Monday, January 30, 2012

Archetypal Improv Revisited

A few weeks ago I learned that the lovely people at Opening Night Theater in Toronto wanted to explore the Vanilla Six Hander improv play format that I outlined on this blog back in April 2010. I was delighted. 

I’ve been chatting with them via email since then, and thought it was about time to try to collect those thoughts, along with a few others. What I’m hoping to achieve in the next few posts is to give people a clearer sense of how best to explore the format, what its quirks are, and what kind of results it can deliver. First, some history. 

The V6H grew out of two converging trains of thought that emerged out of the work I did with Amazing Spectacles in Cambridge around the turn of the millennium. The first of these was watching what happened when people tried to do unstructured improv plays. We were doing a lot of full-length plays at that point, and had various heuristics for how to build them. However, some clearly worked a lot better than others. Furthermore, the plays that worked had certain key features in common: 
  • A strong rapidly-defined platform
  • Clear characters, but also clear character roles
  • Threads that started somewhat separate but which joined into a single satisfying story arc
  • Improvisers who were synced, in terms of their mood, skill levels, and expectations

From working with Patti Stiles in London, and from Freestye Rep in New York, I was familiar with both the idea of rising narrative tension, and Kenn Adam’s ‘story spine’ model. However, I had the sense that really good improv plays had certain symmetries that weren’t captured explicitly in either of these approaches. 

Around the same time, Gary Mooney (one of the most naturally gifted comic improvisers I have ever met) pointed me at a book he had been reading called The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler. It was clear to me very quickly that the content in Vogler’s book had enormous implications for improv. 

The Writer’s Journey is a tidy encapsulation of Joseph Campbell’s work on the monomyth from the writer’s perspective. Though it was intended for an audience of screenwriters rather than improvisers, it revealed patterns that occur in many of the great tales that have been told since the start of civilization--tales that were usually spoken rather than seen. In effect, it laid bare the mechanics of storytelling in any form. 

For that reason, when it comes screenwriting, I take Vogler’s recipe with a pinch of salt, which I think he’d consider appropriate. This is because strict adherence to the monomyth pattern can produce stories that bear an uncanny resemblance to The Matrix or Star Wars, and which suffer a little in the subtlety department. You have to deviate from any recipe to make a story come alive, no matter how good that recipe is. 

However, for improvisers, a strong, specific awareness of what makes a great story represents a massive advantage. This is because improvised stories always deviate from the recipe. The trick is to provide all your actors with a shared understanding of how to support each other and what direction to head in. Knowing how great stories are built, and how they’ve persisted for thousands of years, gives improvisers a golden compass to follow as they navigate the massive uncertainties of their art. 

The problem we had was that the recipe that Vogler described was a pattern of sequential steps. In my experience, trying to hold an improv play to any specific sequence is tricky, and often problematic. The work that Kenn Adams has done seems to me to take this approach about as far as you reasonably can. Beyond that, you have too much structure in the work and the quality of the improv starts to deteriorate. 

What my troupe in Cambridge needed was a parallelized version of the same approach. A model that created a platform so strong that the seeds of a great story arc were already latent within it. The V6H is still my best attempt to date to achieve that. It focuses on encouraging improvisers to take on archetypal roles that let the play feel rounded and purposeful while being truly improvised at the same time. The V6H works by structuring the first three scenes of the play fairly tightly and keeping the rest loose. However, once the principles of archetypal improv are embedded in actors’ minds, it’s safe to set down the structured introduction.  By then, you usually know what a certain character is useful for about ten seconds after he or she walks on stage. 

I have seen the V6H produce some really wonderful improvised theater. I’ve had the good fortune to watch as well as coach, and have seen it deliver some of the most funny, touching, shocking, dramatic, impressive long-format improv that I’ve ever witnessed. Furthermore, V6H plays have a very different feeling from those where the players simply rely on good listening and shared experience to guide them, even when the improvisers are very talented. Or from those plays that employ a platform-development-resolution kind of structure and don’t dig any deeper. That’s because V6H plays have a real shape. They breathe in and out like living things. 

Having said that though, here some important points that anyone trying the V6H should bear in mind. 

It’s not really mine
Though I have taken credit here for the V6H, the truth is that it was, and still is, a massive collective effort. Without Gary’s initial input, and without the significant refinements contributed by Dennis Howlett, Netta Shamir, Justin Lamb, and others, it’s unlikely that it would have ever got off the ground. The V6H then continued to evolve when I moved to Santa Cruz. More marvelous people, like Cindy Ventrice, Dave Sals, Tish Eastman, and Karen Menahan, helped me shape it. And the work is still going on in great troupes like Six Wheel Drive

Because of this, there is no one set of rules for the V6H. There is no handbook (yet) and no notion of exact right and wrong. The format belongs to the people who are doing it. I think this is wonderful because it means it’s always evolving. However, its openness comes with difficulties because figuring out the perfect solution of how to use the V6H with your troupe is always something that will have to be figured out afresh. 

The pain comes before the gains
Another key point is that building an understanding of plot and archetype into improv plays comes with costs before it comes with advantages. It can take people over a year to internalize the core principles. During that time, improvisers, often brilliant ones, will deliver a great number of wooden, clunky characters and terrible plot offers while they figure out how to integrate their new knowledge. This is because it's hard to serve the story and your character at the same time until you understand how the two sides fit together. It’s easy to feel like you’re going backwards during this time. Its only afterwards, when storytelling becomes this marvelous, collective, instinctive force, that you get all your original skills back. 

There will be resistance
I have encountered a lot of improvisers (some of them really good) who don’t want to believe that great stories have a shape. I have encountered writers, playwrights, and screenwriters who believe this too. Even though many of these people tap into exactly the same patterns to make their work fly, they do so in a subconscious fashion without ever letting onto themselves what’s happening. The net is, if you’re running a troupe and people don’t want to believe that stories have structure, that’s a problem. It’s usually best under those circumstances to find a methodology that’s less transparent to work with, as cherished notions about story shape are seldom abandoned, with or without a fight. 

There will be friction too
Developing a skill-set that requires that everyone pull together and collaborate on something complex creates friction. This is because everyone goes up the learning curve their own way and at their own speed. This can make small interpersonal difficulties that can show up in improv troupes suddenly seem to magnify and become horrible. It’s easy to believe that your little theater company is exploding, and sometimes they actually do. If you succeed, though, you’ll end up with a tightly-knit team of highly capable performers who can deliver work that’s as sharp as scripted theater. 

Drills are your only real power-tools
Practicing frequently and relentlessly is the best way to develop V6H skills. Working on opening scenes until you can tell who the protagonist is going to be just by the way the first improviser walks on stage is going to make everything that follows that much easier. Drilling on nemesis scenes until you can assemble and propose an entire story premise in a single speech without once resorting to cliche takes time too. At the end of the day, good plays require a lot of non-declarative memory investment, and that takes time. Quite possibly, people will get bored at all the repeat play openings and complain. If that happens, do something else for a while. People only get better at improv when they’re motivated. Come back to the drills after you’ve tried a few more full-length plays and people have rediscovered how much they don’t know yet. 

That's probably enough for now. Hopefully it's a useful start. For anyone out there playing with the V6H, I wish you the very best of luck. If you have any questions, I’m more than happy to address them. My your tension rise smoothly and your plays leave their audiences teetering, while laughing, on the edges of their seats.