Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Defining Your Group's Style

Before I talk too much about teaching youngsters, as I've been doing a lot of this summer, I'd like to take a post to write a bit to improv groups trying to get their feet on the ground. In this case, I'd like to discuss the process of defining your group.

Most improv groups will define themselves as either "short form" or "long form", but an emergent distinction is between "scenic" improv and "game" improv.

Most things done to entertain people for money, called "improv," is either based on some type of specific game, or it's based on performing a story, sketch, or scene (pick your word). The truth is that creating a scene is just a game itself, and most "long form" groups are just applying a loose game format to their scenic improv, for example "the game of performing a 20 minute story based on a one word suggestion," or any similarly minimalist "game."

Since even the simplest format is a format, rather than call improv improv, maybe we should refer to an improv spectrum, like the autism spectrum, where every performance is something between a rigidly scripted performance, and a huge chaotic mess.

Even labeling a performance "improv" is to some degree following the script that's been written for improv groups. It's not a very well branded or advertised script, it definitely doesn't sell tickets like Glee 3D Live, and it's so often abused that the brand "improv" carries with it about as much consumer confidence as a taco truck.

The good news is that with a reliable performance quality, consistent name, and accessible location, a small improv group can become that really tasty taco truck, that has the good stuff, even though nobody knows about it. Even an improv group can brand itself well.

An interesting phenomenon I've noticed is that some of the most effective improv formats I've seen was very well defined. For example, if a group declares that they are parodying a specific TV show, and they can all become experts in that TV show, it's very easy to play the part. I'd consider that a pretty big step away from "pure" improv, although it's far from scripted. Many genre-improvs fall into what is probably worth calling "structured" improv, in that the general structure, plot devices, and maybe even characters are pre-defined, and the specifics and dialogue are left to improv.

A step closer to the improv spectrum, I think many improv groups may benefit from asking: "What kind of comedy are we doing?" By all means, refer to a show for stylistic inspiration. Are you the fast-talking screwball descendent of vaudeville, like 30 Rock? Are you an absurdist high-concept live-action cartoon, like Children's Hospital? Maybe you're a grounded-in-realism documentary, like The Office, or Parks and Rec?

One of the most popular formats for students of improv these days is the Armando, rebranded by UCB (Upright Citizens' Brigade) as ASSSCAT. In the Armando, a monologist rambles on a topic for a bit, routinely interrupted by the improvisors doing scenes based on the musing. This format is fairly loose, but since it often has a guest monologist, much of the humor comes from blowing their story's components out of proportion, to the point of absurdity. This gives the ASSSCAT a decidedly sketch-like quality, where each vignette has its own self-contained rules, that are each milked for absurdity. Naturally, combining multiple of these vignettes is a popular way to wrap up the show, or simply escalate its action.

Similar sketch-like effects can be found by mocking just about anything. A group that improvises based on headlines would inevitably have a similar feel, as well as any internet-stream inspired group. I've had interest for some time in having a group that simply uses their phones to riff at the beginning off of current memes and articles, and once enough have been read, doing scenes until more inspiration is needed.

Another element that's worth mentioning is the lead-in and lead-out. Many groups choose to have a single performer introduce the group and warm up the crowd, and some will have a pair come out, and even riff for a while. I've been growing warm towards a more group-inclusive riffing-centric intro/outro, because it makes more of an improv of the format, and it introduces the performers in a social guise, which avoids what I'll call "awkward-improv-syndrome" which comes from situations in which improvisors appear unwilling to actually improvise.

Well, that's a handful of thoughts on style that may be worth considering. I hope it's been of some interest! I'll leave you with this gem on scenic improv, which didn't fit in the flow of the final draft:

The skills of a scenic improvisor expand beyond any boundaries, and ultimately extend to encompass even the scenes that are performed. Ultimately even the show itself is part of the scene, and even the life of the performer is a scene, until absolutely nothing is taken seriously, but positively everything is milked for its greatest possible entertainment value, pain and catharsis become one, and nirvana is achieved.

Good night.

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