Discovery: How a Long-Form Audience Gets Involved

In short-form improv the audience is with you from the get go. Frequently asked to participate with a suggestion here and there or asked to come up onstage and be a part of a game. Short-form has a way of keeping and audience participating and being a part of the show and it’s great. Audiences love to be a part of something. In long-form, the audience participation becomes a little tricky. Most teams ask for a suggestion at the beginning and then the audience watches their show for thirty minutes. The show can be great or the show could be a stinker. Now, I’m not about to say that an audience has to be pulled up in a long-form show or has to constantly asked for suggestions, that’s not long-form. But I always ask myself:

How in long-form do we keep the audience a participant in the show?

Sure you can say the basics like a team that listens to each other, has fun and wraps the show up in a nice bow is a way to keep an audience captivated. It can. But what’s the thing that is the magic of long-form? The thing that keeps the audience surprised and leaning forward in their seats? DISCOVERY. It’s the discovery that the improvisor or team make in moments. This is what keeps a long-form audience participating in your show. Because right when you make that discovery, they do too and that makes them feel a part of the experience. If your team is truly in the moment and on the same page then the audience is right there with you and with each discovery comes a laugh, a lean forward in your seat moment, a wow, or even an aww every now and then. If your show lacks discovery then most likely it’s relying too heavily on invention and audiences can sense that, they don’t know what it is, but it’s not real or funny to them. If your team is in invention mode, then the audience has a chance to get ahead of you  and most likely be disinterested or not care.

Discovery vs. Invention:

Discoveries are found in the true moment of a scene. It’s the discovery that your show has been in a pyramid the whole time, that the two of you are siblings, but didn’t know till the middle or end of the show, that Jane was actually the waitress from the first scene, but the girl buying groceries and falling in love with the checker in the last beat. The simple discovery of knowing your partners want. It’s a way a show magically comes together. Through a series of discoveries.

On the other hand there’s invention. This is a dirty word in long-form improv. Invention is used when you have nothing and really just have to make something up, going for a joke or adding plot. John and Sue are in a scene and they are two students in a high school hallway. Sue gives John a glance and a wink, John then says, “I know you’re an alien.” Now, this could be a discovery if that was a lead on from another scenes, but pretend this is a first beat. It’s kind of out of left field and Sue was trying to give John the gift that she likes him. John doesn’t take it and invents a plot point instead. Now the scene is an uphill battle. In a moment of discovery, John takes the bait from Sue and adds information back. Then they continue to discover together building off the last thing said.

So, what to do? Simple, don’t get ahead of yourself. Listen, really listen to your partners body language, tone of voice, what they’re saying and how they’re saying it. And then you can start to discover the true scene together. Don’t worry about getting it right in the first moments of the scene. Just stay true to your character and what they want and then have a fun time discovering the rest. Your audience will appreciate you more and so will your scene partner.

Nick Armstrong

Nick is Camp Director and Founder of Improv Utopia an improv retreat for adults in California and Pennsylvania. He is also one of the founding members of the National Improv Network and performer and teacher at iO West as well as member of The Sunday Company at The Groundlings.  He has also taught many workshops around the country. We are always looking for better ways to serve the community. Drop us a line and let us know what you want.

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