When Marc and I started Lighten Up in 1992, I had one year of experience with KC ComedySportz (now ComedyCity). I learned basic improv from the very talented Barry Schreier and by playing with folks like Corey Rittmaster and Rob Lawrence. I learned showmanship from Clancy Hathaway. We wanted more, and hooked into a relatively new Chicago improv scene to get it.
In 1993, Lighten Up was one of the few places outside of Chicago where anyone had heard of long-form—much less performed it. We took workshops from Del Close and Charna Halpern, and brought them and their students to our festivals to teach us more. They were about to publish Truth In Comedy, documenting their signature Harold, and iO—still under Del's artistic direction—was playing with Harold variations and new forms. (See here for early notes from Del's exploration of long-form—they're about all we had to work from until we saw a live performance.)
For short-form players, it's games. You join or start a troupe, play a standard set list, and start craving something new or different...so you go to festivals, read books and search online for new games. Or you come up with different ones, invariably assuming you've created something brand new when, in fact, you've just "created" blind dubbing.
A couple of decades ago (Yep—writing that did make me feel old. Just checking.) most long-form players started with Harold. It was the long-form equivalent of Freeze (Freeze Tag, Body Freeze, whatever) or Conducted Story (Story, Story—DIE)...you just kind of assumed that anyone who knew improv knew Harold. In its most basic form, it's a pretty comprehensive training tool, too (this is a really good description):
- Various openings (stop and go, invocation, pattern games) teach players to listen for and heighten patterns and themes.
- Beats (sets of scenes) teach time jumps—you learn to uncover the narrative without forcing the story.
- Games (group scenes) teach you how to support, heighten and discover as a group.
- The Harold itself is a lesson in creating forms—each element serves a purpose in support of the whole.
So we're just as likely to start with montages—separate scenes or time jumps, held together by different edits. They're easy, they're fun...and they're not particularly challenging. Because of that, I think, we tend to pump a lot of energy into "creating" new "forms" to keep us from getting bored and in hopes of differentiating our work from other groups.
You know way back at the beginning where I said I might sound judge-y?
Here's why I think, for the most part, that most of the energy we put into new forms is wasted:
- The audience doesn't care.
- They're not really new.
- They're not really "forms."
- We don't fully use all those techniques we're shuffling around.
I think I've finally hit on why I sometimes get impatient with the state of long-form in KC—and it's not just that "back in my day things were different." It's thrilling to see the community growing and developing, and I love playing with Tantrum, Spite, Omega Directive and beejay...but I just had a little wave of nostalgia for the "older group" in Lighten Up I learned all this with (in particular, Bob, Dan, Tim, Steve, Tracy, Julie, Paul, Carla, Guy and Jeff).
Between the Usenet group (alt.comedy.improvisation) and early yesand.com, discussions at early festivals (Big Stinkin' in Austin, ImprovStock in Athens and our own Spontaneous Combustion), and exploration with the folks in Lighten Up, I feel like I've already been through what KC is going through now. Like everyone else, I want something new and different.