All longform wants to be boring.
It wants a parade of two-person relationship scenes. Each one familiar to the one that came before.
It craves scenes of a similar length, content, characters, and stage picture. Many brilliant improvised scenes have fallen at the feet of an exhausted audience.
Without variety, good scenes in a long form show mean nothing.
Our solution? Do a scene so radically different from every other scene offered, it resets the audience’s expectations of what’s possible. Think of it as an anti-scene. We call it a Group Game. Here’s how it’s different:
Two-person scene: Improvisers’ ideas are expressed through the dialogue exchanged between two (or more) characters onstage.
Group Game: Improvisers express their ideas in any way other than dialogue exchanged between characters. This scene usually involves the entire cast. Often performative and delivered directly to an audience.
You’ve seen these before: a movement piece, a cast song, or snippets of dialogue delivered to the 4th wall.
Of course, there are tons of different formats for Group Games but here’s three that are easy to execute and fun to watch:
1. BOARDROOM IDIOTS
A boss is launching a new initiative and is looking for ideas. His employees want to help but are dumb and get all the details wrong, infuriating the boss.
Why it Works: Great way to use the suggestion. Both verbal heightening (questions from the ensemble) and emotional heightening (the boss). Simple dynamic to play: 8 (ensemble) vs. 1 (boss).
Tips: Try to make every employee dumb in the same way, so you are heightening offers, as opposed to just general jokes about a topic. Try substituting boss/employee for mayor/constituents or mom/children. Anything can work!
Player 1 (Boss): Get in here! We’ve had complaints from some of the campers’ parents that kids are having sex in the tents…
Player 2: That’s terrible. The kids should have sex in the open so the nerdy kids are included!
Boss: Did you say–?
Player 3: Maybe we make it a rule: cool kids have to have sex with one nerd, before having sex with each other?
Boss: No kids should be having sex!
Player 4: I told them third base only. But everyone seemed more interested in the orgy than anything I was saying.
2. JOURNEY OF AN OBJECT
Using scene painting, each player takes an object on one part of a journey.
Why it Works: Great way to transition between scenes. Easy to understand for a non-longform savvy audience.
Tips: Try to reinforce the energy already present, as opposed to introducing a new one. Scary? Make it scarier. A joke that undercuts tension will always get a laugh, but it compromises the energy of the game for the next offer.
Player 7: The boy runs to catch the bus for summer camp.
Player 1: As he does, the ball falls out of his pocket…
Player 2: …rolling into a nearby sewer.
Player 3: Rapids of excrement push the ball through aqueducts…
Player 4: …through rivers of syringes and band-aids…
Player 5: …into the creek of flushed diapers.
Player 6: The ball is coated in bile and refuse.
Player 7: Heavy, it sinks to the bottom of a black abyss.
Player 1: The ball screams out to his best friend, the boy…
Player 2: …but he can’t hear.
Player 3: The boy is busy at summer camp…
Player 4: …having sex for the first time.
One at a time, improvisers walk onstage and each deliver one snippet of dialogue to the audience either as unseen character or to the universe. They remain onstage until the last player has entered.
Why it Works: Small lines of dialogue allow players to bring a verbal idea to the stage without getting bogged down by context or narrative. Quick heightening of an idea and then the scene ends.
Tips: Try to heighten in small steps, so you leave room for other players. Also, minimize your interactions with other players onstage. If you end up in an exchange with another player, now you’re improvising a scene instead of group game.
Player 1: I’m disappointed.
Player 2: Carl, you let your mother and I down!
Player 3: We trusted you Terrence. And now that trust is gone.
Player 4: I don’t want to say we’ll never forgive you, but right now it feels that way.
Player 5: We’ve never had to disown one of our own children before.
Player 6: Your father and I hired a witch doctor to curse you.
Player 7: We just want you to learn from your mistakes. So we mortgaged the house and took out a bounty on your head.
Player 1: If you survive, you can say goodbye to going to summer camp!
If you aren’t already doing Group Games, now you have three easy structures to try. (Tip: Try one group game for every three scenes). You can even try to connect your Group Games via theme (like I did in the examples above).
But the real fun is making up structures as you go. Group Games have led me to crowd surf across an audience. Chant on behalf of an imaginary Giant Hotdog. Lock an audience in the theatre to hold them prisoner. Invoke dark gods.
There are no rules. You can do whatever you want in a Group Game, as long as the rest of the troupe wants to do with it you.
The Group Game is my favourite tool to cut through the miasmatic cloud that usually accompanies 30 minutes of interrupted improv. Something I have to remind myself before I step onstage. It’s not easy taking a risk and initiating with something that is “un-scene-like.” But your show needs it.
Longform wants to be boring.
Rob Norman is an award-winning actor (Sunnyside), and improviser (MANTOWN, RN and Cawls). He is the author of the player-friendly longform manual, Improvising Now: A Practical Guide to Modern Improv, as well as co-host of the improv podcast The Backline with Rob and Adam. He currently serves as the Department Head of the Longform program at Second City Toronto.