My troupe had a strong culture of experimentation. The players would always be open for new formats, sometimes inventing our own, which we would then workshop and finally perform on stage. We had some excellent shows because of this culture, but we also had some that didn’t go over as well as we hoped. Through this experimentation, however, I was able to find some “rules” that seem to apply across the board, in both writing and improv.
The first truth is that the level of complexity of a work can sustain is dependent on its length. For instance, improvised plays (often called “long form”) can have a greater number of characters with arcs, more complex plotting and additional scenic locations than a series of unrelated or vaguely related scenes (frequently called “short form”). In terms of the MICE quotient, I am dividing my seconds or words amongst the four dials of my mixing board. The fewer words or seconds I have, the further I have to suppress some elements to ensure the others are explored in satisfying ways.
When I first joined my troupe, we were on an upswing of long form workshops and performances. I became very good at improvised plays and how to pace my ideas to best effect. When we swung back to favoring short form, I was neither particularly good nor bad. This was because of truth two, different formats necessitate different strategies. When I don’t have much time, I play my strongest hand early and build upon it. Given time, I instead build up to playing my strongest hand most effectively.
I’ve also noticed that long and short works use different, but overlapping skillsets. When I played, most troupes that I met focused on long form or short form, few practiced both with any regularity. My troupe made a point to of it. We weren’t quite as good as specialists on either side, but we could hold our own when in good company. This seems to hold true over and over again. This is truth three, skill comes from practice. Wide breadth and great depth can both be beneficial.
Finally, I learned that format dictates neither strategy nor execution. In the Nostradamus format, the show starts with a prediction of death that is realized in the climax. The audience provides the means of death, the location of death, and the victim’s last words. When all three elements come together, someone dies and the show ends. In one strategy, all three elements can be introduced in the initial scenes and managing show tension and pacing becomes about slowly bringing all the elements closer together. However, an equally valid approach is to only introduce two of the three elements together and early, holding back on introducing the third element. In this case tension is drawn by the wait for that last element to come into play. The difference becomes playing on near misses rather than the slow, inevitable crash. Both methods have resulted in great shows.Tags: Sequence 02: Improv and Writing