3 Ways to Get Better at Editing Improv Scenes

Any improviser doing long form knows that editing can make or break a show. Good editing is balancing act between letting the improv scenes develop and not letting them go on too long to drag down the show.

Whether you’re looking to improve your editing skills, or you are an improv teacher looking for ideas on how to teach editing, I wanted to share three things that help my students become better at editing.

  1. Replace Walk-ons with Edits
    Nothing kills a potentially great scene more than too many walk-ons. In fact, I think at least 60 percent of walk-ons could easily be edits. Sometimes I will get a class that is walk-on crazy. What I do in these situation? I will have them do a montage or 20 minutes of a scene. I tell them before we start that every time you feel the impulse to do a walk-on, I would like you to do an edit instead.The next round of scenes I may tell them to add walk-on, only if they are necessary, for example, if someone in the scene is calling out their character name. I think walks-on are used when an edit would serve the show better, and when I have students do this exercise I see their scene work get stronger and their edits get sharper because I am giving them fewer choices.
  1. Edit Too Soon
    I love this exercise, especially if groups are sluggish with their editing. I typically start by having them do a montage or series of unrelated scenes for about 15 minutes and I instruct them to edit every scene too soon. I have found that most groups like this exercise because it is fun and really brings up the energy. As a teacher/director/coach don’t be afraid to side coach if you notice that they are letting scenes go too long. You can call “edit” yourself and they seem to get right back on track.After they’ve completed the first round, ask them to do another 15 minutes of scenes with regular editing. In most cases, this will correct sluggish editing.I have also done a variation of this as a form itself. To do this, I have them do a series of very short scenes. In terms of length, think of Second City-style black-outs. You can do up to 8 to 14 short scenes depending on the size of the group. When those short scenes reach a crescendo, there will be a natural editing point where they can go into longer scenes. I have found that this form really helps with their editing throughout the show.
  2. Freeze Tag
    I never really thought of using the popular short form game Freeze Tag in long form class until I read Mick Napier’s brilliant book Behind The Scenes: Improvising Long Form. As a long form snob, I thought that Freeze Tag belonged in short form class, even though I loved playing it after Harolds at iO back in the day. If you are not familiar with Freeze Tag, here’s how it works: two players come out and get a suggestion from the audience of something they heard today and begin a scene. During the course of the scene, one of the players on the back line (or on the side, depending on the stage) yells “Freeze.” Then the two players freeze and the player from the back line takes one of the player’s positions and starts an entirely different scene. When I play it in class, I usually tell my students to edit on the laugh, or when they feel the scene has come to a completion.Now that I have been enlightened about Freeze Tag, I really cannot think of better game to teach people how to edit on the laughs than this one. Not only is it a fun game, but also it gets them to use their editing muscles without even realizing it. I usually do this toward the top of the class when I warm them up.

I am always looking for new ways to teach editing. If you have games or exercises that you have found helpful, please let me know in the comment section below.

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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.