Monday, November 3, 2008

Eight Hundred and Thirteen Mile Car Trip

Most improvisers (and impro audiences) are used to short-form games; these are games that go for, say, four minutes or less. It's more unusual to see or perform long-form impro, where a story is improvised over a longer period of time, say 30-40 minutes. How does a long-form affect the musician?

For starters, a whole lot of what you need for a short-form show goes out the window. Structured musical games like Opera or Musical don't make an appearance (unless the long-form is itself an Opera or a Musical). The MC support music that book-ends short-form scenes doesn't come in to it either. So you're left with probably the most pure kind of impro music for theatre: providing emotional support to scenes when required.

I think one of the key skills for long-form is to not play a lot. Short-form games tend to be melodramatic - you've only got four minutes to get that scene out of your head and on to the stage, and the characters and emotions often tend to be over the top. It's easy to provide music for that. In a long-form scene, the change in character and emotion is more gradual, They may still hit extremes, but it takes longer to get there. Emotional support during the extreme bits is great. For the less melodramatic moments, I find it's easy to get in the way with music and lend an otherwise unwanted emotion to the moment.

I did some long-form last weekend, working with Brisbane's Impro Mafia troupe on their show Touched by a Hammer. The show was a parody of 80's tv shows featuring a dimwitted Thor as the somewhat reluctant, unnecessarily violent, do-gooder protagonist. It was pretty successful; the long-form performance was smooth and simple, with engaging characters and a suitably cheesy story, inspired by offers from the audience of course.

I think one of the key factors that made the performance successful was the preparation the cast did before the show. Like many impro games, the performance had some structure, but was still flexible enough to go wherever the audience sent it with their offers. (That makes it sound like a "performance" is a living entity, one that thinks by itself and goes places! Yep, that's accurate.)

I found performing the music really difficult! In a short form scene, you cook up some music, and you don't really have time for it to get boring or repetitive before the scene is done. In a long-form performance, you want to aim for some consistency in the music, but avoid letting it get boring. It becomes even more important to set, then later recall, themes for particular characters. How did I do on the night? OK I think; well enough that I don't feel like I let anyone down, but poorly enough that I have work to do to get better at it!

It occurred to me later that it's the first straight long-form I've ever done. I've done a bunch of long-form musicals and operas, where music is obviously a big focus. Working with the Out on a Limb guys in the early 90's, I think we did Brisbane's first impro long-form with the science fiction serial Limb Trek, which ran continuously for at least two years. Limb Trek relied on sound effects and cheesy stings more than real emotional scene-setting music. Working with the Impro Mafia guys on a straight long-form (no sfx, no singing, straight scenes) was much more challenging. I have lots to learn.

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