13 Things – a (Musical) Long Form Improv Format

I thought that this month, I’d describe the RIOT signature format; it is called “Thirteen Things”.   RIOT only does musical long-form so we add a lot of singing, but the format can equally be performed without singing.  I’ll describe the overall format first and then describe how we use song within the format.

General Format

As the name implies, we ask for 13 suggestions.   Performance is typically about 75 minutes, but if you have time constraints you could aim for less.  The reason we take thirteen is because we like the alliteration in “Thirteen Things”.   Most of our shows are in Dutch, and the format translates to “Dertien Dingen” which alliterates in a similar way.

We write the suggestions on a black board because otherwise there is no way we remember them.

You need to ensure your ask-fors are varied.  Since we dislike Martha Stewart Improv, we typically include ask-fors that will takes us away from the mundane here & now: thinks like a foreign country, an era, an occupation that no longer exists and so for.  Remember, you need 13 so also include silly ones!

Blackboard with 13 suggestions at a RIOT improv show (Ghent 2017).
Blackboard with 13 suggestions at a RIOT improv show (Ghent 2017).

The performance is built upon 3-4 story lines that are – at least initially – totally disconnected.  Since we like monologues initiation of the story lines usually starts with a monologue.   That is not to say that the whole exposition should be a monologue; as soon as the character & setting have been established other players may happily join.

Once the story lines have been established, the stories continue, but unlike a Harold, not in beats and not in order – scenes from the various story lines just happen in any order.  Not every story line will be equally prominent and it sometimes even happens we loose one.  Story lines may or may not turn out to be connected.  They might be connected thematically, or we may find a “game” that connects them.  Some story lines may merge.  Everything is possible, but we do not stubbornly try to connect the story lines.  We prefer great unconnected stories over a connected clusterfuck.

Typically, after about 30 minutes of performance, someone (any player, or perhaps one of the musicians) calls “Time for a summary”.  Then we go over all suggestions, and the audience gets to decide (by means of applause) whether a suggestions has been used (sufficiently).   We strikethrough suggestions that have been used – see the above picture for an example.

We may call for summary 2 or 3 times in total – it depends on the dynamics of the show.

Musical 13 Things

Since RIOT only performs musical long form, we work in a lot of songs.  Either songs appear organically, or we let the audience decide.  To do the latter we hand out cuddly animals or plastic flowers to audience members, and whenever they feel it is time for a song, they throw the flower or cuddly toy on stage.  There are other ways as well to work songs into an improv performance and we tend to use all of these to some extent.

Finale song of a musical long-form by RIOT (Ghent, 2016)
Finale song of a musical long-form by RIOT (Ghent, 2016)


Some players – and sometimes improv-savvy members of the audience – complain that the summaries suck the energy out of the performance.  To ensure that does not happen, keep the summaries energetic and brief.  It once happened that when we called “time for a summary” an audience member threw a rose.  So we sang the summary, in rhyme!

There is a risk of confusing the audience (and fellow players) during exposition: since we have 13 suggestions, nobody knows which suggestion(s) is (are) taken as inspiration for the start of a story line.  Therefore it is important to make that clear immediately.


As said before, the “’13” is not set in stone – feel free to ask for less (though I would not advise asking for more).

If you take less suggestions and show duration is significantly less than 75 minutes, you may want to cut down on the summaries, or drop them all together.

There is no absolute need to initiate the story lines with monologues – we just happen to like that.

We sometimes us one of the suggestions as the title – in which case the ask-for is “may we have a title for this performance”.

We sometimes use a “Golden Envelope” as one our 13th suggestion: we ask an audience member to write a suggestion on a piece of paper, which goes into a special golden envelope.  It can be a plain paper envelope of course, but golden is kinda festive.   We either incorporate the envelope in one of the scenes: perhaps a character receives a message? – in which case we use the written suggestion as the message itself – and we incorporate it into the story.  It happens that we end the performance and have not used the Golden Envelope Suggestion.  In that case we use it as a title for an wrap-up song.

Instead of a blackboard, we have used flipcharts, a laptop with powerpoint, and at some point in time we even used an old fashioned slide projector.   For those of you too young to know what a slide projector is see below or follow the link :).  We ended up dropping the slide projector because we found the brightly lit square of the screen to be too much of a visual distraction.  And it was a hassle to drag it along.

An old-fashioned overhead projector ( By mailer_diablo - Self-taken (Unmodified), CC BY-SA 3.0 )
An old-fashioned overhead projector ( From wikipedia mailer_diablo – Self-taken (Unmodified), CC BY-SA 3.0 )

So there it is:  “Thirteen Things”.  If you play the format, credit is appreciated.   Let us know your experiences!



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