I was chatting to Chris when we were planning the courses recently and the future of long-form in London popped up:
In a nutshell, what is long-form improv to you?
CHRIS: To me long-form is anything that isn’t directed during the show. Anything where you don’t have someone on stage telling the audience what the game is supposed to be. It’s the Wild West. Anything can happen. Short form games are brilliant and silly and wonderful but long-form is where you stay in Wonderland and see just how deep the improv rabbit hole goes (to approbate the words of Morpheus).
STEVE: The more I do improv the more I realise it can be anything you want to be. It could be a bunch of improvised scenes that may or may not connect together for various reasons, or one big scene. Some people seem use the term long-form to mean a bunch of scenes connecting together in patterns, while others use it to mean one long story. Improvised plays, movies, Harolds, Deconstructions, Cat’s Cradle, musicals, there’s loads of variety in long-form.
What inspires you most about long-form?
CHRIS: It’s the Wild West. That means you get to be a cowboy. More than that – you get to be a cowboy who has had ninja training on a pirate ship run by robots. Long-form is about pure creation as a collective activity. It’s sport for everyone who never got picked for the team during high school. But it’s also for everyone who did get picked too. At its best it combines elements of the circus, the theatre, the playground, the sports hall and the inside of your head.
STEVE: The joyous freedom and excitement of creating something from nothing, complete freedom of expression. I like the feeling of “I’m not sure if this is going to work or not” but then doing it anyway and pulling something out of the hat, for performing and watching.
What teachers/shows/companies/experiences inspired you and your long-form?
CHRIS: Unquestionably Baby Wants Candy, a long-form musical improv troupe from Chicago (although they have teams in LA and New York now). Their shows are the most joyful, spontaneous, incredible things I’ve ever seen on stage. They are constantly making each other laugh – they are playful in such an unforced and natural way. They are taking the conceits of musicals and using them to create belly laughs. In the same mold – the Improvised Shakespeare Company are phenomenal – not because of a slavish adherence to the language or plots of the time but because they use those tropes to create utterly perfect improv sets. Give me joy over accuracy any day. I also have to mention the improv duo Dummy – their show is the perfect balance between deep character connection and your ribs bursting out of your chest because you’re laughing so hard.
STEVE: It was two improvised musicals at Edinburgh in 2008, One Night Stand and Showstoppers, and also The Mischief (then known as The Scat Pack) with Lights Cameras Improvise. Before that I already loved impro but those three shows really demonstrated to me that impro could be successful to a wider audience, with great production values, and great stories. I loved the way the story unfolded moment by moment, it felt like the actors were on a tightrope. More recently I’ve also enjoyed watching PGraph do improvised plays, I think they are great.
What do you think could be the future of long-form in London?
CHRIS: I don’t know what it’s going to be like. I do know that it’s going to be super exciting and it’s going to change the face of comedy in London. The thing is, we know improv can sustain a community, we can see it in Chicago and LA and New York and Austin and Melbourne and Toronto and Copenhagen where there are theatres dedicated to purely improv. In Chicago there are loads of them, pages of listings for different improv gigs all over town. London can absolutely do that. It’s an amazing place and there are so many talented performers here. With the new late night tube lines and with all the amazing improv springing up across this fair capital of ours – it won’t be long until the future’s here. I know I’ve conflated long-form with ‘all improv’ in that answer but I’ve written it now so I’m not going to answer it again. No regrets. We’re going to see a proliferation of long-form – narrative long-form – plays and genre pieces etc & non-narrative long-form – everything from Harolds to Decons to crazy made up forms that revolve around what’s on your iPhone playlists.
STEVE: Variety. I think London is in a great position as we’re influenced by so many different people and companies. We have short-form games, Keith Johnstone inspired narrative, Showstoppers hugely professional improvised musical, UCB and IO with Chicago and New York style long-form, Pgraph from Texas inspiring improvised plays and genres, and a strong connection to physical theatre and clown in Europe. I think the future of long-form in London could be a melting pot of styles, where nights and festivals showcase lots of different styles. I think this will free improvisers up to be experimental and try out new ideas and forms and create shows that they and the audience love.
Because of this Hoopla are going to be running a more open long-form course, and then after that shorter courses and one off classes on all the different formats. So improvised plays, Harolds, Deconstructions, Tag Flurries, movies, musicals, I think there is room for everything in London and the more the variety the better, and we’re going to be aiming to inspire this as much as possible.
What (if anything) is holding back long-form in the UK and how can we solve that?
STEVE: I’m a big fan of making shows audience friendly, especially for people who have never seen improv before and don’t know what it is. For instance one thing that would help is before a long-show starts having the host briefly explain what edits and tag-outs are. I’ve had groups look at me like I’m mad when I’ve asked them to do this, but the genuine audience of non-improvisers often find the act of someone running across the front of the stage kind of weird. It is weird if you think about it, plays don’t end scenes like that. It’s just one example, but in general thinking of what your show is from point of view of someone who has never seen improv before would help lots. Genuine audience members really don’t care whether it’s the second beat of the third scene or whatever, they don’t see that stuff. They do see whether the actors are scared and hesitant or happy and spontaneous, so I feel that the spirit of impro and group dynamic is often more important than the technique.
What advice would you give to someone starting their own long-form improv group?
CHRIS: Get a coach. Get an outside eye. They don’t have to be better than you, they just need to not be one of the performers in your group. That gives the coach the opportunity to have OPINIONS. They can give notes without it ever looking like it’s coming from a place of jealously or insecurity. Conversely, do not ever give notes to a fellow performer who hasn’t asked for your notes. Even if they do ask be careful – they are probably just asking for praise. So yeah – get a coach, get drunk, fall in love, have adventures.
STEVE: The best way to learn is practice at least once a week with everyone there, with a coach or director who isn’t actually in the show, and perform at least once a month. Commit to a string of performances so you get to learn from each one. Treat shows like a party, a celebration of improv.
At Hoopla now we’re trying to acknowledge these differences and show all the types of long-form there are. We’re trying to introduce a range of skills to people that will help with any show, and inspire them to go on and create their own forms and keep experimenting.
Hoopla are about to release their next season of long-form improv courses in London, with Maria Peters, Katy Schutte, Chris Mead and Jon Monkhouse teaching long-form. Steve is also going to be teaching a narrative long-form course in 2016, all about improvising longer stories and plays.