10 Tips for Good Long-Form

Jimmy Carrane and Susan Messing

Jimmy Carrane and Susan Messing

As another one of my Art of Slow Comedy improv class prepares to do a long-form performance at The Upstairs Gallery in Chicago this Saturday, I want to share with you some good reminders on what you need to make a long-form work.

1. Have Fun — When you play with Susan Messing in her long-running show, “Messing With a Friend” at The Annoyance Theater, she says “If you are not having fun, you’re the asshole.” Nobody is getting rich off improv. We do it because we love to, so bring the joy, bring the fun, bring the love on stage. If you do, you will surely NOT become the asshole.

2. Use Variety — This is huge in doing good long-form. With longer scenes, you don’t want the audience to get bored, so make sure there is variety in your piece. You can accomplish this by using different energies, different numbers of people in your scenes, different styles or genres. If the group has just done a slow, two-person relationship scene about a couple breaking up, the next scene needs to have a different energy. If you are doing a series of two-person scenes, break it up with a group or a three-person scene. If you are playing a real and grounded scene with a lot of emotions, in the next scene should can play some silly, big characters or do a genre scene, just to mix things up a bit.

3. Name Your Characters — Naming is specific, easy, and can help you discover your character. It is also the simplest way to call a character back later in the piece. All you have to do is say their name and your partner will already know who you are to each other.

4. Focus on Editing — Editing is such an important skill and it can make or break a long form. Edit on the laugh. If you don’t get a laugh, look for the scene to come full circle or some other conclusion. Great editing is a balancing act. You don’t want to leave the other players out there way too long and you don’t want to step on a good scene with clumsy editing.

5. A Form is Only as Strong as the Scene Work — I believe Jason Chin said this: “The form is for the players, and the scene work is for the audience.” It’s true. Form is never a good substitute for good scene work. Scene work is the foundation that any form can be built on. If you are struggling with doing solid scene work, simplify your form until you get back on track. Put scene work first and everything will follow.

6. Don’t Overdo the Tag Outs, Swinging Doors and Scene Painting – These elements are a spice, not the main course. Too much will over power the main dish and provide no substance.You will leave you and your audience hungry. When using Tag Outs, Swinging Doors and Scene Painting, pay attention to overall rhythm of the piece. If we just saw a series of Tag Outs, unless it specific to that particular form, wait to use them until later in the piece.

7. Walk On For a Good Reason – When you walk into a scene, ask yourself, what are you adding to it? Are you going out there because you have been hanging back and this is a safe way to go out there? Is this an opportunity to get a laugh at your team’s expense? You need to be adding information, or heightening, or placing the other characters in an environment. Ask yourself, “What can I give to the scene to enhance it?” instead of “What I can take from it?”

8. Sometimes a “Walk-On” is Really an Edit — If a scene has been going on for a while and your instinct is to do a “walk on,” try an edit instead.

9. Don’t Get Hung Up on the Theme — The theme is there to inspire you, not for you to hit it over the audience’s head. If “shoes” is the suggestion, think about what you relate to “shoes.” For me, shoes would make me think of running, and that would let me know how to embody someone in an emotional choice/character. Maybe I am person running from relationships or someone who is afraid to get close to people. If the theme puts you in your head, throw it out for a while, and let the audience make the connection. I would rather see you do scene that you think has nothing to do with the theme (which is impossible by the way),than to do one about two people talking about the shoes they just bought at Shoe Carnival.

10. You Always Have Something — If you are on the back line and you feel confused, start a scene where you are confused.If you feel scared, start the scene being scared. When I did Armando when it first started, I was intimated by all the players, and I was genuinely scared. I must have done 40 scenes playing someone who was scared since that was what I actually was. I was so terrified that I could not use the theme, until I was less afraid.

5 replies
  1. Old Ned Scruddermann
    Old Ned Scruddermann says:

    Great tips. And here is one other one, from Don Hall in his days of coaching at WIP: “Shut the F…. up, and listen.”

    Reply
  2. Greg Morelli
    Greg Morelli says:

    Great tips. You’re a born Mohel.

    Here’s one from Mick Napier, back when I was struggling with improv, “Treat it like it’s the least important thing you’re going to do all day.”

    He’s one from Dr. Phil, back when I was struggling with love, “The best indication for future behavior is past behavior.”

    Mick Napier’s advice proves a mensch is a mensch. Dr. Phil’s advice proves even a piece of shit from a fucked-up state like Texas has something worthwhile to offer, so keep an open ear.

    Oh, and stop dating lifestyle addicts, making them happy is a soul-crushing bottomless pit.

    Reply
  3. Pam
    Pam says:

    “Only the strongest egos escape the trap of perfectionism. To solve problems successfully, you must believe you can, must feel capable enough to improvise. Yet too many adults have been schooled away from their ability to experiment freely.”
    — Marsha Sinetar, To Build the Life You Want, Create the Work You Love: The Spiritual Dimension of Entrepreneuring
    Very applicable…..
    (from http://www.improvarama.com) 🙄

    Reply
  4. John
    John says:

    Great stuff! I was only thrown off by #9, because what you’re calling “theme”, I’d call the suggestion. I think theme can be a wonderful thing to focus and be mindful about in long-form shows, but that’s something other and broader than the suggestion taken from the audience.

    Reply
  5. Carl
    Carl says:

    Thanks for the tips…I am new to long form…been in a mesiner-based long form class for 6 weeks…i feel so lost sometimes but know that when I do i am in my head…as soon as i live in the moment i am fine….the hardest thing so far for me is that feeling that you have to plan the proverbial race….ie…try to be funny…when in fact…life is funny and humans are the funniest creatures around…especially when we are thinking we are boring…

    Reply

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