Guest Phoenix Improv Blog: Preston Smith of The Jester’Z

Phoenix improv has definitely come a long way over the past 5 to 10 years.

It seems like every weekend is filled with awesome shows going on all over the valley. Every few months, new students are diving into classes and immersing themselves in improv. New groups and new configurations of local improv vets seem to pop up even more frequently.

We’re pretty proud that the Torch Theatre is part of such a booming movement. That said, one theatre doesn’t make for an improv scene. That’s why we’re glad to be friends with The Jester’Z in Scottsdale.

The Jester’Z is the longest running improv comedy theater in the valley. Starting in 2001, Jef and Shurlin Rawls rallied many former members of The Oxymoron’Z to continue on after their esteemed director Louis Anthony Russo passed on. Their continued guidance has helped grow their theater to include several sold out shows each weekend, corporate training & performances, a newly opened space in Mesa for kids & teen improv training, and expansion of their current space, Theater 168 in the Papago Plaza on McDowell Road & Scottsdale Road.

Preston Smith began studying improv with The Jester’Z in 2005 and has been performing with them since 2006. Preston notes, “Recently a student of mine compared my improv play to a mix between Meryl Streep and Eeyore.”

In addition to having this unique style of play when he hits the stage, Preston also has some longform improv training in his back pocket. Here, he shares his thoughts on the differences and parallels of shortform and longform improv.

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Preston Smith and his little future improv ninja, Jude

A User Guide on How to Balance Between Shortform Improv and Longform Improv

by Preston Smith

There is a natural progression for those who start their improv journey with shortform that ultimately leads them to study longform improv.

The progression isn’t out of dissatisfaction with shortform improv but more out of a desire to improve their ability as a performer. I can’t speak for those who start with longform and progress to shortform because that is not how I progressed. So, here is the truth, according to me:

The difference between shortform and longform is simply in the implementation. From my experience, the principles behind each form of improv are virtually the same, namely: Listening, Yes and …, Agreement, Trust, Characters and so on.

Longform chooses to implement improv principles in a game like: Armando, Harold, Sybil or the Deconstruction. Shortform chooses to implement improv principles in games like: New Choice, Monologue to Scene, Hitchhiker or Lost in Translation.

A common misconception of shortform is that gimmicks are used to create quick funny scenes about little or nothing. While the style of play leans towards the use of gimmicks, the challenge becomes avoiding the gimmick and building a relationship-based scene that will allow the funny to happen.

A common misconception of longform is the idea that it’s not suppose to be funny. Nothing could be further from the truth. The idea here is to step away from the immediate funny and take time to make connections, relationships, emotions and allow the funny to happen. Both forms are wanting the same outcome: Allowing the funny to happen.

What I like about shortform improv: How quick it can be!

Quickly getting to the emotion and relationship, dealing with relationship and emotion right here and right NOW.

What I like about longform improv: Finding humor in reality. Exploring ideas. Finding connections within scenes.

I know that I am treading on a sensitive subject and I appreciate the opportunity The Torch Theatre has given me to write about it. I am certainly not a scholar in the field of improv, but am continuously trying to learn more and improve my improv skills.

That is why I would rather not refer to it as balancing between shortform improv and longform improv, but rather, to simply say that I study improv.

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