In the summer of 1989, members of San Francisco’s “BATS Improv” began to take improv to a new place with a series of single-story improv shows, as they pioneered what would became known as “Narrative Longform”. (The term “long form” was originally coined for the freeform improv piece, the “Harold”, which was conceived by the members of the seminal San Francisco improv troupe “The Committee” and featured a collage of scenes. It was first performed in 1967.)
The push into single story improv took a leap forward on June 3, 1989 when 12 members of BATS Improv, working in the spin-off group, Improv Theater, took the second half of their show to perform one 37 minute story narrated in the style of Masterpiece Theater. This was new territory and there was much concern that it was “too dangerous” to do just one story. There was no safety net and it would either work or fail. But it did “work” and delighted the audience.
And just 3 weeks later, they performed an entire single story show set in a 1930’s nightclub. Then on August 21, 1989, narrative longform was brought home to BATS Improv when the BATS players performed “All-Star Mystery Night”, a single-story, two-half show in the style of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None”. In the following months, BATS Improv would continue to explore narrative longform in a variety of genres, including Soap Opera, Shakespeare, Horror and Film Noir.
This innovative style of improv, which demanded believable acting and the ability to spontaneously construct a complex story, would soon spread to other groups through the link created by the international network of Keith Johnstone’s Theatresports leagues, of which BATS Improv was a member. Today narrative longform is performed all over the word, but the BATS Improv players who were there in 1989 remember just how scary and thrilling it was when they first broke through the “improv time barrier” to collectively create a single story show.
We celebrated this Anniversary during the last week of June 2019. It started with a Gala reception (photos below), with many of the people who began and developed those first Narrative Longform shows, and many of those who have been a part of them ever since.
Photography by Doug McKechnie & Richard See
During that week, current members of BATS Improv and BATS Alumni who were part of those groundbreaking early narrative longform shows shared their memories, via video taped interviews, to be preserved in the official BATS Improv Archives.
And the week ended with three Narrative Longform shows, including the first time “All Star Mystery Night” had been performed since that original show on August 21, 1989.
BATS would like to thank everyone who came out to the reception, to the shows, and who contributed video recordings to commemorate this very special anniversary. It was a week to remember, and the perfect to kick off all the decades of Narrative Longform improvisation still to come!