We’ve been doing some remarkable stuff in longform recently. I have sat there watching the performance group working with the hairs on the back of my neck prickling and my mouth dry.
I’ve also been in pieces that have just… stalled. Gone nowhere.
This is fine, this is cool. We’re in the practice room. If we’re not getting stuff wrong we’re wasting it, but why does one piece grab and hold the attention, while another bores? What engages? What doesn’t? What matters? What doesn’t?
In shortform, the improv most people who are used to improv are used to, nothing is really supposed to matter. We play silly games. If they work it’s funny. If they fail it’s still funny. Essentially you’re watching the performer walk a low wire; if they make it to the other side then we all cheer. If they don’t then in reality no harm’s been done. Shortform has its uses. We use it. You can knock a show together in minutes with shortform. You can jump in and fill half an hour with virtually no notice. And it doesn’t really matter if it goes wrong. Brilliant stuff.
Longform isn’t quite so forgiving. Longform is starting to take us out into the wilder waters of theatre. To hand in longform you need (I will say) a sense of scene and flow. What we call “beat”. In longform improv you need to act. If you’re going to put a sketch or short play on the stage then you’re going to have to be able to keep up with the demands of that.
The longforms I’ve been held by have had an internal purpose. They’ve had a journey. We’ve begun with recognisable human beings who haven’t by any stretch been the performers themselves. I am very pleased to see that members of the performance group have not only committed to character, but have committed to unpleasant ones. Then we’ve gone somewhere. Something has happened. Those characters have changed.
In a sense (I should stress that this is my current opinion, it could change overnight) longform is a conversation. Shortform is a gag, a joke. I tell you a joke, you (hopefully) laugh, the job is done. We don’t sit there for the next thirty minutes picking the joke apart.
With longform that’s exactly what you do do. You present your opening, then the next block of time (and longforms can last for hours) is spent expanding and exploring that opening. Discussing it. Exploring and expanding it. Challenging it.
Longform improv is a conversation, with your fellow performers and with the audience. It is improv as theatre. It follows the same development path as conventional theatre. We are as obliged as any narrative artist to obey the laws of story. And just as obliged to break them.