A partly colorized crop of Doug Kalberg’s pencil-and-ink cover art for the July 15, 2017 performance of Ka-BaaM!! at Huge Theatre. This image has been altered for publication.
In a June 22 piece on Minnesota Playlist, Huge Theatre’s executive director Butch Roy called for media outlets to spend more time reviewing long-form theatrical improvisation. As writer Ira Booker noted, however, media outlets’ opinions may diverge on whether critical reviews or more journalistic coverage are of more interest to their readers.
Consider the gauntlet thrown down: after reading Roy’s comments and Booker’s piece, staff writers from the Twin Cities Arts Reader attended 8 different long-form improv performances across the greater Twin Cities. We then held an internal discussion about the genre, what sort(s) of writing we were interested in creating, and about how to critically assess performances that are innately ephemeral. This discussion produced several takeaways:
- Opinions strongly diverged. A piece that was hilarious to one person was often not at all funny to another.
- Audience response rules. Most of the audiences laughed loudly and often in segments that our writers found tedious.
- Staff were attracted to pieces with strong narrative structure.
It’s important to not judge one genre by the standards of another. Reviewing children’s and community theatre is different than reviewing touring Broadway shows, and things that might be inexcusable in a scripted theatre environment might get free reign in a concert. In improv, a gag or turn that causes an actor to break character with laughter is often celebrated by the audience; in scripted theatre, this is usually considered a deficit.
The most significant concern amongst our staff was that they were clearly attracted to long-form improv pieces that most closely imitated scripted theatre – their normal genre of choice. Shows like BollyProv (an improvised Bollywood musical parody) were very popular amongst our staff, while more free-flowing shows were not – while seeming to be perfectly fine to the audiences. How that will inform future coverage is up in the air, but it is certainly a concern to be aware of; for the moment, we have elected to not review shows that our staff did not enjoy.
Long-form vs. Short-form Improv
The differences between long-form and short-form improv start with length. Short-form improv is familiar to anyone who’s done theatre skits or seen Whose Line is It Anyway? – typically pieces of 2-5 minutes in length, often with considerable audience input. Long-form improv is usually 15-25 minutes in length and also tends to use audience input. Knowing when to wrap up a scene and change the focus – an “edit” in some circles – is especially key to keeping an audience amused and engaged during long-form improv.
REVIEW: Ka-Baam!! – July 15, 2017 Performance
Ka-Baam!! is a hilarious improvised superhero romp. The show concept was created by Steve Wacker, a long-time Marvel Comics editor-turned Marvel VP for Television and New Media. The premise is simple: the audience submits names for a trio of new superheroes that the performers bring to life, complete with origin stories and (naturally) a battle with a supervillain. During the show, a comic artist draws a comic book cover to match the unfolding narrative; a narrator provides the overarching structure and dramatic impetus via voiceover.
Ka-Baam!! is now almost two decades’ old as a concept, but its Minnesota incarnation is pushing the 5-year mark. That’s just trivia: no hint of rustiness was visible in the July 15 performance. Under Wells Farnham’s narration, the story moved like a well-oiled machine, often sprinkled with ironic commentary and set-ups for gags. The three quirky superheroes hit all the normal narrative beats – tragedy, journey, setback, encouragement, and triumph. For comic book fans, the feel was vintage Golden Age of Comic Books; however, as the first-time attending children in the audience testified, no prior familiarity was required for this all-ages show. A draft of the comic book cover was shown to the audience at intermission, providing an excellent teaser for the second half. The action was also enhanced by an excellent improvised soundtrack.