by Tim Kay
Short form improv is typically improvisers’ first introduction to the art form. I know it was for me. 'Whose Line' blew my adolescent mind and I couldn’t get enough of it. These adults were on T.V. playing theater games! How cool is that?!? I still have a huge soft spot for it and worked hard to explore the form and help others find their footing.
I’ve put together a few basic tips that could help kickstart your approach to short form:
Start with Scene Work
Many inexperienced improvisers often forget to create an actual scene in their short form game. Establish the who/what/where of the scene immediately. Since short form games are typically really quick, it's even more important to develop your scene immediately. Don’t forget, even though you are playing a game, the scene still matters. Often, the details that you’ve worked hard to set up will get dropped once the game element begins. If things start to unravel because of some funky game rules, remember, the scene is still your backbone.
Know The Games
This needs to be said, even though it seems obvious. If you are playing in an improv game, it’s best to actually know how to play it. I’ve seen audiences turn on performers because they were simply not playing the game correctly. Keep up on game rules by rehearsing and talking to your show hosts about the games. Knowing the rules inside and out will also allows you to bend the rules on occasion. This will help you surprise the audience and ultimately make you more successful.
Listen to Your Audience
A short-form audience will tell you what they want, sometimes with raucous laughter, other times with shocking, deafening silence. They’ll let you know if you’ve gone too blue, too smart, too dumb, or too young. Feel out the crowd and learn to shift gears. They didn’t go crazy over your Star Wars scene? Maybe steer clear of the Nerfherder jokes for a bit and find something else they respond to.
Perform, Watch, & Suck
It’s difficult to advance in improv if you are only performing in class or in rehearsal. These are both incredibly important but remember, improv is a performance art. You’ll need to eventually be comfortable playing in front of audiences all the time. Your best bet is to go to jams and play in as many games as you can, or put together a troupe and jump into the Itty Bits tournament. This goes hand in hand with bombing. Yes, you need to suck. And you will suck. But know that this is ok and perfectly normal. In fact, learn to love bombing. Everyone has crap shows. As your experience grows, learning to shake off the bad sets quickly will help you get back to your kick-ass self.
Play with Confidence
Take your improvising to the next level by mustering as much confidence as you can for your performances. Initiate your scenes with conviction and offer up bold choices for your partners. This will help make your scenes more active and more fun. Audiences will appreciate your moxie too! If the crowd believes that you are on stage for a reason, they’ll have a harder time judging you as an ‘amateur’.
Speaking of making bold choices...make bold choices. (Woof, terrible segue. Whatever. IDGAF.)
No one gets partial credit for waiting to see what your scene partner will do, so make a character choice as soon as the game begins. You’ve all seen it. The scene that just won’t start and ends with zero connections or identifiable elements. (that who/what/where again). Often, improvisors fall into the habit of being too supportive. Obviously we want to yes, and our scene partners, but it can be disastrous when that’s all a scene becomes. Your scenes will be stronger if you start with bold choices, even if it feels like you aren’t supporting.
Originality really shines through in comedy and the easiest way to get there is to simply be yourself. Keying into what makes you, you will help make you more comfortable on stage and more entertaining for audiences.
Mastering any one aspect of improv will take years of practice.
Hopefully a few of these tips can help you up your game.
Tim Kay is a Resident Artist at Go Comedy with over 10 years of experience in improv and sketch comedy. He is has been with Go Comedy since the inaugural cast and has been in countless productions and roles ever since. He lives with a wonderful girl and a delightful dog.