Editing in a longform performance: When? Why? How?

In longform improv, unlike shortform, the performers most often edit themselves.  Usually in shortform there is an MC/director, either running the whole show or each individual game, who calls “scene” at the end of the scene.  Either way, learning when to edit is a valuable skill and will impress the audience if done well.

When do we edit?
Here is a short list of occasions when an edit is definitely called for.  It is not exhaustive and I would love to hear thoughts about this list–did I miss anything?  Is anything unclear?

Best time to edit is when you see and hear…

  1. The audience erupt (positively or otherwise) YAY/BOO = GET OUT NOW!
  2. This following sequence in a scene : Statement/Repetition/(Tilt or Return)
    • a. Statement/Phrase/Movement  AND
    • b. Repetition (Pattern/Heighten) AND
    • EITHER c. Tilt(Break Pattern/Surprise) OR d. Return to the beginning
  3. Fellow players are stuck; they can always come back to the same scene if they want to
  4. There is information you want to add to a scene (tag outs, swinging door, split)
A little detail about each:
1. This is the absolute best time to edit.  If the audience screams and applauds or groans and boos, the scene has peaked.  Edit while you are at the top of the dramatic/comedic energy arc because it will take time to build energy again.  Editing at the right moment will propel you into your next scene.
2. It sounds complicated, but I think we all are familiar with this narrative structure:
Someone says something (“We’re out of chips!”) or does something (opens a door) and then it gets repeated in some varied fashion (“We’re also out of dip!”  or now the person opens a window or a drawer).
This can continue for some time, creating a pattern, exploring or heightening what has come before.
The chips person lists other items missing from the kitchen and a fight ensues between players about grocery shopping responsibilities.
The person opening items discovers something about their scene partner by finding something in one of the drawers that was opened.
At some point–there will be a break in the pattern or it will return to the beginning somehow.
Ideally there will be some genuine emotional interaction between the players onstage, a change of some kind, but when some time has passed and action has happened and you hear or see the original statement (or some close variation) this is a kind of resolution and the scene is over; time to edit.
The chips scene may resolve when the second player storms angrily out of the scene after the fight and the first player says, “IF YOU”RE GOING SHOPPING, MAKE SURE TO GET CHIPS!”
The person opening all drawers, cupboards, windows, and doors at the top of the scene maybe begins closing everything that was opened.
My favorite example that illustrates this is a Harold game I saw some good friends play:
The suggestion was “chainsaw.”
After the opening and first round of scenes, one player initiated the game by moving downstage center and acting like he was starting a chainsaw.
After a few moments of trying to get it started (and no one joining him onstage), he started the chainsaw and began sawing down a tree (all space work, no actual tree or prop) next to him, still alone onstage.
Immediately, a player from the back line joined him by standing in for the tree, standing tall with arms at his sides right where the first player was sawing.  Then the tree player toppled over.  This is the statement: sawing down trees with the chainsaw.
The first player immediately moved on and began sawing at another tree, immediately embodied by another player from the back line, who toppled similarly.  This is the repetition/pattern.
The ‘lumberjack’ moved on to the third tree, immediately played by the last player from the back line, and began to saw.  This time, the ‘tree’ toppled onto the ‘lumberjack.’  This is the tilt or break in the pattern.  Scene over.
3.  This is good teamwork and being part of an ensemble.  You know when your fellow players are struggling to find the scene.  Edit and save them even if you don’t have an idea.  Don’t leave them out there to struggle.  If, for some reason, the players you edited did not feel like they were struggling, they can easily return to the scene at any time.
4. This is a lot of fun and will add energy to any scene. These are meant to return to the ‘original’ scene (parent of the tag out) quickly, and/or this may lead to more patterns and bigger surprises in the show, not just the scene.

Why do we edit?
Ultimately the edit is about moving the story forward–in the most basic narrative sense, like saying “…and then this happened”–which would, in fact, be a great edit.
To see people in different settings: “At home-at work-at play”, the key player in each scene maybe playing a different status each time.  The high-power (#1 at work) CEO is perhaps hen-pecked (#2) at home and vies for the #1 position with his wife.  The same CEO is low on the totem-pole with his frat buddies (at play) and the butt of all their jokes.
To  support/undermine, make something unbelievable real or show something to be false.  Is that a BLOCK? No, but that is a good question and a good discussion to have.
Example: A scene begins between two players and one asks, “How was last night?” (not a great opening, but still–it’s just an example).  The second player may respond, “Uh, I just sat around at home.”
Someone from the back line announces “CUT TO LAST NIGHT AT HOME” and all the players from the back line rush the stage for a raging party and then immediately “CUT BACK” (to the original two players).
First player says, “Oh, I heard you had a party.”  “CUT BACK TO THE PARTY” and the party host tells everyone “DON’T TELL DAN ABOUT THE PARTY” and then “CUT BACK”–you get the idea.  We learn that the party host is lying to his friend.

How do we edit?
The short answer is: take focus away from the ongoing scene by taking the stage or (if self-editing) moving away from the current blocking of the ongoing scene.
How to take focus:
Eye contact is important when you are in a scene.
If you enter a scene (probably an instinct to edit), you will look at the players currently in the scene.
To edit: be bold (not necessarily loud–just don’t stall or dawdle) and address no one in the scene you are editing except to sweep them away if necessary.
Someone on the back line will support you and join you in your new scene.
Here is a list of edits and explanations I came across that is pretty comprehensive:
Hanamichi Edit looks cool
Though always when I teach ‘standard’ Harold games like Slide Show or Ad Campaign, I would tell students:
“Now I never want to see those games again”
These are a template and the variations are, I think anyone who improvises would agree, only limited to our imagination.
That said, here are some tried-and-true, tested and affirmed, cliché-level in their ubiquity:
1. Sweep/Transition (clap? eh)
2. Tag Out/Tag BACK IN (La Ronde/Slacker)
3. Swinging Door
4. Split Scene/Ajacent Scene
5. Directed Edit (Someone announces a set up, “meanwhile, back at the ranch…” “let’s see that dinner date” just mentioned, “do you want to see this outcome or this one?”, etc.)
6. Travel/Time Dash
I have a secret: I almost always do vanilla 1, 2, and 6.  And that’s a shame.  Shame on me.
Because 3, 4, and 5 are really great too, though 5 can become occasion to pimp other players into doing something they might not want…which can be really fun.
Last word on edits:
If the scene focuses on its support (whoever enters the scene after it has begun), it is likely in need of an edit and the entrance of the support was when the edit should have taken place.  If two people are in a scene and they indicate it is in a bar, the back line might become bartenders and other patrons.  A scene that is working will continue between the two original players and just enjoy the support.  A scene that is faltering will become about the bartender and other patrons.  Time to edit.
Now–sometimes you actually want to enter a scene, to support the scene that is going on without taking focus.  That’s going to be–generally, to generalize, I’m generalizing here—usually lower energy and more upstage vs. downstage in front of the ongoing scene.
One can be background, like extra students or baristas, or a prop cape or hat or tail and remain in the scene NOT TAKING FOCUS.
There are exceptions: “painting” or otherwise similarly announcing added information to the ongoing scene, should take focus and exit immediately afterward, much like the tag out.
BEWARE THE DRIVE-BY WALK-ON, not really an entrance or adding but a gag and a focus suck. Don’t be a focus suck.
An example of this is a player onstage says something like “You sound like Bill Cosby” to another player onstage, who is not Bill Cosby.  Someone then enters the scene as Bill Cosby.  Why?
It would be REALLY WEIRD if I mentioned Bill Cosby in real life and all of a sudden he walked up to me.  Especially in my living room.
If I am in a scene and you enter like that, I will FREAK OUT just like I would in real life.  “OH MY GOD!!  BILL COSBY IN MY LIVING ROOM!!  HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE?  WE WERE JUST TALKING ABOUT YOU!!!”
It’s a cheap gag and it doesn’t make any sense in the context of what we are doing.  Go write for Family Guy if you want to do disconnected jokes like that.
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