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? I
f you live in the UK, of course, then I would recommend signing up for a Maydays course. 🙂