This weekend I headed over to a place called Class Act in downtown Champaign to check out a college improv tournament. I hadn't been expecting much; I was mostly just there to support a couple of our local teams, DeBono and Titanic Players Team Kaboot. But once I got there and saw tons of improv teams from all over the region, it's hard to explain how awed I was.
A lot of you from Springfield probably haven't seen (decent) long form improv before, so let me start with that. I had always assumed that long and short forms were just two sides of the same coin; different ways to do the same thing. I kind of vaguely knew that somewhere out there, there were people who do long form improv. But having been exposed to long form improv for awhile now, I'm beginning to realize that the two forms are almost completely incomparable.
Short form definitely has its merits, and I miss doing it sometimes. Jumping into the world of long form improv is a huge transition. In long form, you don't get the luxury of having good games and bad games. Everything has to flow together; if something is failing, it has to be saved and rejuvenated. Everything stems from your source scenes, and fits together like a puzzle by the end of the piece.
All of the added complexity of long form means that long form done well can go far beyond the threshold of what short form can accomplish. Watching everything come together, as well as the other advanced techniques involved, means that long form can go much deeper. It also, however, means that anything but the very best long form improv can be slow and draggy. Which is probably why it took me awhile to get to enjoy it after seeing it done badly.
I did not mean to talk about long and short forms for that long.
The competition was astounding. You had all different kinds of forms; there were long forms, short forms, intermediate forms, and musical forms. I'm happy to say that Champaign's own DeBono and Titanic Team Kaboot were my favorites, but the enormous number of styles and troupes was mindblowing. There were way too many awesome teams to write about all of them, but I want to mention some of the more interesting ones here.
First, the aforementioned DeBono is one of the most incredible troupes I've ever seen. Their style, which they invented entirely by themselves less than a month ago, is an improvised musical. And I mean a real musical, with heroes, villains, recurring characters, an incredibly talented guitarist, and a story arc. Imagine improvising an entire 45 minutes musical. (They were only allowed 25 minutes in the competition, but I've seen them go much longer.) In this form, there is no room for poorly thought out or weak scenes, and tons of musical talent is required. Were I a judge, I would have given them first place just for this form's invention, let alone its flawless execution.
We also had a representative team from Improv Mafia. Improv Mafia was a lot different from all of the other troupes performing, because they chose a form that lives somewhere in between long and short form. They start out with a short form game, and move onto a montage from that game. Their entire MO is extreme, fast paced, high energy improv. They didn't worry about conclusions to scenes or tying up ends. Short scene after short scene, thrown together quickly to draw as many laughs as possible.
As much as it pains me to have to lump teams together when they all deserved their own paragraph, there were a bunch of really great teams that employed long form or some combination of short and long form. The Crazy Monkeys (from Purdue University) was one of my favorites; their long form was hysterical. There was also a team from Vanderbilt University in Nashville Tennessee (!) who just started doing long form improv last week (again, !). I got to meet a lot of them and I feel great about getting to make friends with other improvisers from across the region. There were a bunch of other great ones I feel bad for not mentioning, but this post is already way too long.
And now we arrive at my (admittedly biased) favorite: Titanic Players Team Kaboot. It's really hard to describe with justice the way that Kaboot operates on stage. None of their scenes are ever weak. Everything is always used perfectly; every concept brought up is brought back later, every scene comes together like a puzzle before the piece is finished. What impresses me most about Kaboot is their spacebending technique. And this is hard to explain if you haven't seen it done, but they "bend" space to make a large area on a small stage. For example, maybe a couple of characters walk out of a scene, but rather than walking off they walks in place; the rest would scoot off in the opposite direction so that it looks as if they're actually walking. They can use that to have scenes which span multiple locations. This is by no means the coolest thing they can do with spacebending.
I guess I got two lessons out of this experience. Firstly, I never realized how little experience I had with improv. EATIT is pretty much an isolated bubble of improv culture in the middle of Springfield. As amazing and impressive as this is, it means we never got to get together with other troupes and compare notes. I had seen Second City a few times, but they aren't anything compared to what some of the troupes in this competition could do.
And the second lesson: I will never, ever be this funny. But this whole experience has invigorated me to try.