My 4 Short Form Nemeses

When I first started improvising with my University team, all we knew were short from games and we loved them. We played our favourites every week at the student run Monkeyshine Comedy Club and we used to get so excited when we learned a new game in rehearsal or developed one of our own to debut in front of our regular audience. Life was pretty sweet.

I stopped performing short form with any regularity after graduating, instead favouring long form. The only time I play short form games these days are when I’m lucky enough to guest with another group. I really look forward to these opportunities as it’s a great chance to practice and play some fun games with awesome people. My ability with short form is similar to my skill in swimming, I’m not amazing but I won’t drown. However with my lack of practice, there are some games in which I start accidentally swallowing lukewarm chlorine filled water. My metaphor may be getting away with me but here are four games that are my short form Nemeses!

 

Storyteller Die

It’s relatively common for beginners classes to be taught this game early on as it’s invaluable for teaching some improv fundamentals. The rules are easy to learn, it improves the ability to be spontaneous and teaches the players that mistakes aren’t a big deal. The format of the game feels like it was designed for beginners too, the performers don’t have to worry about staging or scene work, they can just focus on making stuff up. However, I love staging and scenework. Please let me have it back. Please. PLEASE! DON’T LEAVE ME!

I felt pretty awful about this game until recently, I would stumble over my words, constantly plan ahead and judge my ideas. Now whenever I go on stage to perform this game, I just listen and whenever it’s my section of the story I just really go for it. I commit hard and spill all of the stupid offers immediately out of my mouth as they come from my brain. It often comes across as absolute madness but it makes me enjoy it more and even when I stumble over my words, the audience will usually give me a free pass to let the madness continue. Every time I play Storyteller Die, it teaches me a valuable lesson in listening, taking risks and committing to whatever’s in front of me. But until then, give me my comfort blankets of staging and scenework. So warm…

 

Questions Only

Now, I think I might be more justified with this one. Depending on the context of this game, playing Questions Only can really reinforce bad habits in your improv.

For the record, questions are not a bad thing in improv. However, when the questions are open ended and don’t contain an offer, they put a huge amount of pressure on the other players.

Having said that, one of my favourite things in improv is when a player begins a scene with “Where are we?” If we follow the logic of this initiation: the character who spoke this line has most likely been sedated, brought to an undisclosed and unfamiliar location, which is so foreign to them that even when they have regained consciousness they still cannot figure out where they are. Actually, that’s a huge amount of information in just a three word initiation, I really want to be in that scene!

What also makes Questions Only tricky, is that the cast of Whose Line is it Anyway would play this game as a festival of blocks, pimps and moves designed to catch the other player out. The audience would always find it hilarious as the cast are exceptionally witty and are veteran performers, which allowed the game to work. Playing in this style without their level of wittiness makes the game very rarely fun to perform or to watch.

I’d written this game off until I performed it once in a Story Kitchen rehearsal lead by Faye Brann. I was paired with Julia Mitelman and we performed a scene of a young couple, who had recently had a child and were having problems within their marriage. We were directed to commit to the truth of the scene that was in front of us, which allowed me to focus. We asked questions that our characters wanted the answers to and it soon became easy to get into the rhythm of turning our questions into direct and relevant offers. It was such a fun scene to play. When I did finally say a statement rather than a question, the puncture in the tension caused a big laugh from the audience and ended up being a great ending.

If Questions Only is set up right, it actually contains a lot of value in commiting to the scene and teaching the difference between a useful and non-useful question in improv. Especially if you try to help your partner, rather than try to throw them under a bus.

Actually, fuck that. I’ll happily retire from Questions Only with one good scene under my belt.

 

Alphabet Game

Back when the Simpsons was good, there was a quick gag in an episode in which Homer tried to work out which room he had to go into based on the first letter of his surname (I tried to find the episode but couldn’t, was it the episode when he had to go back to college and has to register?). The joke was that he couldn’t quickly work out which door he had to go into and started singing the alphabet song out loud before he worked out the right room. This really struck a chord with me as Homer is a buffoon and yet I have to do the exact same thing all the time. Which means: when it comes to quickly working out alphabetical order, I am as smart as Homer Simpson. The Alphabet Game game continuously makes me relive this thought, while simultaneously trying to perform an improvised scene.

A couple of months back I was doing a one off short form show which had a team of awesome players. We were working out the game set list with Steve Roe and Chris Mead wanted to do the Alphabet Game. Chris was so enthusiastic about the Alphabet Game and as you can imagine, I was considerably less enthusiastic about it. However I liked all of the other games on the set list and the likelihood of me actually doing the game was minimal. You’re all smart people and probably have a pretty decent grasp of story structure, so you can probably see where this is going.

We got to the game and Chris took to the stage with confidence and energy. Unfortunately no one else did. Fuck.

The pause probably wasn’t that long but it felt interminable, so I sheepishly joined Chris on stage. I was on edge but I trusted Chris as he’s a great improviser. We got the suggestion of a knight and a squire and I thought to myself “Perfect, we’re nerds, we’ve got this.”The scene was going really well and I was keeping on top of what letter we were on, until I stumbled. I found myself in a place where I had no idea what letter we were on and I was trying to remember what the last line was while simultaneously going through the alphabet. Chris saw this pause and shot me a peace sign with his fingers, clueing me into the fact the next letter was a ‘V’. First word that popped into my head was ‘Verily’, which luckily fit the context perfectly and acted as a nice recovery. We finished the scene and I wanted to give Chris the biggest hug. Cheers mate!

Since then I’ve also done a good Alphabet Game with Andrew Gentilli, again a great improviser who I trust on stage which makes things so much easier. This is definitely a game that gets a lot easier with practice, which is unfortunate considering I’m not part of a short form group. However, there is a part of me that does like having this game being just out of my comfort zone, it teaches me to trust in my scene partner and just commit fully to whatever’s going on in front of me. If you do that, I truly think the audience will give you the benefit of the doubt.

I guess I don’t mind this game so much after all! Having said that, fuck Questions Only.

 

Musical Games

When I first started improv, musical games were my true nemeses. In my first year at the University of Kent, I auditioned for the Drama Society’s Improv group Play it by Ear. The audition consisted of some fun warm-ups and then lots of different short form games. Things were going really well, I was having fun and getting some decent laughs.

“Hey” the younger me thought to myself, “maybe this improv thing is something I can get into!” And then they told us we’d be singing.

Any confidence I had immediately shrivelled up. I’d never fancied myself as a singer and the prospect of improvising a song on the spot terrified me to my core. They tried to talk me around but I flat out refused to do it and I later found out that this cost me the audition.

It was gutting, especially as all of my new funny friends were part of this regularly performing comedy group. A whole year went by before the next audition date and this time around I didn’t care how badly I did (not entirely true), I just needed to have a go.

If I’m being honest, I can’t remember the singing part of this second audition too well. I’m also not the kind of person who represses bad memories and instead plays them on repeat for the following month, so they must have been alright. Without being a great singer or having any real rhythm I still managed to get into the group. And to beat a dead horse, it’s because I committed, really went for it and ultimately just had a go.

The group had a multitude of short form musical games that we played every week and we’d always end a set with the crowd pleasing Boy Band. In this game, we’d take a member of the audience and sing a four verse song based on an interview with the host. It was actually really simple after rehearsing the game over a few months and I felt much more comfortable with the game after a few live performances. Whoever played guitar would sing the chorus which would be made up of a rhyming couplet, four other players would sing their own verse which was made up of two rhyming couplets. The only real difficult part was the third chorus which was a rap, which was usually given to the talented Ed Pithie. With all the spectacle, crowd pleasing and commitment to playing a cheesy boy band, the fact that we were mostly mediocre singers had no bearing on the success of the show.

After moving back to London when I finished at Uni, I was surprised that short form shows didn’t have singing in them, which in my ignorance I thought would be a standard. Due to lack of practice on my part and with singing usually being kept out of short form shows, it feels like I’ve gone back to square one with musical games and it’s kind of a shame. If anyone wants to learn some of the musical games we used to play and want to add them to your short form show, hit me up!

 

Thanks for reading! What short form games do you find difficult? I think for balance I’m also going to write about games that I love at some other point. But for now, fuck Questions Only.

LiamBrennanImprov[at]gmail.com

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