for that kind of show and for that kind of audience. The scenes were not especially subtle, strong on naturalistic characters, or emotionally resonant, but that's no crime.
Still, this was puzzling. Although none of us had seen much longform, we had seen one show in New York (Burn Manhattan), and those performances were palpably more rich, varied, subtle, intelligent, and funny. We noticed they didn't use shortform games so we made a show without shortform games. But our show was nothing like theirs, because we didn't realize that the difference was much more radical -- that longform is not the absence of games. In fact, they were playing games at a deeper level that we did not even know how to recognize.
I have since realized that our "longform show" was not unusual. It is exactly the show you get whenever a group of shortform improvisers try to do longform, based only on their knowledge of the definition of the English word "long". Since then, I have seen this show over and over again.
Open-form vs closed-form
What is longform? Longform is a tradition of performance improv, originating and most deeply rooted in Chicago, USA, defined mostly under Del Close, which is now also practiced in other cities as well (e.g., New York, Los Angeles).
What is it like? How does it work? Really, it's a loose word that covers a multitude of sins, but if I could go back in time and save my earlier self some confusion I would say that it should really be called open-form and shortform should be called closed-form.
In shortform (closed-form), you know before a scene begins something about its structure. In longform (open-form), you are improvising the essential structure of the scene while in the scene. You are also improvising the structure of the show itself. Notice there are two points here -- improvising the scene (in-the-scene), and improvising the show (between-the-scenes).
It is obvious that longformers improvise the show itself, often using a well-known format like the Harold, or an Armando, or whatever. Because it is obvious, people fixate on this. This is a shame. The format is the easy part. It takes five minutes and a pint of beer to invent a decent format. (Here's seven for free: improvise a movie! no, a tv channel! no, a musical! no, something where time goes backwards! no, something where every character has a second character who speaks their inner thoughts! no, something where everyone's trapped in a room! no, something where no one can step in the same room twice! etc. etc.) Formats are superficial, and a good format does not redeem bad scenes.
What more usefully distinguishes great longform from other traditions of improv -- and as an art-form in general, for my money -- is the improvising in-the-scene. Among other things, longform teaches a discipline of deep listening and identifying and developing implicit patterns in scenes, a discipline which allow you to create deep, funny, and interesting work that (as far as I know) cannot be improvised with other methods.
Describing how it works takes a lot more than a paragraph, so I'll save that for another day. But the point is, it's your technique within the scene that determines if what you are doing is longform. Of course, if someone is really good, you might not even recognise that they have a technique…
Longform conquers the world?
Why define longform based on its roots in Chicago? Because that's just the fact of the matter. That's where it started, that's where they do it best. Or maybe it would be better to say, "longform" is just the name for this thing that came out of Chicago.
Can you do longform outside of Chicago? Well, can you play Jazz outside of New Orleans? Yes, obviously! Duh!
But at the same time, you may be swimming upstream. For instance, Keith Johnstone has written brilliant books about improvisation. His work has shaped the tradition of improv in England and Europe. That is a different tradition. Does he use the word "longform" anywhere in his landmark book Impro? If not, why would you think that tradition has anything to do with longform?
Can you play Jazz outside of New Orleans? Yes. But what if the year is 1935, and you're living in Moscow, and you're the only Jazz musician in the city? It would be hard. This is despite the fact that Moscow surely had some amazing musicians in 1935. Jazz is not just what you get when a musician looks up the word "jazz" in the dictionary and reads that it probably comes from the word "jasm" and meant something like "spirit" or "vigor" and therefore all he needs to do is play with spirit. No. It's a specific artistic tradition, coming from a specific place, with a non-trivial depth and history to it, and to learn it you need to work closely with people who know it.
How to do this? If you live in the UK, of course, then I would recommend signing up for a Maydays course. :)
by Liz Peters.
Ooh that terrifying word. Conjuring up images of rings, mortgages, nooses and shackles. Very few words can elicit such a tensing of the shoulders, a sharpening of the senses as you prepare for fight or flight. Commitment means duties and limitations. It means being trapped by your decisions and watching helplessly as life’s unexpected opportunities skip gaily by, flicking their hair in the sunshine and laughing as you slowly rot in your chosen pit of responsibility.
I’m not keen on making commitments, big or small. Whether that is buying a flat or choosing between a blueberry or a chocolate muffin. I spend hours agonising over all the possible outcomes, dithering, analysing, sweating it out. My mind creates a parallel life full of ‘what ifs’ and regrets which can lead to a complete paralysis of judgement. So I don’t take any decisions lightly and I am amazed that other people can do. Celebrity marriages that last twenty minutes baffle me and you will notice, fact fans, that I never say yes to a facebook invitation unless I am 100% certain that I will definitely do it (except for Carly’s birthday but that was out of my hands. Sorry Carly.) To me, the click is a commitment made.
I love life and I want to eek every last molecule of joy and experience out of it. To commit to something feels like you are having to say NO to many other things but it turns out I may well be wrong on this. Yes. That’s right. I may be wrong. Commitment, it seems, is the biggest fattest YES you can make. Far from putting you in a cage, making a commitment gives you freedom.
I made a major decision the other day. Just like that. And now I’ve committed it is such a relief. Now, instead of picking over the canapés of possibility and uncertainty, I can tuck into the juicy steak of YES and all the other delicious and definite opportunities that presents. I can stop assessing the options and get down to it.
The improv mantra is Listen, Say Yes and Commit.
Making quick decisions and sticking to them is what you have to do on stage all the time. Committing to your choices makes everything so much easier. It trims away the peripherals and gives you a direction. It gives you the freedom to stop searching and start doing. If you do nothing else just make a choice and go with it. The audience will thank you for it and so will your fellow improvisers. Splashing around in a sea of ‘maybes’ can be fun for a while but eventually you need something to hold on to, otherwise you’ll drown.
So actually commitment isn’t such a terrifying monster after all. Used wisely (and let’s be clear I’m not suggesting wildly fleeing off to Vegas with Jezza from down the pub!) commitment is your saviour.
Like the time I ended up suddenly being in a song about a man with big balls who loved meat.
I had given myself a ridiculous character and I didn’t know what I was doing. I could have got scared and backed away but instead I thought ‘Oh I’m here, I’m doing this, well I’ll do it the best I can. I’ll commit to having the biggest balls I can and I’ll love meat as much possible because this is what is happening.’ And I did.
And the audience cheered.
And I was happy.
by Jason Blackwater
During a car discussion to Yorkshire...I think it was Yorkshire...it was a few months ago now and everything north of the Hollingbury turn off of the A23 feels like coal mine country to me, such is my soft southern-ness...it might also have been back from Yorkshire, or wherever it was...but all of this is beside the point. During a car discussion to, or from, somewhere outside of East Sussex, a few of us Maydays came up with the concept of the Seven Deadly Sins of Improv.
We're all pretty much firm believers that there aren't any "rules" in improv, no hard and fast dos and don'ts, and any that are suggested become fragile as you mature into the art. This makes the term 'sin' so helpful. A sin is a guideline to avoid excess. Gluttony is a sin by Christian standards but that's not to say you can't pig out occasionally. These guidelines say that too much of any of these things will put you in bad stead later on, whether it be with the dude in the clouds or your fellow improvisers.
One of the first of the "rules" that occasionally get doled out is "say "yes"" and this is a good rule. It helps new improvisers to avoid denial. But saying "yes" does not rule out saying "no". "Will you marry me?"
"brilliant. Just what I was hoping you would say"
"shall we get married then?"
Cue a scene talking about a wedding that will happen some time in the future, or another talking about how great it is that these two people are going to get married some time in the future. "Will you marry me?"
"no, don't want to"
Cue a scene that is happening now between a character dealing with the sudden crushing disappointment that they aren't going to marry their love and another character suddenly relieved they get all of their annoyances about their partner off their chest.
These, of course, aren't inevitable occurrences in either scenario but one, for me at least, is certainly a more interesting scene.
So what do we mean when we say "say "yes"" if it's not necessarily saying "yes"?
Saying "yes" is about accepting the reality of the scene as it's presented and playing within that set of circumstances. Denial is the opposite. At the point at which your scene partner asks you to marry them you can
answer with a positive response as that improv book or teacher so heartily suggested you to but that's not all
you can do. You can open up your choices by merely accepting that someone has asked you to marry them and that you owe them a response appropriate for the question.
All of these are appropriate responses without saying yes:
"Dad! stop kidding around"
"No, you smell"
"I'll have to ask my husband but I'm pretty sure he'll be fine with it"
They all serve a scene that is built on nothing but the phrase "will you marry me?" but, of course would be wholly inappropriate if it's evident you're partner has other ideas and needs you to follow them. If you're on an even keel, however, trust your partner to go along with you. They'll probably thank you for giving them something to work with.
Do you agree?