Long Form Improv Format: a Musical Riot



Two weeks ago I was in Edinburgh for a weekend of workshopping and a show with the wonderful Men with Coconuts.  For the show I was accompanied by one of our RIOT players, Sarah Manhaeve.    The Coconuts like to perform musical long form – and so do we @ RIOT –  so when we sat down to decide on the details of the format we’d perform that night, Sarah & myself explained the outlines of the kind of format we usually do with RIOT and we all ended up doing that.  The show took place at the Scottish Storytelling Center on the Royal Mile, and it was a blast.  So much, that the Men with Coconuts told us they’d “steal” our format.  Since stealing is a kind of flattery, we figured the format needs a name, so we baptized it a “Musical Riot”.  Here’s how it works.


The Format

So this is a musical long form improv format.  It is strictly speaking not a musical – in the “Broadway Musical” sense.  This is a very open format (I am not a fan over overly structuring things) that is built upon several story lines.  Here is – roughly – how it works; I’ll offer some variations at the end of this post.

  • 3 to 6 players.
  • Depending on how much time you have, ask 3-4 suggestions.   Suggestions are asked by different players, and suggestions will be initially used by the player who asked for the suggestion.
  • You also ask for a title of the performance.
  • The body of the performance is as many story lines as there are suggestions (minus the title)
  • The first 3-4 scenes (number equals number of suggestions minus the title) as set up as monologues, in which the who/what/where is established.  The protagonist of each story line is played by the actor who asked for the suggestion.
  • We try and set up the premises for each story line as far away from one another as possible, and we try and steer away from the ordinary here & now.
  • The opening scenes for each story lines (typically) end with a song.  This is not set in stone so if it does not happen we do not worry about it.
  • Once the different story line setups have been established, we continue the various story lines, but in no particular order.  Unlike in a (Musical) Harold there is no notion of beats.
  • Throughout the performance, some story lines may get connected, but this is not a firm goal.
  • When time is up and/or when the stories have all reached some sort of conclusion, the performance ends with a verse-chorus song with all players.  The chorus should be heavily based on the show title, and there will be (at least) as many verses as there are story lines, each verse limited to one of the story lines.

Variations and Tips & Tricks

Here are some variations and Tips & Tricks

  • You may optionally do an opening number based on the title.   That gives it a more “Broadway” feel.
  • It’s nice if every player has their own ask-for, so all ask-fors are different.
  • We @ RIOT will typically write all suggestions on a board on stage; the title goes at the bottom of the list.
  • We always instruct the light improviser to dim the lights at the end of each song – this is not set in stone, but end of a song is usually end of the scene in which the song came about.
  • The story line setups (i.e. the first scene for each story line) start as monologues, but once the setup is clear, other characters may join in, or the protagonist my call other characters on stage.
  • Since there is no set structure on how to go about developing the story lines, some story lines may get more attention than others.  That’s fine.  We may even loose a story line.  It’s a pity when it happens but we never worry about it.
  • Since we want the setups of each story line to be very different, it is unlikely that we’ll be able to merge story lines.   Story lines do not have to merge, and there are other ways to connect story lines.  Some might be connected thematically or emotionally.  Or not at all.
  • It is absolutely no problem if the “Title” of the performance is only revealed or used in the closing song.  We do try to make the title meaningful to all story lines.   But it’s fine if it doesn’t (completely).

So there you go: a Musical Riot.   Let us know if you ever perform this format, and please share your experiences!

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