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Three Simple Long Forms you can do right now

It doesn’t matter if you are an improv newbie or a seasoned veteran, when it comes to long form, the same rule applies – You have to have good scene work before using a fancy form. I have said it before and I will say it again, good scene work trumps form every time.

People want to jump into form before developing their scene work, which always turn out disastrous. Since it’s the holiday season and I am in a giving mood, I want to give you three simple long forms that I have been using in my improv classes and in front of audiences for years that always produce great scene work.

Here you go and good luck.

1.Car-Event (4 people)
Set up four chairs as if it’s a car. The premise is four people who know each other are driving to an event, such as a funeral, wedding, rock concert, or college reunion. You will do three beats of this scene, which will be edited by the lights. Like in a Harold, the second beats will be a time dash from the previous scenes. (A time dash means a passage of time.)

For example, four adult children are going to the funeral of their 80-year-old father. Karen reveals a secret that their father did inappropriate things to her when she was younger. It is the first time the three other members have heard that secret. They are surprised. They emotionally react to the news. In this first beat, Carols tells her family she is going to bring it up at the funeral in her eulogy. The other kids go crazy. The get angry at her. It’s three against one. The first scene ends.

The second scene begins 20 minutes after the funeral, where Carol brought up the secret in her eulogy. The family is all quiet. Her older brother, Bob, is holding his eye in the back seat of the car. We organically find out what happened. Bob got punched by Uncle Jim as he was defending his sister, Carol. Bob reveals he had known about Karen’s abuse. We find out the other brother and black sheep, Stephen, hooked up with their old neighbor, “Hot Sue” Sullivan, at the funeral and was in the bathroom when the fight broke out.

The third scene is typically a time period farther away: a year, a month, a week later. It is shorter in length than the first two. It works best almost as a “black out.” It can be as something as simple as:

Carol: “I can’t believe we are going to Uncle Jim’s funeral.”
Stephen: “At least you won’t have to worry he’ll punch you in the face, Bob.”
Lights.

I have also done it where the last scene goes as long as the first two and it’s worked just as well. Experiment and see what works best for you.

Tips: Like any long form, it’s better when the characters know each other and everyone has a shared history. With group scenes, it’s important to “Yes and..” your ass off. Reveal a secret. Emotionally react. Sharing other people’s point of view also helps a great deal. Sometimes the scenes will break down to three against one, but be aware that those alliance may shift. The other important thing is to focus on “the relationships through the event.” If you are going to the Taylor Swift concert and someone is not into Taylor Swift, explore what that says about the character. Why did he or she agree to go?

John: “Ben, you are such a downer. You agreed to go and you don’t really like her.”
Ben: “The only reason I am going is to get laid.”
John: “You are such a pig.”

2. Single Location Montage: (6-10 people)
This is a combination of Montage and Close Quarters. Agree on a location somewhere a group of people could all meet, such as a high school, office building, hotel, or shopping mall. If the suggestion is high school, every scene will take place in or around the high school. Take a couple of seconds to think of locations in and outside the high school, as well as relationships. This will give you variety. Most likely, you will do the obvious scenes like teacher and students in a classroom, parents and the principal in his office, coach and star basketball player in the locker room, two loser students in the smoking area. But see if you can push the locations and relationships to be a little more unique. For example, you could be parents in their Audi who just dropped their kid off and want to have sex, the dope dealer in the parking lot selling weed to the head of English department. You will edit with sweeps. Walk on only when a character is needed or specifically called out. It works better with no tag outs. It’s encouraged for character to come back in other scenes, but it’s not a requirement.

Tips: In any long form, variety is key. We want to see different energies, relationships, locations and characters. In rehearsal/class, sometimes after getting the suggestion, I will side coach my students to figure out what kind of relationship they could have. What kind of location? Don’t go with the most obvious choice. When you feel you have enough options, you can start.

3. Time Dash Documentary (Up to 12 people total, two people at a time)
Two people sit in chairs facing the audience as if they are addressing a video camera. Think of When Harry Met Sally or a reality TV show. Like in the Car-Event, you will do this in three scenes and time dash it. Also it will be edited by the lights.

There are two characters are there for a reason. They could be a romantic couple, business partners, father and son, etc. They name each other. And they listen and build off the last thing that was said by building the history of the relationship a line at a time. A story line will develop. Example: In first scene, we find out Ron and Heather are a couple and they are trying to have a baby. They have been trying for three years. The second scene starts with Heather holding her stomach and we know she is now pregnant. We find out that they went to China to adopt a baby and their doctor called them when they were at the airport and told them they were pregnant. They are not sure now what they are going to do about the adoption. The third and final scene is quick, just like in the Car-Event. It is two years later and we find out they had twins and adapted Simon from China.

Tips: In class and rehearsal, start out in silence and read the tension from your partner. This is important because everything you need for your scene is in your partner’s eyes.

Try one of these long forms out and let me know how they go!

Jimmy Carrane’s next Art of Slow Comedy Class begins Jan. 7! Get in on the ground floor of his three-level system. Sign up by Dec. 24 and pay only $249! Or, take Jimmy’s One-Day Workshop on Saturday, Jan. 3 for $79!

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.