Books and Performances

Book Reviews

Theatrical Improvisation: Short Form, Long Form, and Sketch-Based Improv. By Jeanne Leep. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. pp. 186.

Reviewed by Matt Fotis, University of Missouri-Columbia

Although improvisational theatre has exploded onto the theatrical landscape over the past fifty years, it remains a rather ambiguously understood form. As author Jeanne Leep says, “improvisation remains a difficult term to define in the theatre community, as it means different things to different theatre artists, all of whom might claim, and rightly so, to use improvisation in their work” (1). Many theatre artists and scholars still only recognize improv as a rehearsal technique, a character building tool, a means to generate scripted work, or simply as a way to save a scene when an actor forgets a line. Throw in choreographers, filmmakers, standup comics and other artists who utilize improv and it’s easy to get lost in the labyrinth. Leep’s Theatrical Improvisation aims to clarify our understanding of improvisational theatre by analyzing performative improv in each of its three main genres: short form, long form and sketch.

Leep utilizes a tree metaphor throughout to focus, compare and fuse together improvisational theatre in all of its assorted forms and practices. She separates the tree into three sections or limbs to illustrate improv’s three purposes – performance, actor tool, and process (such as the work done by Augusto Boal). Focusing mainly on the performance limb, she then connects the smaller branches of short form, long form and sketch to the larger performance branch. Leep continually reminds us that the branches and limbs often intertwine, resulting in “a beautiful matrix of intertwining foliage” (6).

While there are many improv books available, the majority are either how to training manuals such as Charna Halpern, Kim “Howard” Johnson and Del Close’s seminalTruth in Comedy; histories such as Jeffery Sweet’s wildly influential Something Wonderful Right Away; or a how to and history such as Anne Libera’s The Second City: an Almanac of Improvisation. Joining the small but emerging field of contemporary scholarship established by Amy Seham’s Whose Improv is it Anyway? beyond Second City, which looks at Second City and improvisational theatre’s development through the lens of race and gender, Theatrical Improvisation offers the first thorough “comparison of styles, forms, histories, and companies” (4).

Leep achieves this goal through analyzing the dominant forms of improvisational theatre, and by examining influential theatres such as iO (formerly ImprovOlympic), Second City, Theatresports and the television show Whose Line is it Anyway? Leep also explores lesser known groups such as The Brave New Workshop, the oldest satirical theatre in the US, as well as amateur local groups such as River City Improv of Grand Rapids, MI, of which Leep was a founding member. This broad focus is an important distinction that helps set Leep’s work apart. To date most every study of improvisational theatre has focused almost exclusively on the Chicago improv community. Leep acknowledges improv’s expansion beyond Chicago, examining varying performance styles between cities, including a brief but interesting look at the development of long form between Chicago and Detroit.

Throughout her study Leep offers a fair and balanced analysis of each genre, a rare feat in the improv world. After a succinct overview of improv in performance in Chapter 1, Leep begins with the most widespread and popular form of improv in Chapter 2—short form. The genre is a good starting point because, using Leep’s tree metaphor, it “is deep in the trunk of the tree” (23). Leep focuses her study on performative short form improv in three main variations: team competitive format (Theatresports), individual competitive format (Whose Line) and the team non-competitive format (River City Improv). In outlining each form Leep is careful not to proffer one style as “better” than any other, although she does provide a critical analysis of Whose Line’s impact on performative improv. Using her own experience with River City Improv, Leep offers significant insight into the unstudied area of non-competitive short form.

Chapter 3 covers long form improv, the scene-based cousin of short form. The chapter begins with a brief history of iO and the development of the highly influential long form structure Harold. Leep offers a brief survey of other long form structures and looks at long form beyond iO, including an analysis of Detroit style long form. This is especially interesting as long form improv is usually specifically linked to Chicago. Long form is a bit more difficult to capture on the page than either short form or sketch, and consequently this chapter is a bit less exhaustive and effective than the others.

The final branch of performance improv is sketch-based improv, which Leep explores in Chapter 4. In sketch, improv is not the end product; rather it is used as a tool to create finished scripted scenes. After providing a concise history of Second City, the leading sketch-based improv theatre in the world, Leep outlines the different types of sketch performance styles, along with the different types of sketches themselves. She concludes the chapter by looking at the tension between the process oriented makeup of long form advocated by Del Close and iO, and the product oriented style of sketch advocated by Bernie Sahlins and Second City.

In the fifth chapter Leep skims the surface of performance improv that doesn’t neatly fit into one of the three main genres. The Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis is Leep’s prime example, a sketch-based theatre that features a third-act comprised completely of long and short form improv. Unlike Second City where the post show improv set is used to test new material, BNW sees the improv set “as an important element of the performance in its own right” (119). Leep also briefly explores new and innovative ways of using improv such as a business training tool, or improv as a way of life where the rules and principles of improv – building community, trust, making others look good, respecting others’ ideas, accepting situations, not blocking your partner, saying yes – create a life philosophy.

Perhaps the most useful aspect of the book, especially for teachers and practitioners is the final chapter on teaching improvisational theatre in the academy, which administrators will be happy to know can be done with “virtually nothing in the way of resources”(133). Complete with a games list, ways to incorporate improv into traditional acting courses as well as improv courses, and evaluation tools, Leep provides everything but a syllabus. She also offers notes on how to form an improvisational performance group, and ends the chapter with a section focusing on how to create an improv performance, complete with a suggested show schedule comprised of games explained earlier in the chapter or used throughout the book.

Written in straightforward prose, Theatrical Improvisation outlines the basics of improvisational theory, history and practice. While those already familiar with improvisational theatre probably won’t find any groundbreaking ideas, the book is an outstanding guide through the improvisational forest for those with little or no improv background/understanding. Most importantly Theatrical Improvisation provides an excellent and broad base from which to further build and explore the field of improvisational theatre.