What’s the Difference between Long and Short Form Improv?

chairs This is our most googled post from last year, slightly revised for new readers.

People often ask about the difference between what we teach at Big Blue Door, which is longform improv, and improv they’ve seen in the Charlottesville area, which for the most part is short form improv.

What is Short Form?

Short form means short fun games or exercises that last about 2 to 5 minutes, such as a group doing a collective task (like building a machine with each performer becoming one of the parts) or playing scenes with specific conditions imposed (such as starting every sentence with a particular letter).

Sometimes called ‘theater games’ these exercises trace back to Vera Spolin and Neva Boyd who pioneered their use in Chicago for adult recreational classes in the 20s and 30s. Scene rules developed by Elaine May and Del Close in the 50s are usually part of short form too.

Short form is fun, energetic, and challenging. Theater teachers often use short form games in classrooms to encourage spontaneity and overcome shyness. Theater directors often use these exercises in rehearsals to build group cohesion. The best thing about short form is that newcomers can play with veterans. Short form groups often have a drop-in quality. Newcomers are welcome to play with veterans at weekly sessions.

Short form improv can also be performed as a show. There’s usually a half-dozen or so improvisers making up a troupe. One or more performers or a director act as host. The host names and describes an exercise, sometimes with audience input, and calls on performers from the troupe–and sometimes audience volunteers–who then play out the exercise, almost like contestants on a game show. The television show Whose Line Is It Anyway? is based on short form improv.

What is Longform?

In short form the conditions are imposed on a scene from the outside; in longform the performers create the conditions as they create the scene. This leads to longer, more-grounded scenes with the humor tending to come from the characters and their relationships. In a longform show the performers might take a single audience suggestion–a word, a location, a song lyric, some recent advice–and then improvise the entire show based on the suggestion. Longform uses many short form exercises for training but these aren’t performed.

Longform expands on the scene techniques devised by Del Close and Elaine May and adds structures that tie together multiple scenes. For instance a longform called ‘Evente’ asks the audience for a suggestion of an event, and then creates background scenes to the event, brings the characters together for the event itself, and then creates a series of scenes of the aftermath of the event. Another longform called ‘Harold’ takes an audience suggestion, creates three storylines, then a separate group scene, then rejoins the three storylines, then creates another group scene, then gradually pulls the three storylines together with faster and faster scenes until the show is brought back to the original suggestion.

Del Close experimented with multiple scenes as far back as the late 60s, but longform as we know it really developed when he paired up with Charna Halpern at what is now called iO in Chicago in the 80s. So longform is a young art.

Longform is incredibly fun and satisfying to perform, and breathtaking when it’s done well, but performers need training to develop patience and effective listening. A group of friends can get together and figure out short form with time and a couple of books, and good short form groups often experiment with longform, but the scene techniques and practices are best learned from an outside coach or director. So the biggest difference between short form and longform is that performers learn longform by taking classes. Most improv schools have three basic ‘levels’ that gradually teach the performance skills.

Shows like The Office, Parks and Recreation, 30 RockColbert, and most other contemporary comedy draws heavily from longform performers and techniques, as do playwrights (such as Tracy Letts) and television writers.

Which is better?

Well, I chose to study longform so you know what I think, but to be fair…

The worst thing about longform is it’s like painting or playing guitar–it takes time and at some point you need outsider help.

The best thing about longform is it’s like painting or playing guitar–it’s a real skill that lasts a lifetime. You can use it in acting, directing, writing, public speaking, playing with your kids, or just living. You’ll love being able to do it.

Judge for Yourself!

Sign up our next longform class!

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