Friday, April 16, 2010

An Intro to Archetypal Improv

On Sunday, I ran an introductory workshop on Archetypal Improv for the excellent SFImprov group and was delighted at how it went. We had a really nice turnout and managed to get through loads of material. Several people asked me, though, if I’d be supplying notes afterward, so that they could go back over what they’d learned. Here then, in the spirit of sharing, is a brief outline of what Archetypal Improv is, and how it works.

Archetypal Improv is an approach I developed with a great deal of help from the other members of Amazing Spectacles in Cambridge (Gary Mooney, Denis Howlett, Netta Shamir, Justin ‘Rob’ Coleman, and several others). Using it, we were able to turn out some of the best long-form improv I’ve ever come across.

The style is based around the idea that in order to create really great improvised plays, players need to understand how stories are built and to have a way of communicating narrative ideas to each other. To provide a shared storytelling lexicon, Archetypal Improv draws inspiration from Joseph Campbell’s theories on the ‘Hero’s Journey’, along with observations from fiction, theater, and machine learning theory.

We use, broadly speaking, two ways to communicate story ideas--through plot, and through character. Communicating through plot helps drive the narrative forward. Communicating through character tells you where the plot should be going. For plot communication, Archetypal Improv focuses on the idea of trouble. For character communication, we focus on the role that each character plays with respect to the greater story--it’s archetype.

Many long-form improv approaches rely predominantly on plot offers and divide a play into sequential segments, often using a ‘story spine’. The archetypal approach instead attempts to build a kind of map of the story within the first few scenes that can drive many of the choices that follow. The map is created by making the purpose of each character clear.

The most basic play format used in Archetypal Improv is the Vanilla Six-Hander, or V6H. ‘Vanilla’, because the format is the basic flavor, and ‘six-hander’ because it makes use of six archetypes. The V6H is a training tool designed to encourage players to think clearly about character roles, and to give them almost all the information they need to complete a strong play within just three scenes. A quick outline of the V6H reveals the archetypes that we generally use.

Scene One: The Banishment
This scene introduces the following pair of archetypes:

The Protagonist or Hero
The protagonist is the focus of the play. It’s their job to desire change, to be flawed, and to have the capacity to learn. The role of the protagonist is telegraphed to other players by creating a character who’s empathetic and limited in their choices without being weak. The protagonist generally starts low status. Their interior monologue generally sounds like this: ‘Somehow, I’m going to make things better!’
As a rule of thumb, the best protagonist flaws are the ones you can imagine being reflected in the moral to a story. Eg: the flaw ‘has no self confidence, can lead you to create a play with the moral ‘always believe in yourself’. A flaw like ‘is terrified of chocolate’ isn’t going to take you very far. ‘Don’t be afraid of chocolate’ doesn’t lend itself to a compelling narrative arc.
Unlike in some other long-form methodologies, the protagonist doesn’t usually drive the narrative. Rather, the protagonist is affected by the offers of trouble that they receive from other characters. Having the protagonist make active choices that propel the play tends to create a ‘willing hero’, and leads the play to tend to take on a tragic format, which is fine, so long as you’re aiming for tragedy.
Using the first Star Wars movie as an example guideline, our protagonist would be Luke Skywalker.

The Banisher
The banisher’s job is to either pull or push the hero out of his or her ordinary world. Generally speaking, the role the banisher will have in the play depends on how that ejection happens. If the banisher, for instance, fires the protagonist from their job, then they’re not likely to feature strongly in the work that follows. We call this kind of character a ‘framing-device banisher’. If, instead, the banisher creates an ultimatum that drags the protagonist with them into a troubled world, they’re generally referred to as a ‘mentor’. Mentors often feature extensively in the play that follows and guide the protagonist on their path.
The banisher usually starts with higher status than the protagonist, because this makes it easier for the banisher to exert the necessary force to make the protagonist leave their world. It’s also much easier if the banisher has a pre-existing relationship with the hero. However, it’s not necessarily always the case that the protagonist is familiar with the banisher. Many interesting mentor banishers are characters who know who the hero is, but who are unknown to the hero.
The banisher’s self-talk is usually something like: ‘I must lead this person on to something better,’ where the person in question is the hero.
Our Star Wars example for this archetype is Obi-Wan Kenobi.

The players should aim to have the banishment happen by the end of scene one, but shouldn’t be worried if they don’t make it. There’ll be another opportunity in scene four. It’s worth pointing out, too, that a banishment doesn’t have to be physical. A change of emotional or physical state can effectively put a person in a new world even though they don’t go anywhere. Thus a banishment can be anything from being divorced, to being sent to China, to growing antlers.

With this scene, as with all others, it’s best to try not to have the offers in the scenes be too prescriptive about what follows. We want to know that the protagonist has been ejected into an uncertain world, but we don’t want to know too much about what that world is just yet. Over describing future events creates expectations that it can be very hard for other improvisers to follow through on.

A checklist for the banishment scene goes like this:
  • Establish an ‘ordinary world’ that the protagonist inhabits--preferably an imperfect but tolerable one.
  • Try to establish strengths and a flaw for the protagonist.
  • End the scene with the protagonist being forced to leave the ordinary world.

Scene Two: The New World
Scene two establishes the world that the protagonist is going to be banished into. Players should aim to set this part of the story in a context that makes things as awkward for the protagonist as possible, given their flaw and what else we know about them. The scene introduces two characters who have a shared problem that they can currently neither escape nor solve.
The archetypes we use here are:

The Catalyst
The catalyst’s job is to symbolize trust, and to be the character with whom the hero is going to build a strong empathetic bond that that will allow them to change. Catalysts are often rescued, or are rescuers somewhere in the play. In many stories, this character is what you might think of as the ‘love interest’, but their role doesn’t need to be romantic. The catalyst looks for clean, positive solutions to problems. They generally have lower status in their opening scene, and their self talk goes something like this: ‘there has to be someone out there who can save us’.
Our Star Wars example would be Princess Leia

The Turncoat
The turncoat represents an ambivalence of trust. This character isn’t necessarily evil, and isn’t driven by a clear agenda. Rather, their moral position is unclear. They act as a foil to the catalyst by being ready to consider all manner of dubious solutions to the shared problem. They generally have higher status, and their self talk is: ‘what’s in it for me?’
A turncoat can start on the side of good and go bad, or start as deeply unreliable and become a strong force for good by the end of the play. Both choices work, so long as this character creates opportunities for the hero to feel uncertain and betrayed.
The Star Wars example is Han Solo.

Here’s a checklist for scene two:
  • Establish a new world that’s the worst place you can think of that the protagonist might end up.
  • Establish a problem that the catalyst and turncoat are stuck trying to solve together.
  • Make the moral difference in attitude between the catalyst and turncoat clear.
  • End the scene with one of the characters going off to try to pursue some solution to the problem.

Scene Three: The Plan
In this scene, any confusion or unresolved offers from the previous two scenes should be folded into a clear direction for the story. The scene focuses on a ‘nemesis’ outlining his or her plan for the world to their ‘henchman’.

The Nemesis or Antagonist
The nemesis is usually what we think of as the villain. Their job is to create trouble that will propel the story. This character almost always has the highest status in the play. Their self talk says: ‘Nothing will stop me from achieving my goal!’
Our Star Wars example is Darth Vader
Whereas the role of the nemesis in the story often ends up as that of a villain, as an improviser, this role requires giving a great deal of attention and support to the other players. Because the nemesis has so much power, they generally create the trouble that the other characters need to overcome. This means that the nemesis has to provide a large number of helpful offers that both keep the story on track and give the others something to work against.
It’s also worth saying that the nemesis doesn’t have to be evil. Many interesting plays feature characters in this role who have a fixed agenda, but are also empathetic to the audience, at least in part. The more that the force driving the nemesis is recognizable to the audience, the more nuanced the character will feel.

The Henchman
The henchman helps the nemesis achieve their goal. They act as the nemesis’s eyes, ears, and hands, and often feature more frequently in the play than the nemesis himself. Also the henchman role can be comprised of a large number of characters, all of which are potentially disposable. Their status is lower than that of the nemesis, but often high with respect to the other characters in the play. Their self talk goes: ‘Through you, I have purpose and value,’ where the ‘you’ in question is the nemesis.
The henchman role has a large amount of comic potential, but this should be used cautiously, as a completely ridiculous henchman is less able to make plausible trouble for other players.
Our Star Wars example is every storm-trooper that appears.

The plan revealed in this scene should ideally clarify the offers made in previous scenes and make sure that the choice of which scene defined the ‘new world’ clear to all, just in case something untoward happened in scenes one and two. Ideally, the plan heaps trouble onto the ‘new world’ developed in scene two, but does so in a way that happens to make matters worse for the protagonist, even though usually the Nemesis character doesn’t usually know of the protagonist’s existence.

Here’s a checklist for scene three:
  • Establish a plan.
  • Bind together the ideas raised in scenes 1 and 2 into a coherent whole.
  • Establish the objective that will drive trouble in the play.
  • End the scene with the henchman being sent off to advance the plan.

That’s it. By the time the third scene is over, players have pretty much all the information they need to create a compelling story. If you don’t believe me, come along to a workshop and watch it in action. Do note, though, that it takes some time to develop the skill of making full use of everything that these scenes reveal. As a starting point in developing this skill, improvisers should ask themselves the following two questions when the third scene is over.

How does this story end?
What is the resolution for each signifiant character we’ve created in the course of this play?

What’s the lowest point I can imagine for this protagonist?
How bad can we make it for our hero before he learns to change? This is important, because this is exactly where the play needs to be headed before real change can be revealed.

With these tools in your hands, creating great plays is a hell of a lot easier. But before I finish, here are a few other important things worth mentioning.

First, the archetypes described here aren’t the same as those you’ll encounter in any book on the Hero’s Journey. That’s because they’ve been derived from the principles of character function, rather than from storytelling tradition. That means that unfortunately, further information is hard to come by on the web.
The mapping between standard archetypes and the ones used here is roughly as follows:

Banisher>Combines elements of Herald and Mentor, but isn’t strictly either
Catalyst>Not really covered in Campbell-style archetypes
Turncoat>Has themes in common with the Shapeshifter
Henchman>Has themes in common with the Herald and Threshold Guardian

Secondly, it’s worth reiterating that the V6H is a training tool. Keeping the first three scenes of a play to the same structure each time will eventually start delivering predictable work. Once the flavors of each archetype have been well understood, plays can and should be started in any way that takes the cast’s imagination. Assuming that you know which character fulfills which role simply because of what scene they happened to appear in will result in confusion, and should be avoided, particularly as characters can shift from one role to another.

Lastly, the archetypes raised in the V6H are applicable to a huge range of kinds of storytelling, from written fiction to screenplays. However, crafting non-improvised stories to open like a V6H won’t make your story as strong as it could be. Compromises have been made in the structure of the V6H to help improvisers gain a clear picture of what’s going on in the minimum number of scenes.

Hopefully this is all clear. There’s tons more to say, of course, but I’m out of steam for now. If anyone has questions or comments, I’d love to hear them.


  1. Sounds a bit like the structure of Commedia Dell'Arte, or the Harlequinade. In that, all the characters had fixed names and costumes, which meant that the audience immediately knew who the protagonist (Harlequin) was, who the catalyst was (Columbine), and the nemesis (Pantalone), and so on.

  2. Yes. Most of this stuff is very very old. We're just reapplying it!

  3. Alex - this is a great summary. thanks!

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