A Guide To Reviewing Improv

Reprinted from

Short Form (Games) vs Long Form (Scenic):

Improv generally comes in one of two main categories, Short Form or Long Form.

“Short-Form” is insider jargon for games like you’d see on Whose Line is it Anyway or ComedySportz where the rules are decided on ahead of time.

“Long-form” is insider jargon for a piece that may have a form set ahead of time (“we’ll have monologues followed by scenes”, or “it will be an improvised horror movie”) but the individual scenes are free-form, with no set rules.

Different structures and styles:

You may see long form shows that refer to the overall structure of the performance that has been predetermined – for example, one of the oldest and most widely used is the Harold. The Harold is simply three storylines each seen three times. The content of those scenes and how they connect is entirely open and different everytime. You shouldn’t typically need to be aware of the structure in order to enjoy or appreciate it – it is primarily a tool or discipline that gives a long form show some recognizable shape and pattern.

Structure should not be confused with scripting, however.

How do I know they’re making this up?

You don’t – you just have to take their word for it and enjoy the show. Just know that scripting a show is probably FAR easier than scripting a show and then performing it in such a way as to make it appear unscripted.

Some shows have certain elements that are predetermined (like characters or locations) but no script for the events that you will see on stage.

How do I write a review of something that will be completely different next time it runs?

Is it safe to tell my friends to go see a show I liked, even though it will be different next time?

Good improvisors tend to have good shows every night. Bad improvisors tend to have bad shows every night. Only the content is different. The caliber of each individual performance varies no more than a scripted performance, where actors may say afterwards “We had a good night” or “that was an off-night.”

How do I even tell if what I saw was good?

Great improv stands on its own merit as if it were a play or a sketch comedy show. You need not give charity points because it’s improvised. You can tell if it was good if the improvisors connected [positively to each other and to you as the audience, and if they took risks and made big choices.

If it’s all made up, how does the tech know when to turn the lights out at the end?

In Short Form improv there is typically a predetermined ending – like reaching the end of the alphabet or the main character having guessed all the elements they were supposed to or time running out on the clock.

In long form the technician often has to decide where the best ending is and pull the lights, which means the performers often don’t know how or when their show is going to end. Some structures, like the Harold, have a set pattern and usually the technician is able to find an ending that fulfills that pattern.

Why isn’t this like what I’ve seen on TV?

Because it is live theater.

Why don’t they use props and costumes?

Most improv moves to quickly and in too many different directions to really effectively use props and costumes – even if you could predict some of what you would need you would always be missing a large number of them and running to get the items or costumes every time something is discovered in the scene is clunky and breaks the flow. Most long form improv you see the cast and space try to be a blank slate and most of the items that are discovered in the scene will be mime (or “spacework” if you’re an improv nerd…or someone that doesn’t like mimes).

Is all improv funny?

No, the only condition is that it is improvised – there are lots of structures of improvised dramas, period pieces, etc. Because it is improvised it can tend to be absurd but improv is just theater without a script and it can explore all the same areas with the same depth that scripted theater does.

Coming Soon :: January 2013

The end of the year is fast approaching, which means you only have a couple more chances to see killer shows like Family Dinner and Throwback Night. But we have plenty of fun coming up to start off 2013 right.


Coming in January


Fridays at 8pm – Interplanetary Appeal – $10

Friend Request

The duo behind the “Choose Your Own Adventure” show and Friend Request are back for more!

Fridays at 9:30 – The Score – $10

Bring your iPods, iPhones, MP3 players and we’ll use your music to inspire and underscore the show!

Saturdays at 8pm – Off Book – $10

One actor memorizes a script and sticks to it – One improviser just improvises. Together they are both Off Book.

Saturdays at 9:30 – Drum Machine – $10


Saturdays at 10:30 – Beatbox – $5

Freestyle hip-hop and improv finally hooked up and had an awesome little baby


Jill Bernard's Advice on Solo Improv

In honor of the Solo Improv Showcase tomorrow, I thought I’d share some general advice on solo improv:

Find someplace to test your piece – a cabaret, a friendly open mic, in between some group improv pieces. Once you’ve done a small test, the piece will tell you what it wants to grow up to be. You have to just try it and see.

Other advice: *most* but not *all* solo improv pieces involve switching characters. There are unlimited ways to do switch characters, but three easy ones are the CHARACTER SLIDE, the CHARACTER POP and the CHARACTER ABSENT. Whether you prefer the Character Slide or the Character Pop will depend on whether you’re more interested in preserving time or space – one of which has to be suspended for you to play more than one character.

  • In the character slide, I play the character of Janey, then go neutral and walk over to another spot on the stage and play Ralph. Time is suspended – normally dialogue would continue without the dead space. The audience accepts the travel time as neutral and ignores it, if you can make it truly neutral – the expression in your face or body should not be Janey or Ralph.
  • In the character pop, I play the character of Janey and then shift positions while staying in the same space. It works on a pivot. If we pretend I’m standing on a clock on the floor, when Janey’s talking I look at 11 o’clock, and when Ralph is talking I look at 1 o’clock. For some reason, we as viewers accept that the two are standing straight across from each other as you would be in an actual conversation, even though you’re portraying them at a 45 degree angle away from each other. A variation is the totem pole: I shift characters by changing my physicality and voice, but I stay looking in the same direction. The totem pole is nice for creating crowd scenes.
  • In the character absent, I talk to the empty space where another character would be. If I choose, I can do a “fill” where eventually I run over there to fill in as that second character, often as a punchline. Leave space in your dialogue where that character would “answer” you.

All of these can be used in combination with each other, and there might be a fourth way that’s unique to you. Like anything in solo improv, you’re the expert.

Things you may want to watch for in playing multiple characters:

  • Use realistic eye lines. If I’m playing a little kid talking to an adult, I should look up when I’m the kid and down when I’m the adult. This is especially tricky when using a chair, the temptation is to talk to the chair back, but a human’s eyes are about a foot and a half higher.
  • Make your characters distinct in voice, physicality, tempo and emotion or you’ll lose track of who’s who. Especially when shifting characters, make sure the change is complete from head to toe. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve switched characters and looked down to see I still have the other character’s feet. Or god forbid their wine glass.
  • Audiences get boners for when you make physical contact with invisible characters. Fights, dances, even a simple shoulder touch are so pleasing because they define the imaginary.

There are some solo improv warm-ups I can teach you even though it makes me giggle.

  • The first is a variation on WHAT ARE YOU DOING? Find two initials in the room you are, like L.B. Then just make little verb/object or adjective/verb combos out loud, i.e. Lighting Bridges, Losing Brian, Listening Boringly, Limiting Barry, Lightly Baking, Listlessly Burying, etc.
  • The second is a one-word story where you blink to separate the thoughts for yourself. [Eyes open] “once” [eyes closed] “there” [eyes open] “was” [eyes closed] “a” [eyes open] “grandmother” [eyes closed] “who” etc. This is hard to sustain for long because your brain catches up and starts unifying your thoughts into one thinker.
  • The third is something Andy Eninger taught me.  Do four little mini character monologues with the same first line of dialogue, spreading out around the room and taking different physicalities.
  • The fourth is to put on your headphones and dance around to your favorite song completely unleashed and free of inhibition.
  • The fifth is whatever would make you happy, think of a way to adapt your favorite group warm up. There are other great suggestions in the book “Improvise” by Mick Napier.

HUGE Theater Improv Mixer!

It’s time for the HUGE Theater Fall Improv Mixer! Saturday, November 17, 2012 1-4pm

The mixer is great if you’re looking to form a group, looking to add new people to an existing group, hope to join an existing group, or just want some time to do some improv and get to know all of the wonderful people that at any given time are around HUGE.

Also, Beatbox will be be holding auditions for their shows in January/February at noon (before the mixer)!

If you plan on attending, please fill out our very quick info form here.

Bonfires burning bright, Pumpkin faces in the night

Hey all – it’s been a while.

Been musing on a couple of posts but there is always so much to do that keeps me away from the keyboard for extended periods of time but there are so many cool things coming up you need to know about.  As always – I don’t want you to come see shows because we want to sell more tickets, I want you to come see these shows because if you miss them I feel sorry for you.

If you miss these, you miss out.


— Down to Business —

Annual MonstOberFest Shows…and then some

October is one of my favorite months at HUGE because it brings back two of my favorite shows – Survivors of the Undead Plague and Creature Feature – the run is short so make sure you catch them while you can.  Survivors features a new cast of frightened zombie chow and new lessons in improv gun safety – I look forward to this show all year long, come see why.

Creature Feature might be the first HUGE show ever created and it’s always a blast when it comes around every October – 8 years running and those kids never learn to stay away from the abandoned chemical plant…or to stick together…

They are playing Fridays and Saturdays* and Halloween night.

October 19-20th ::

*Survivors and Creature Feature are NOT on that weekend – because the great and mighty BASSPROV will be here for one weekend only!  Joe Bill and Mark Sutton row the fishing boat to the stage at HUGE Theater and we’re damn excited to have  them and very thankful to the State Arts Board for the touring grant that made it possble!


Other fun news ::  October 21st

The Mustache Rangers are going to be streaming their 250th podcast on stage where they started off,  at the Improv A Go Go – Congratulations to the Rangers, we’re very excited to see all the awkward pauses live in person !

That same night features a very special one-night-only return of THE BENNETS – they will put a crimp in your brain!

New shows coming in November :: Throwback Night, Family Dinner, The Board of Directors and the Mustache Rangers

Throwback Night : an Evening of Old School Improv – This one has been a long time coming!

Five Man Job (Butch Roy, Nels Lennes and Lauren Anderson) direct three groups of improvisers showcasing classic long form improv structures The Harold, The Deconstruction (invented by Del Close and The Family) and Close Quarters (invented at Second City, Chicago) that will stretch your mind – Why an improv theater?  This is why. Come see.

Fridays at 8pm – Nov 2nd – Dec 28th



Mustache Rangers – That’s right, Cadets!  The Rangers are back! Warm up the ion cannons, turn off the safety alerts and  herd your friends into HUGE theater for this show.

Fridays at 9:30pm – Nov 2nd – Dec 28th





Family Dinner – HUGE’s first holiday show, we decided to do the holidays at your house.

A cast of improvisers from all over the Twin Cities meet on stage as a family returning home for the holidays – complete with a holiday feast.   Originally staged at ComedySportz, we are excited and proud to bring your family to our stage.

Saturdays at 8pm – Nov 3rd – Dec 29th



The Board of Directors – Seriously. We are the actual, factual Board of Directors of HUGE Theater.

If you’ve ever sat in an improv show and thought,  “Hmmm…I wonder how they make budgetary decisions” then we’ve failed in so, so many ways.

BUT If you’ve ever thought, “I wonder how the people that run this place would handle a ninja invasion…” then this show will answer your strange, strange questions.

The Board is: Butch Roy, Jill Bernard, Nels Lennes and Molly Chase

Saturdays at 9:30pm – Nov 3rd – Dec 29th

There is more, there is always more – but I think that is enough for now.


You never know what they'll throw at you, a curveball or a question

We have a very special weekend coming up while the casts of SPORT, Star Trek and Bearded Men are in Austin, Texas representing MN at the Out Of Bounds Festival.  Time to break out some special mischief while everyone is away…

Friday – 8pm – Off Book : Fringe Edition

Off Book is the show that pairs an actor that has learned their half of a two-person scene with an improviser that has no idea what the scene (or even the play) is. Featuring scripts and cast from your favorite Fringe Festival shows of 2012.

Friday – 10:30 – Ferrari McSpeedy and Five Man Job

Mike Fotis and Joe Bozic are Ferrari McSpeedy, the two-man assault on the senses and the fabric of time and space.  Nels Lennes, Butch Roy and Lauren Anderson make up Five Man Job, they will take you to such dark places – Two great insane tastes that taste insanely great together.

Saturday – 8pm – Ka-Baam!!

The improvised superhero comic returns to HUGE Theater!

You give us the names of three heroes that don’t yet exist and we’ll give you their origin stories and giant-action-packed-team-up-adventure, complete with cover art drawn during the show by our special guest artist.

Saturday – 10:30 – The Explorer’s Club Returns

Improv comedy meets Manifest Destiny.  Come hear and see the tales of the greatest group of adventurers and explorers in this world or any other.  Explorer’s Club is now part of the Saturday Late Night Mix, first Saturday of every month!


The Difficulty of Reviewing Improv

There was a piece in the Star Tribune that’s making its way around about how the Twin Cities theater scene does a bad job of self-critique. It got me musing about the difficulties of critiquing improv, for the audiences, journalists, and performers alike. These are incomplete and scattered thoughts but here goes:

More than once it’s happened that the first improv show an audience member has ever seen turns out to be bad, and from that experience they drew the conclusion “Improv sucks!” They never want to see another improv show again. The criticism extends beyond the company they saw to the entire discipline.

Years ago there was a website called, which has since been taken over by Japanese hacker spam. There were two problems. First, the reviewers wrote with an authoritative tone, as if their opinion were more than just an opinion. Second, improv is built on positivity, so a grumpy Andy-Rooney style clashes badly with the subject of the critique.

Mainstream reviewers have some major obstacles. They feel like they can’t review improv because it’s different every time. There’s also no budget for it – to cover improv, a newspaper would have to take away coverage from a scripted theater because they don’t have space for both. Reviewers also do not have the vocabulary and don’t know how to diagnose what makes improv good or bad. For example, they’ll say, “You couldn’t tell it was improvised!” as a negative critique or they’ll get upset if only one suggestion was taken and used in an indirect way. They’ll compare it to “Whose Line Is It Anyway” regardless of whether it in any way resembles it.

We wrote a nice piece about how to look at improv for the Fringe Festival last year, I think it helps some.

It’s hard for insiders to review improv because we don’t want to break each other’s spirits. Improv feels so personal. It’s you up there onstage, and the words and actions aren’t the fault of a director or playwright, that’s you too. Over the years I’ve gotten better at giving students the honest critiques they crave, finding ways to phrase them that are clear and make sense without hurting. Oddly, the students who beg me to give them a harsh critique are the first to pout and check out when it’s given. And so I proceed gently and thoughtfully and directly, and try to create a culture where it is damn clear we’re talking about the work and not the person. It’s still difficult terrain.

These are the challenges. I lay them before you.

– Jill Bernard