The Quest – or why I am a narrative improviser

When improvisers become bored with shortform improv they do one of two things, quit improvising, or begin looking for a different way to improvise. I have done both in the past.

At first, when I got tired of shortform, I began to quest for great new longform formats. But the problem was that I began this search with the tools I already had. In other words, my first forays into longform began with extensions of shortform formats. For a number of years my fellow improvisers and I stitched together games and scenes into longform shows. What we ended up creating, however, wasn’t sustainable. We were just making different versions of lumbering Frankenstein monsters, often either overly reliant on formats or confusing to audiences. Eventually I gave up, thinking all improv could ever be was a rehash of the games I already knew.


It was only much later, with the help of some excellent authors and the work of some wonderful groups that I started to see a different way to improvise. I began to ask myself, what if I could create an improv experience for the audience that felt the same as seeing a play? What if we could create fully realized characters and stories, so that when an audience left they would remember and be affected by the story just the way we remember
and are affected by good theater?

I said “good theater” 

Longform and shortform are really just two sides of the same coin. They both rely on tricks, shticks, and formats to make them work. This is why lately I have stopped thinking of improv as shortform vs longform and instead have adopted the term story-based, or narrative improv. (Thanks Dan Diggles!)

Narrative/ story-based improv doesn’t mean plot focused, necessarily, but it does mean improv rooted in story, characters and the relationships on stage.

Shortform and Longform Narrative/ Story-based
Fast funny (jokes, gags, silly situations)

Scenes rooted in tricks and games

Relationship with the audience most important

Based in Comedy

Relies on proscribed formats to move “plot”

Values funny

Example: Who’s Line Is It Anyway

Slow funny (relationship based, in the story )

Scenes rooted in character

Relationship with the scene partners most important

Based in Discovery

Relies on character choices to move “plot”

Values truth

Example: The Office

I don’t mean to get all preachy (but hey, this is MY blog!) but I think narrative improv is where the future of this art form is going.

Any art needs to change and grow. We started with Viola Spolin, an actor using improvisation games to help other actors grow. From there, improvisers became focused performing the games. For a while, improv was about how quick-witted the improviser was and about doing funny things in front of people. I think most of those games, while still useful as training tools for improvisers, are pretty tired. For years they have been trotted out and used by troupes to amuse audiences. I think it is time to retire them and let
improv grow up.

The improv I am excited about pushes the boundaries of this art form by creating improvised theater. And while that may sound pretentious to some, I am excited by improv I can sink my teeth into.

It is the difference between serving the audience a meal and serving them a bowl of candy. Frankly, I’m more interested in having something nutritious and filling, rather than the empty calories of silly games.

Interested in narrative based improv? Check out Parallelogramophonograph in Austin. Know of other groups exploring story-based improv? Tell me who!


About improvmantra

What is an improv mantra? An improv mantra is a phrase you repeat to yourself just before you go on stage, and continue to keep in your mind while you are in a scene. An effective mantra makes you a better improviser. Todd Erler, like all living creatures, has been doing improv every day since he was born. He has been performing improv on stage for more than 20 years. He is a teacher, writer, musicain, director, actor, and member of The Portable Reality Show.
This entry was posted in Fundamentals, Improv Games, Improv Life Lessons, Improv shows, Longform vs Shortform and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Quest – or why I am a narrative improviser

  1. Jack says:

    This is potentially the most ridiculous chart comparison of Improv I’ve ever seen. To lump longform and shortform together and imply that longform isn’t based on Truth is ridiculous. Have you ever read Truth in Comedy or seen some amazing long-form teams like TJ & Dave or Dasariski?

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