This month we are welcoming in the new year by celebrating the world of short form improv! All this month we are talking to a number of different improv troupes about their favourite games, advice and also debates that have arisen over time around the comedy form. Today we speak to London based Short Form Troupe – Extreme Improv
Hello tell us about your troupe and three fun facts about it!
Extreme Improv mainly perform a competitive short form show where performers compete to win the Extreme Improv Championship title belt. The company can trace it’s roots back to 2010, but the current version and show has been consistent since 2017.
Fact Number 1: When creating Extreme Improv I put a lot of emphasis on innovation and making the show different then anything I’d seen before. This includes that I rarely include well known improv games in the show – they either have to be wholly original ideas for the show, or have significant twists on classic games that will make the games fresh for regular improv audiences.
Fact Number 2: The show Extreme Improv was supposed to be a one off event, but audience and cast members liked it so much that it made more sense to push Extreme Improv as the improv brand, rather then create a new show title every few months. I realised I was onto something after performers had posted photos that they’d won the Extreme Improv Championship belt, and the posts were getting dozens of likes and retweets from other actors, their agents and directors like they’d won an Oscar.
Fact Number 3: Extreme Improv has had many fun and crazy stories over the years, but none have gone down in legend within the company more then the ‘Dave and the Impro Boys’ story.
The short version is we were booked for a gig by someone who was drunk. Turned up to the venue and found it was lit by candles and was on the verge of closing down. And then found we had been double booked with at least two other events at the same time. When trying to make the best of the situation we agreed to share the stage time with the other acts, which we had to figure out amongst ourselves as the drunk venue manager who booked us was no where to be found. We were then introduced to stage as ‘Dave and the Impro Boys’ rather then as Extreme Improv. Given how dodgy the venue felt and realising that we probably wouldn’t be going back there we decided not to correct the name, so for one night only we were Dave and the Impro Boys.
How did you come up with the name?
Extreme Improv is a shortened version of Extreme Championship Improv, which we used for the first year and was a play on the pro wrestling company name Extreme Championship Wrestling. In the last year however we have phased out the Championship word from the title to just be ‘Extreme Improv’ as it’s more social media friendly.
Why did you chose to be a short form troupe?
We have done long form before, and we will again, but in creating this show we found our short form format was really going over well with the audience, so figured it was something we could develop further and build upon.
What is your Favourite short form game?
This changes from time to time, but right now it’s The Dreaded Gemini Scene.
Best suggestion to be given?
Gollum doing hip hop.
Worst suggestion to be given?
I won’t give the specific worst one, but can say it was based on a true crime, and we didn’t use it. It also got the audience member who suggested it booed.
There is an ongoing debate about Short form improv – a lot of people, especially improvisers are not a fan. Do you think that there is still a place for this sort of comedy and why?
I have noticed a lot of improvisers are not fans of short form, and it’s a vocal part of the improv community, but I don’t see the need for debate over whether it has a place or not. Debaters gonna debate I guess.
Just as classical music fans may not enjoy rap or vice versa, there are different styles for different people, and for me it’s not that one is superior then the other. They’re a different skill set and often appeal to different audiences.
I think some of the feeling that it doesn’t have a place anymore comes from people who focus on long form, and maybe are frustrated that short form is still what the general public more commonly think of whenever the word improv is mentioned. My thought on this is that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and just as new genres of music, film or anything else comes along, it can take a long time for anything to become established to a non niche general audience.
Long form is more frequently performed and popular now then it has ever been, and it will only continue to trend upwards as time goes on. It may be frustrating if long form enthusiasts see that the general perception of improv is that ‘improv means games’, but for me the solution to the growth of long form isn’t to eliminate or restrict short form in any way.
The focus of Extreme Improv has been short form, and I’m happy for it to continue on this path for the most part. We have plans to dip back into long form again soon, and hopefully our approach will be something fresh that people will enjoy, and people will enjoy our work regardless of if it’s long or short form.
Obviously audiences with non improv backgrounds can relate more to short form but do you think there is going to be a time when these perceptions will change?
I think the only reason people relate more to short form over long form is because short form has had more public exposure through Whose Line Is It Anyway?
When you think about it, short form is probably the harder thing to explain to a non improv fan.
With long form you can give a basic idea of what the show is by saying ‘we’re going to perform a play, but we have no script and will make it up on the spot’. That is essentially what long form is in a sentence.
With short form, the most basic explanation is more complicated and would be something like ‘a group of actors are going to make up lots of scenes that may not connect to each other in anyway like a sketch show, and each scene may be referred to as games and have different rules that impose restrictions on how the actors perform the scene.’
Going back to my answer from the previous question I feel it will just take time and effort from the improv community to better educate audiences that ‘improv’ is really a blanket term like music or sports, and that you then have sub genres of short form and long form, each with their own sub genres that distinguish them from one another.
What are some of the important aspects of short form that you believe have a stronger element then long form?
Audience interaction is the main one. Short form more regularly is able to interact and have a dialogue with an audience then long form. Variety also comes to mind. I’ve seen long form shows that get initial suggestions from an audience which aren’t ideal for the performers and create an uphill battle for them to work with. Some suggestions give more scope to naturally work with then others, and a short form show has the benefit of being able to move on from less useful ideas. Naturally the down side for short form here is that you may land on a brilliant suggestion to work with, but because your show is short form you can only stick with it for so long.
With short form it is all about the pace, what is your advice when you can see a scene is losing its energy and the audience are not responding?
From an emcee perspective I look for a suitable end point and kill a scene if it isn’t working. It’s a fine balance between giving a weak scene long enough to develop and not letting it live on indefinitely until it becomes good. There are no medals for turning a bad scene around, and as long as you don’t bail on a scene so quickly that it’s obvious that you didn’t have faith in it, you can find a suitable end point and hope that you get a better vibe and energy in the next scene.
From a performer perspective, there are lots of things you can do to turn a scene around if energy, pace, audience reaction aren’t working for you. If energy is low, try adding more dramatic idea in the mix. Declare love, clutch at your chest, commit a crime and any bland scene will have something to punch it up a bit. A mistake I often see in improv shows are that performers will talk about something dramatic rather then doing something dramatic, and it comes down to choices. No one wants to see you plan a bank robbery, they want to see you rob the bank.
Other people argue that short form is hard to create strong characters in a small amount of time – what is your opinion on this?
You don’t need to grow a character from a small seed to establish a strong character.
Make bolder choices, understand the constraints you’re working within, and endow your scene partner. It can sometimes be easier to set up a character for your scene partner then it would be to establish your own back story and position.
An example I often give is Hannibal Lecter in Red Dragon/Silence of the Lambs. He’s this very complex character, but the majority of his story takes place before the beginning of the first book.
When the audience first meets him, he’s already been captured and is in prison for all the crimes he’s committed. How do we as an audience know this? Another character endows as a criminal mastermind and a cannibal within a couple of sentences and then gives him the reverence to add stature to what they’ve established.
You can also do this for a character for yourself, just by having the character decisions in your head and playing that part without giving the exposition to justify it which can somethings seem clumsy. The only warning I’d give is that if you internalise your back story to play a strong character you may find your scene partner endows you with a characteristic that conflicts with your own instincts or choices and then you may have to stick with it so not to block them.
Do you think there are ways you can make short form more challenging for the more advanced improviser?
Absolutely, and that is one of the main things that we do in Extreme Improv. We have invented many new games, and twisted the rules of many existing games to create a fresh challenge with them. I never intend to keep Extreme Improv the same to the point where it becomes stale. It will always continue to evolve and have new challenges for the performers.
I’ll give this one example of something we do in the show that twists an existing idea. A traditional improv game is the ‘Alphabet Scene’, and we’ll put a twist on it to be a ‘Reverse Alphabet Scene’. Same basic premise, but clearly more challenging for the performers.
Our show is loaded with new games, and my focus for the show has been to continually invent new ideas that challenge the more advanced improviser.
What makes a bad short form scene?
So many factors can make for a bad scene. Lack of listening, poor stage craft, less interesting choices and blocking ideas.
What makes a good one?
Have a beginning, middle and end, make bold choices with the scenario and characters and enjoy yourself.
Are there any games that you don’t enjoy playing and why?
There are, but we don’t do them in Extreme Improv. If I’m guesting on another company’s show I may occasionally land in a game I’m not a fan of. I guess I’m not a huge fan of games where you speak in gibberish. They can be great, but I don’t enjoy being the gibberish speaker so much.
Do you think Short form works better when the audience is more involved?
Yes, and I think that is one of the key appealing factors of short form.
If people want to find out more about your group where can they find you on social media?
Just search ‘Extreme Improv’ on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok. All of our social media links are available form our website at http://www.extremeimprov.co.uk
What are some of the best bits of advice you have been given about improv and why?
I’d say the greatest piece of advice I’ve had on improv that I’d promote to everyone is to listen. Listen to your scene partners, to the audience, to yourself and to the stage. If you listen and respond to what you’ve seen/heard you’ll create much better work then if you don’t listen. It’s really simple advice, but one that can so easily be overlooked.
What is the future of short form improv?
Hopefully we are part of it! I think the future is bright for short form, and keeping things fresh is key.
Quick Fire Questions
Which member of your team is the most likely to:
Laugh mid scene?
Create a great character?
All of them (diplomatic answer)
Sing an improvised song?
Pretend to eat on stage?
Become an animal in a scene?
Create the silliest line in a scene?
Dance on stage?
Commit to object work?
Make a reference to a film or tv show?
Talk to the audience and break the fourth wall?