Reprinted from http://www.fringefestival.org
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.