There are lots of clubs and troupes that feature improv comedy but I haven’t heard of a single theater that does improv drama. Ever. I believe they teach improv to drama students, but I’ve never seen it as a show.
Am I just missing something, or is there a reason you don’t see this?
Long form improv is sometimes dramatic, but it’s much harder to market. One of my old group started a long form troupe but it ended up skewing toward blue short form cheap gag stuff because good dramatic improv requires quite a bit more skill than a lot of the troupe had.
I forget the name of it, but I went to see a troupe that specialized in precisely this. Their aim was apparently more therapeutic or cathartic than entertainment; they would get an audience member to recall a traumatic incident in their life and re-enact it in a controlled manner. I spoke with a woman who had been with another branch of this group and she had to drop out when a little girl complained that they messed up the part where she’d been raped. Some ideas are just better on paper.
A LOT of groups lend weight to Del Close’s maxim of “Don’t be funny.” The humor will come out on its own. I have very mixed feelings about this approach. No one ever made money off a group called “TragedySportz.”
My 25 year old nephew took an improv class and invited me to his graduation “show”. It was great. He is a comic genius. But the best part was when he was doing a bit with a girl who took offense to one of his lines. They very convincingly began to argue, with the invective mounting ever so slowly. She eventually broke into tears.
The audience fell for it hook, line, and sinker. When she stopped crying on a dime and they took a bow, we all just sat for a few seconds before applauding.
I notice, CookingWithGas, that you’re from my old neck of the woods. You might want to hook up with WIT (Washington Improvisational Theater) for some workshops. Mark Chalfant and Topher Bellavia are pretty good about “cracking the ‘don’t be funny’ whip.” Closer to home for you is ComedySportz over in Arlington; most of their workshop directors are also current or former WIT members and have a similar philosophy.
so I bought Improv Wisdom in which Patricia Ryan Madsen explains that many things are improv, not just wit, glibness or comic ability. The trick is paying attention and contributing to the entire performance, not just making yourself look good.
I have only conducted the initial session and haven’t worked out how I hope to do the whole thing but surprisingly, for a corporate BS program, I have received a lot of positive feedback.
I watched a video of Stephen Cobert giving a commencement address and he said the thing he learned in improv was that the most important person in the scene is everybody but you (I don’t remember his exact words but that’s the gist).
In my experience (limited and old though it is), the real trick to brilliant improv is to work with people who, like you, have memorized long stretches of Monty Python skits, and be working under the supervision of an instructor/coach who has absolutely no exposure to Monty Python whatsoever.
But seriously: I think a big part of the answer to the OP’s question is: endings.
A comic sketch can be ended by a verbal joke (or pun), a pratfall or other sight gag, a comic reversal, or any sort of surprise.
A dramatic sketch can either end with a bit of melodrama (a Revelation or Violent Action or such) or can just peter out. The better third choice, an “earned ending,” requires more time and the accumulation of events to be dramatic instead of melodramatic: the Prince of Denmark dies of his sword wound; the family moves away and their cherry orchard is cut down; the salesman kills himself so that his sons will benefit from his life insurance.
It’s tough to get that sort of earned ending from a (relatively) short improvisation, and tough to get it without a plan. It’s easier to get to an ending if you go for a laugh.
We did some in my class - one of us left the room and the others decided what their character was when they re-entered the room. So, the actor coming back in has to guess what they are based on how the others react to them.
Shows like Duck Dynasty or Pawn Stars fit that description. A lot of the original generation of reality competition shows, like Survivor or Fear Factor, were filled with minor-league actors trying to get their big break by looking like real people while on TV.