Longform is not long, shortform is not short

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

13 Comments
  1. Dylan Emery

    Hi Alexis! Thanks for a thought-provoking piece – I would say your article is surprising and controversial, which is all to the good. I am one of those improvisers out there who ‘don’t know this yet’, so it’s particularly interesting to me. And in the spirit of starting a friendly debate from your powerful opinion, I would like to respond…
    Firstly, I’ve never heard anyone refer to long-form as meaning ‘a long show’ or short form being ‘a short show’. If any of such people exist it may be useful to tell them we already have perfectly good terms for long and short shows. I’ve just used them.
    The distinction between short form and long form that I’ve heard throughout my impro career is more or less whether the scenes in a show are linked in some way – narratively or thematically. If you do a scene and then throw it away and start again, that’s short form; if you tie them in then that’s long form. All shows are therefore on a sliding scale of short to long – a traditional Harold therefore sits in the middle somewhere since it’s mostly (but not exclusively) thematically linked but the narrative connections can be vary hugely. A third element is games – pre-decided scene structures which can appear in both the previous types of improv.
    What I’ve just outlined is to me a useful distinction when talking about different types of shows and scenes. You are saying that I’ve been using the first two of those phrases incorrectly up to now – and presumably you are advocating either that I find new phrases to use instead; or perhaps better would be to switch all the Chicago-aware people over to using your new preferred phrases ‘closed form’ and ‘open form’ – i which case, can I carry on as I have been?
    Now let’s look at your definitions. ‘Closed form’ means that you know what structure your scene will have before you start it. I’m guessing you must mean something heavily handled like an old-school two headed expert scene with an interviewer asking questions. But even there the interviewer and 2h expert should be looking for the game between them – so it could end with a ‘thank you Mr X and goodnight’ or it could end with the expert falling in love with an audience member and the interviewer being chased off the stage.
    So is that what you call a ‘closed-form?’ It’s more ‘closed’ than when you just ask the audience ‘can I have the title of the next scene?’ but aside from the basic fact of having an interviewer and a two-headed interviewee, the scene could go anywhere.
    On the other other hand, a totally open scene can – for instance – enter a genre which locks down the structure of the scene – and rightly so – the game has become to nail the genre. So to me it seems that everything is on a sliding scale. I just don’t see the sharp distinction you are making between closed form and open form scenes and shows.
    Then you mention that ‘open-form’ also improvises the structure of the show. But a Harold is a pre-determined structure – with lots of variants, of course but you aren’t completely making up the show structure as you go. So I just don’t understand that bit, I’m afraid. I suspect I’ve just misunderstood something there.
    The previous stuff is basically an argument about semantics – important only because the words we use can change the way we think, and so on.
    The next bit is more controversial. You claim that ‘open-form’ comes from Chicago and can only be understood as part of a tradition stemming from there. But your definition of open form includes paying deep attention to your scene partners, finding the patterns in what they are doing and building on them. To use your phrase ‘that allows you to create deep, funny and interesting work that cannot be improvised with other methods’
    As opposed to what? Non-Chicago-steeped improvisers ignore their scene partners and disrupt what they build on to create shallow and dull work?
    I think that you are attacking a straw man here. I was taught (in the Johnstonian tradition) that the scene was in the other person, to build on what they did, find the game, etc. It’s just Yes And at it’s most basic.
    It’s also worth reminding ourselves that the history of improv in Europe is not all about Keith Johnstone. Commedia has had a huge influence on modern improv in Europe(and all theatre, especially through people like Dario Fo). Look at Augusto Boal, Joan Littlewood, Lecoq. Ken Campbell, who was just interested in creating extraordinary theatre. Most of these people and the traditions they spawned have synchronicity and complicity at their core.
    Maybe I can put it another way: I’ve not seen or been taught by a Chicago-style longform improviser who said something to me that made me say: Of course! That’s how it’s done! How foolish I’ve been! Similarly, while I’ve seen some amazing shows from the US, I’ve not said to myself “I don’t understand how that are doing this.”
    Am I missing something?

  2. Tim Spencer

    You two should ask me about Longform. I’m really excellent at it. I can put you both straight.

  3. Hi! I responded to this on the London Improv Blog and it’s great to see that Dylan has also put his two cents in (I also love Tim’s comment).
    I’ll copy/paste what I wrote:
    Hi Alexis,
    I agree that having new terms could be helpful to distinguish between longer shows rooted in the Chicago tradition and longer show rooted in the narrative tradtion (usually Johnstonian). You’re taking back the term ‘longform’! But, the genie is out of the bottle and I think it’ll be very hard to put it back in.
    I mostly perform and teach narratives that span a longer period of time. There isn’t an official improv term for that. When trying to explain what that is, people respond to the term ‘longform’ as something that is beyond ‘shortform’. Since the majority of people outside of Chicago and New York (perhaps USA is more accurate) do not strongly associate the term ‘longform’ with a specific style, you either have to try to educate them or just go with the flow.
    I watched the BBC show, the Adventures of English recently and your article reminded me of that. I think that as much as we may want to control our language, words will find a way of changing.
    Thanks!
    ps. I think the term closed-form may apply well to shortform, but it doesn’t seem to apply very well to any other formats outside of games. When improvising a longer narrative, you are, in fact, also improvising with the structure of the show. I’m not sure if we can come up with new intuitive terms to accurately describe all the various forms of improv.

  4. There’s a reason there are no cited sources in this “article”.
    Because it’s a load of BS. Nice work on the self satisfaction, but terrible job on the rest. Do you really think anyone actually believes this?

    1. The Maydays

      Hi, Tae.
      I’m sure Alexis will respond in his own time, if he so wishes, but try and hold off on the insults until you meet him in person. It’s not polite.
      Jason Blackwater

  5. For any improvisers who haven’t had the opportunity to see or be trained in longform improv, the definition is actually quite simple. Shortform is basically Who’s Line Is It Anyway type games. Longform is anything that is more than that. That includes narrative. Longform in its simplest form is a basic loose montage, up to its more complex forms such as the Deconstruction. Improvisers who assert that only some formats of longform improv are “real” longform (and inevitably they’re talking about the kind they prefer to perform) are just stroking their own ego or slighting improvisers who do formats that they don’t happen to care for, often by trivializing them with condescension: “It can be great fun!” They also might do this out of an unstated bias, such as having a bias toward game-of-the-scene type improv. Some improv conservatories teach game of the scene improv exclusively, with the result that their students can tend to have the limited view that only that kind of improv qualifies as longform improv. More experienced improvisers will tend to have a broader perspective of what longform improv is.

  6. Kaci Beeler

    Hi, I’m an improviser from Austin. Texas. I’ve been studying improv for over 8 years and I’ve traveled to over 25 cities around the world to teach, perform, learn, watch and generally continue to absorb as much improv as possible. You may think, “Improv from Austin? They must be working in a vaccuum??” There are 5 full-time improv theaters here. Over 30 different shows happen here every single week. We don’t take our work lightly, and we’re certainly never going to stop.
    I was in Edinburgh last August, where I met some of the May Days and possibly even you while my group performed mostly 45-min long narratives or improvised plays or genre plays or whatever the fuck you want to call it at the Fringe for 3 weeks. We call what we do Narrative Improv to improvisers and Improvised Plays to audience members. It’s much, much deeper than all of that to *us*, the ones doing it, but that’s for us and our students and interested others to know if we have time for a good, long chat.
    Okay. Here are my thoughts after trying to parse through your thoughts.
    1) It’s not about “terms”. Terminology doesn’t make the work what it is or isn’t. It’s almost pointless to get in so deep with it. 95% of the non-improviser audiences who come to see improv don’t care to even know whether the work is shortform or longform, Johnstone-based, Del-based, UCB-based, Seattle-based, or Chicago-based.
    And with good reason. It doesn’t actually matter.
    Bad improv is bad in a lot of the same ways (people not listening to each other, being making weak choices and stopping themselves from committing to what they’re doing, etc, etc). Good improv is great in a lot of the same ways (very connected, rich and detailed, great ensemble work, etc, etc).
    To break it out and say that any one style or form is intrinsicly better than another…is just…unfair and it feels like a very ignorant position to take – even though you cite places you’ve been, work you’ve seen, and styles you’ve tried to copy with varying degrees of success – I don’t buy it.
    2) It’s about the work we do. Bottom line. It’s about how YOU find it best to connect with your stage partners. It’s about what YOU find compelling in your own work and the work of others you see. Just like the same paintings or films or plays or books don’t tickle the same people (opinions!), improv styles are rich and varied enough at this point where different people feel differently about them.
    I don’t like sketch comedy all that much, so improv that is trying to be like sketch (like a lot of the work out of UCB in New York) doesn’t tickle me as much as improv that looks more like theatre. But I love great scripted theatre, so this makes sense to me. Can I still enjoy a UCB-style show? Yes! Can I still absolutely hate an unscripted improvised theatre piece? Yes!
    Have I loved sketch comedy shows? Yes! Have I hated scripted plays I’ve seen? Fuck yes.
    I have my own quirks into what I like, we all do.
    As a creator of artistic work, I go for what I like, and then I finesse the shit out of it to see what works and what doesn’t. Just because I saw a few good shows from one place doesn’t mean that way of performing is The One True Way To Good Work. To believe that would be to ignore my own tastes, background, and ability to adapt and create. What’s good for other people, what works for other people, doesn’t always work for me.
    3) You said, “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.”
    Well, there’s no reason for me to get too riled up. Because I KNOW those same delightful traits can be improvised with other methods. I’ve seen amazingly connected short form. Impro Melbourne does some of the most beautiful and connected short form game work I’ve ever seen. If you’ve never seen Patti Stiles or Timothy Redmond in action, you’re missing out. They bring it hard, to whatever form they do. I’ve seen Narratives (improvised plays) built in the moment, take the audience on a journey where they laughed so hard they almost fell out of their seats in one portion of the show, and then the same characters and patterns shifted to put the audience on the verge of tears by the end. Amazing work, influenced by so many different theories, methods, and approaches that to NAIL it to one style would be a shame—because it was something all its own. Completely ephemeral and fleeting, like all that work we do. It was improvised. by those people. in that moment.
    4) Great forms have so much more to them than a couple of people throwing out some ideas at a bar. Great forms are workshopped and continually tweaked and changed to evolve as the performers evolve. I don’t know why you throw form out with the bath water, but I think perhaps you must not have developed many of your own and taken them through a creative

  7. Kaci Beeler

    I got cut off!
    To continue…
    4) Great forms have so much more to them than a couple of people throwing out some ideas at a bar. Great forms are workshopped and continually tweaked and changed to evolve as the performers evolve. I don’t know why you throw form out with the bath water, but I think perhaps you must not have developed many of your own and taken them through a creative process to find the beauty and power in them.
    5) At the end of the day, it’s a blank stage up there. We have the power to fill it with whatever we want. I’m going to continue to work on what excites me, to look for more and to draw deeper. I’m not going to try to imitate anyone else, because that’s not authentic work. I’m going to learn from others and adapt.
    You are not from Chicago. You have your own point of view and ability to create. To ignore that, to ignore your own abilities to discover, just like some of the people in Chicago once did to come up with what you saw and liked, is to ignore the whole beauty and magic of creation. You’re not seeing the ROOTS, you’re only seeing the TREE, here.
    Improv is a young artform. We have so much further to go with it. It’s time we stopped being blinded by terms and comparisons, and start looking to ourselves, our partners, and our audiences to develop the work that will be our Life.

  8. Amen, Kaci.

  9. Roderick Millar

    Dylan, I utterly agree with you.
    Kaci, how well you have almost completely soaked up my own responses!
    Alexis, you have inspired a very beautiful debate. What I would like you to nail, however, is what longform is in your view. It sounds as though longform and shortform improvisers could be sharing stages everywhere without either of them realising.

  10. I work in the area of Creative Drama. Studied at the University of the Texas at Austin. In my focus, we have a term called ‘process drama’ where instead if teaching the usual 30 min or hour lesson plan, an objective is covered over several days. Usually capping off at three.
    Maybe having clearer objective when discussing long form and short form would refine your purpose as an artist. Meaning I understand your need to define the two to establish history and provide foundations for your profession.
    Also working in a field I have to ‘defend’ in the general public, I can relate to you instictful urgentcy to stir discussion among your colleages.
    As a student of the theatre, I hear the words ‘long form’ and ‘short form’ and can assume all your conclusions from the get go.
    For a seasoned improvisor, it could be dangerous however to specifically define these terms as everyone has a certain style and (hopefully) a developed way in which they work.
    Perphaps it would be clear and more useful to discuss the manipulation of time in your work, and how that defines your profession as a whole. That is was sets it apart from all the others after all. Time is what makes your work unique. Everything like action and space is constant with any other branch within the theatre. But the use of time when improvising is could make or break that iching new idea waiting to be placed on a stage.
    Thank you for your time.
    Best and happy living,
    Jessica
    travisheights2@gmail.com

  11. I work in the area of Creative Drama. Studied at the University of the Texas at Austin. In my focus, we have a term called ‘process drama’ where instead if teaching the usual 30 min or hour lesson plan, an objective is covered over several days. Usually capping off at three.
    Maybe having clearer objective when discussing long form and short form would refine your purpose as an artist. Meaning I understand your need to define the two to establish history and provide foundations for your profession.
    Also working in a field I have to ‘defend’ in the general public, I can relate to you instictful urgentcy to stir discussion among your colleages.
    As a student of the theatre, I hear the words ‘long form’ and ‘short form’ and can assume all your conclusions from the get go.
    For a seasoned improvisor, it could be dangerous however to specifically define these terms as everyone has a certain style and (hopefully) a developed way in which they work.
    Perphaps it would be clear and more useful to discuss the manipulation of time in your work, and how that defines your profession as a whole. That is was sets it apart from all the others after all. Time is what makes your work unique. Everything like action and space is constant with any other branch within the theatre. But the use of time when improvising is could make or break that iching new idea waiting to be placed on a stage.
    Thank you for your time.
    Best and happy living,
    Jessica
    travisheights2@gmail.com

  12. Alexis Gallagher

    Hi all,
    Thanks to everyone for these various comments — the longer replies, the quick reactions, and the brickbats.
    I’ve been busy with non-improv stuff over the last week but I’m certainly looking forward to following up on this hopefully today or tomorrow.
    Alexis
    p.s. I think it’s great we all care.

  13. Comments are closed.

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