What is Longform Improv?

Longform Improvisational Comedy builds completely new, impromptu, unplanned scenes into an entire show, using nothing but a bare stage and maybe some chairs.

Scenework & Short Form

Longform is based on techniques of agreement. Performers contribute bits of reality to a scene through speech, action, and emotion while fully accepting the bits of reality offered by other performers. Alternating line by line, gesture by gesture, the performers create characters and a relationship between them rooted in a place and time with strong points of view. Heightening the patterns of the characters and their relationship builds scenes that are hilarious and often moving.

Once characters, situation and a relationship are established the performers may introduce a new set of characters. When the second set is established, the performers might start a third storyline, and so on. As the show goes on the performers revisit earlier stories and characters and pull the elements together into a show. There are different long ‘forms’ that do this in different ways.

The basic agree-and-add principle called by improvisers ‘Yes and…’ is the core of longform training. This principle is usually credited to Elaine May and Del Close while in a group called the Compass Players in the 1950s. Originally founded in Chicago under the leadership of David Shepherd and Paul Sills, they were temporarily based in St. Louis when Close joined them, and he and May systematized the scene agreement.

Second City, Theater Games, Short Form & Theater Sports

Originally Shepherd had founded Compass to create full-length improvised plays inspired by the Italian commedia del’arte and dealing with social issues. In an attempt to train the group Paul Sills led them in exercises taught to him by his mother, Viola Spolin. Spolin in turn had first developed the exercises while assisting a teacher named Neva Boyd first at the Hull House in Chicago and then as recreation director in WPA work camps during the 30s. The exercises where adaptations of children’s games and folk games from around the world.

Sills and the Compass discovered that the exercises were funny all by themselves, and gradually abandoned full-length shows in favor of sets of rehearsed comic scenes and followed by the exercises. These exercises are the origin of the ‘theater games’ used widely now in play rehearsals, and the basis of what is called ‘Theater Sports’ or ‘Short Form Improv’ in the comedy world.

The Compass Players later returned to Chicago and evolved into the Second City which in turn trained the original founders of most of the improv and comedy groups of the last forty years.


Del Close went on to run Second City and then an improv and comedy troupe called the Committee in San Francisco. There he experimented with tying scenes and exercises together into a whole, completely-improvised show. Allegedly, after the first performance of such a show by the Committee in 1967, they were talking afterward about what to call it when someone said, ‘Let’s call it Harold,’ and the worst name in art and theater history stuck.

Back in Chicago in the 1980s at a new improv theater originally called ImprovOlympic, but later changed to iO after fears of legal action by the International Olympic Committee, Close worked with Charna Halpern to develop the Harold into a shorter, tighter, more performable set: An opening based on an audience suggestion, three long scenes, a group scene, return to three scenes, another group scene, and finally very short returns to the scenes to tie them together.

Other improv schools have since been founded around the country, including the Annoyance in Chicago and the Upright Citizens Brigade, the PIT, and Magnet Theater in New York. Newer forms include the Monoscene, the Sleepover, and the Evente, and many versions of the Harold, especially the ‘Monolog Deconstruction’, which draws scene inspiration from a monologist. Monolog Deconstruction is usually called simple ‘The Armando’ after the Armando Diaz Experience, the longest running improv show in the world, founded with Armando Diaz as the original monologist, and still running in Chicago today. Diaz was the first teacher brought to the UCB in New York where he created many of the original performing groups. Diaz went on to co-found the PIT, and later the Magnet.

Big Blue Door

The Big Blue Door training program was developed from the Magnet curriculum, and additionally inspired by many of New York’s best teachers, including Armando Dias, Louis Kornfeld, Mark Grenier, Megan Gray, Zach Woods, Russ Armstrong, and Shanon O’Neill.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s