Pre-Show Warmups for LongForm Improv

My friend and improv guru William Hall and I were emailing about how we warm up for narrative longform shows. I ended up writing him a long email describing the warmups for Dusk: Improvised Tween Erotica. And he nicely turned it in to an article on his website. I love the notes he added and the insight he brings to the craft of improvisation.

William is the author of The Improv Playbook, which is the best resource for people who regularly perform short form improv games. It has a cross referenced list of over 300 games with brief descriptions. I have like 3 copies myself.

Here’s the full article:

Long Form Improv: Pre-Show Warm Up
Long Form Improv: The Pre-Show warm up
Long form improv is becoming more and more popular. Improv Long for formats range from free-form as in the Un-Structured Harold others are more structured as in Spontaneous Broadway.1
The rehearsal process is the time to learn what skills are necessary for the cast to embrace the long form format and prepare it for a paying audience. But how do you prepare the cast the night of the show? The cast needs to feel confident, grounded and connected. They don’t need to be worked into a frenzy or pre-loaded with ideas for the performance.2
I asked my friend Shana Merlin to share her thoughts about Long Form Warm ups and she sent me the list of things they do before they perform their very popular Twilight inspired Long Form Improv format called Dusk.3

Warmups for Dusk: Improvised Tween Erotica
Soul Train
Form an alley between two rows of people facing each other. Turn on a soul/funk song and have people one at a time dance down the isle with everyone clapping, hooting and cheering them on. Once everyone has a solo, they can take a turn down the isle as a part of a pair.
Shana adds, “After a while, let it open up in to a free dance. I want coming to the theater for the show to feel like coming to a killer dance party. People are energized, connected, flirty and playful.” 
Improv Tongue Twisters
Start with several commonly known tongue twisters led in a call and response.   Then, begin to improvise tongue twisters in a call and response format.
Character Walk around
Walk around the space and then someone initiates a physical change accompanied by a sound or vocal offer. When this change is perceived the rest of the cast respond by accepting the transformation and joining in.  (In our show, there are vampires, werewolves, teens, and slow motion action. We want to be able to key in quickly on what people are initiating.  Maybe hissing for vampires, growling for werewolves, giggling for teens, and speaking/moaning in slow motion for action). 
Story Spine
Basically we took the Story Spine (Kenn Adams) and The Hero’s Journey (Christopher Vogler’s/Joseph Campbell), and adapt it to our genre. And we circle up and review it, each person adding a step. For us, it’s something like:
A new girl comes to town
She meets lots of people in this town
She has a strange encounter with a mysterious boy
Somewhere else in town there is a murder
She gets put in danger and this mysterious boy saves her
And so on…

Notes and reminders about the format
Circle up to review notes from the previous show.  Remind each other of what you want to focus on in this next show, forget about what might have gone wrong in the last show. This is a time for positivity and setting intentions. For example, Shana adds, “we might reaffirm that that we want to start with energy and volume, to repeat names when they are introduced, and remind ourselves that anything could happen in the show tonight and have fun.”

[William’s note: This is also a good time to ask the players open-ended questions about the format. For example: What do we know about this format? This empowers the players. If they don’t cover everything on your list you can add it in as a participant. The closer you get the performance the more you want to drop your role as ‘director’.]

Combat Round Robin
[William’s Note: Shana did not go into detail about this section…but it’s fair to say if you’re doing a format with improvised violence you want to be careful that the signals between the actors are clear so that no-one gets injured. My advice about improvised violence: Slow-motion keeps it at a safe speed and audiences accept it as real.]
Movement Run Through:
Work the choreographed opening with the tech improvisers. [William’s note: Often Long Forms will have a choreographed opening and/or ending and a moment to get a starting suggestion from the audience.]  
Character Names in Pairs:
If time after the run through, form pairs to generate ideas for character names. 
Shakeout:
Circle up and while maintaining eye contact; shake each limb counting out loud backwards from 10. After finishing the last limb, the cycle repeats counting backwards from one less (from 10 to 9 to 8 etc) until reaching zero.
Break Time:

Give the actors 10-15 minutes to freshen up, do their own thing, before a general cast meeting  in the green room. Sometimes cast members will initiate warmups they need during this time, put on lipstick, or have a sip of water. It’s also the time when we get the lead male all sparkly for the show. [William’s note:  Remember this is a Twilight Inspired format.]

Shana addds, “When planning the warmups, I’m trying to have activities that are both energizing and relaxing, silly and grounded, verbal and physical, connecting and inward focused. I try to put them in an order that keeps a nice variety and doesn’t tire out or bore the players.   After Break Time, we do a last pep talk and shakeout before the show.”



1The Harold is a format developed by Del Close while working with The Committee in San Francisco. In an ‘un-structured Harold’ each performance discovers it’s own tone, rhythm and path. Spontaneous Broadway was developed by Kat Koppett and New York Theatresports™ as a ‘backers audition’ and Broadway opening for a new Musical.
If you are rehearsing a genre format and you brainstorm character names during the warm up it would be temping to use those names later in the show. Some groups may see this as acceptable and others would see it as ‘cheating’ the promise of creating something on–the-spot. Shana adds:  We learned that if we did anything in the warm-ups that was too close to what happens in the show, we would get confused during the show. (What was her name? Are they in Arkansas or Oregon? Which scene was in warm-ups and which was in the show?)
3 Shana Merlin is an improv performer and teacher in Austin Texas. Her friendship is one of the benefits of improv. Shana and I have taught together at the University of Texas in an MBA program and performed together at the Hideout Theatre in Austin.  She brings joy, curiosity and passion to all of her improv.

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About Shana Merlin

Merlin Works is the brainchild of Shana Merlin: improviser, teacher, and performer. Since 1996, she’s been leading classes that stretch people’s imaginations, push them out of their comfort zones, and make them laugh out loud for hours at a time.
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