Books: How to Improvise a Full-Length Play, How to Invent Everything, Los Ojos de Carmen, Star Wars: Princess Leia [comic], Teach Like a Champion
TV: The Dragon Prince (season 1), Legion (season 1)
How to Improvise a Full-Length Play: The Art of Spontaneous Theater by Kenn Adams
This is Kenn Adams's book about, like the title says, how to improvise a full-length play.
This is a great read (and a necessary one) for anybody in the play-improvising business. This will seem like a bizarre reach, but it felt a little like reading On the Origin of Species. (Bear with me.) Yes, some aspects of it seem outdated, and other things about feel a little off, but it's fascinating, and important, to see someone *asking the right questions*, and doing a remarkably good first pass at the answers.
You've got to remember, improvising a play was, for a while, something that you just didn't do. Viola Spolin was using improvisation primarily as a tool for training scripted actors. Del Close was trying to create a form (peevishly named "the Harold" only because people kept asking what it was called) to create something that felt ceremonial and tribal Even Keith Johnstone, the anointed progenitor of "narrative" improv, hates improvised plays.
And that lattermost point makes more sense than you might think. For all our talk about Johnstonian improv, we rarely engage with Johnstone's style of performance as a particular technique, with a particular purpose, created in a particular cultural context. This all spun up in the late sixties, with the Greatest Generation's cultural hegemony in its death throes, when your average theatergoing experience was "a bunch of actors very seriously present a proper Shakespearean play and an audience sis dutifully in their chairs, drifting slowly to sleep".
So improv, for Johnstone, was one of the 60s' zillion forms of cultural rebellion. In this case, he was breaking the logjam by improvising the lines, breaking the fourth wall, playing with the audience, and making it so anything could happen at any moment — the antithesis of that zillionth staid performance of Hamlet. Instead, Johnstone goes to the other extreme. The best thing about Johnstonian improv is that it constantly strains to demand the audience's attention.
But this is also the *worst* thing about Johnstonian improv. Full-length plays are basically antithetical to Johnstonian work, because there's something in that improv style's DNA that rebels against, say, doing a slow, quiet scene where not much happens. But frankly, most good plays are a lot of (by Johnstonian standards) "slow, quiet scenes where not much happens" (no one reveals themselves to be a lizard, shouts at the audience, and travels to the moon) that *add up* to something power and emotional and affecting.
Plays are, simply put, not what Johnstonian improv was invented to do. It was invented to destroy plays, and to be the craziest, most-whacked-out happening you could be part of in a theater in 1968.
So just attempting what Kenn Adams set out to do was heresy. Therefore, it frames questions that people just weren't asking before.
And, as I said earlier, it's a solid and fascinating first pass at the answers. "Story spine", an exercise is familiar to almost every narrative improvisor, started here. What's surprising is how 'tight' Adams's recommended format is. From here in 2018, I would call it "overformatted" — there are too many signposts, too many events you have to hit, too many qualifications on how to hit them. It's both hard to improvise and hit all of those specific story points, and it's so prescriptive that it narrows your output to a specific subset of stories. (And specifically, a subset of stories that work more like television, film, or novels than like plays — more on that in a bit.)
But these techniques were a great place to start. "Story Spine" is the basic list of events in a story — it's a series of sentences, each starting with a particular prompt. "Once upon a time, ___." "And every day, ___." "Until one day, ___." Improvisors go in sequence finishing out the sentences, and thereby composing a simple story. Again, this book originated that idea. And the conception of it is brilliant — it reduces the wooly, byzantine question of "how do we collaborate to tell a story?" to a series of simple questions and answers. Who's it about? What's their routine? What interrupts it? And so on.
At its most basic level, it's telling improvisors what they 'owe' the narrative — what is the bare minimum set of requirements you have to satisfy so that all this random, free-associating, spontaneous acting that you're doing adds up to a story in the end? Johnstone touches on this, but it's more about technique than structure. There's a lot of writing about "here's how to work with status over the course of a scene", and just a few notes like "it's helpful to establish the everyday world of this story at the top of a scene". So: even if Story Spine was completely wrong (and it's not completely wrong), the approach that it implies would have been eminently useful. And today, even in narrative shows where step one of your prep work is "jettison the Story Spine, it doesn't apply here", step two is usually "figure out what series of sentences we'll use instead".
There are weaknesses in how this book conceives of long-form narrative. Again, it's hyperspecific about exactly how the story should go — it lays out what the protagonist should be doing, and why, and to whom, at every single step of the way, and exactly what roles are available to all the other performers, and what *those* characters should be doing. It's difficult, but not impossible, for a team to keep that all straight for an hour and a half. And you can think of excellent stories that don't fit that procrustean table no matter how much stretching you inflict on them; that implies that you only get a specific kind of story out of this particular engine.
(It also leads to a proliferation of jargon: lots of specific terms for specific roles and actions in this specific format. Often, they are brand-new words, used when perfectly good theater terms are already available. This is another practice you see in improv a lot.)
And it suffers from the other problem you see throughout improv: it's more geared towards doing TV or film than doing theater. And I do say this is a 'problem', and not just a matter of taste. If you're trying to do a movie onstage, you've got several strikes against you from the start. First, most of the techniques available to film — shot selection, jump cuts, mise-en-scène, you name it — just aren't available to you. Second, most of the things that really work well on a stage in a room with an audience — usually "one character reveals a secret to another with the whole audience watching" — aren't part of your core film vocabulary. And third, movies already exist, and whatever you do is going to both invite comparisons and suffer by them.
So it is with this version of the Story Spine. It makes no bones about cribbing from the hero's journey blueprint. And that's a format most commonly used for blockbuster films, not plays. You can strain mightily to make, say, Hamlet a story about a hero taking a call to action to triumph against weaknesses, but that gets very silly very fast. You also see the book's examples jumping from location to location to location, and from action to action to action, which, again, is more a film thing or a novel thing than a theater thing. It's kind of a problem throughout improv — most of the people who come to it come from not-theater, and so it's all informed with the nontheatrical storytelling they're most familiar with.
But again: even where you think this book is wrong, it's still a valuable read, because it's still making you think hard about the right questions. If we're not doing movies, what are we doing instead? And then, how do we tweak what's offer here to make that other thing happen?
I could also quibble with its recommended exercises. It does a great job with respect to *coverage* — i.e., every topic or technique it brings up does get covered in the exercises. But I quibble with its level of *specificity*.
Improv exercises exist on a spectrum. On one end is the hyperspecific, narrow exercise: "We're going to practice standing in one place after another and then cheating out to the audience, over and over and over again." On the other end is the hyper-vague, broad exercise: "Go up there and do good improv!" And there's a happy medium, where the exercise tries to train the performers in a broadly applicable technique, but it almost tricks them into doing it, by having them do specific, actionable things. A bad example: I might train performers to emotionally respond to a line by having them do a three-line scene start, then pause for three seconds, then start their next line with "I feel..."
The exercises here are, again, exhaustive in their coverage, but they tilt towards the "do good improv" end of the spectrum. "Do a short scene, and make sure you endow a good side character": that sort of thing.
(The book's example scenes, on the other hand, are splendid: simple, clear, and to the point. Mr Adams has a good habit of naming characters with adjective/proper-noun pairs [e.g., "Honest Harold", "Duplicitous Dan"] to concisely get across who everyone is in the scene and what they're doing.)
But again, if you're curious about narrative improv, or you do it as a hobby, it's well worth your valuable time.
How to Invent Everything by Ryan North
This is Ryan North's 2018 book about how to create modern civilization from scratch if you are a time traveler stranded in the distant past.
After his run on Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Ryan North gets a free pass forever. If he's written it, I'll at least check it out. And so, when I was looking for some, eh, "low-impact" reading, I picked up his latest book, which claims it's a helpful manual from the company that makes the FC 3000 time machine. If you're stuck in (say) prehistoric times and you have no way back home, here's how you stay alive, and invent the concepts, tools, and technologies you need to create at least some of the comforts of home.
It's a fun, light book. Mr. North is funny as always. He includes (among many other gags) a running joke about how much the manual-writer resents his boss, Chad, and will work in digs against said boss whenever he can. He explains all the major forms of religion in terms of high-fives. ("Monotheism: There is only one god, and they gave me a high-five.") There is an appendix called "Chemicals: How to Make Them and How They Can Definitely Accidentally Kill You". It's Ryan North — you sort of know the tone going into it.
As for the content, it's a nicely-collected pile of things you mostly-already-know. The book's at its best when it covers the sort of shop-class/4H-club material that soft-handed suburban types like me never learned. So, the stuff I already knew ("Okay this is how gears work") were interspersed with things that were really basic but new-to-me ("Oh, *that's* what a plow does"). Generally, though, it's the sort of "edutainment" book that makes you feel like you're learning a lot, where in fact you're learning a much smaller number of things. It's more like you're plugging the holes in your knowledge of basic technologies, than learning anything crazy and new.
So it doesn't really reward very close reading, but it's a good coffee-table book — you can open it to a random chapter, read it a bit, chuckle, and learn something astonishingly basic you didn't know about smelting or something.
Los Ojos de Carmen by Veronica Moscoso
I read a book in Spanish! Yes, it's a very tiny novella, and it's geared at kids who are learning the language, but a win's a win, I say. This is a simple story of a California teen spending a summer in Ecuador. It actually does a nice job of travelog-ing through the country, despite its short word count and "ten hundred words"-style vocabulary. But the story itself is episodic and unengaging. Still, you can do worse for practicing at reading simple Spanish.
Star Wars: Princess Leia [comic] by Mark Waid and Terry Dodson
This is the 2015 Marvel comic miniseries in which Princess Leia races to find the last survivors of Alderaan before the Empire gets to them first.
O-kay. This is more like it.
(And I don't mean that in a good way.)
What I'd seen before in the Marvel Star Wars comics had been uniformly excellent — Lando is one of my favorite Star Wars stories, bar none; Darth Vader was not 100% my bag, but it was still inventive and respectable storytelling; and Han Solo was a delight, making Solo: A Star Wars Story look regrettable and amateurish by comparison.
I was starting to wonder if the comics series were just regularly running circles around at least the likes of Solo. But, no, Princess Leia brought things down to earth. The comic is... adequate. It's about the level I'd expect from an ancillary comic — silly, light entertainment, a straightforward story kind of clumsily told, with simple, broad characters.
It does some things well. Kudos to the comic for centering the story around a cast of female major characters. And the story structure — they go from place to place, rescuing Alderaan expats from an oncoming Empire pogrom, while the Empire nips closer and closer at their heels — is solid, providing nice episodic adventures with a clear overall arc. And the ending, while a little clumsy and hamhanded, is still emotional, and connected to the overall theme of Leia trying to hold on to what she values about her heritage.
But that's about it, really.
Leia herself is surprisingly thinly-drawn. They portray some understandable survivors' guilt about the destruction of Alderaan, and she wrestles with the proper role for ruling a people that are mostly gone. But beyond that, if I knew nothing about Leia going into this comic, I would know very little more about her coming out of it, beyond "she's principled". It's very "generic hero" territory, unlike (say) the second Thrawn book, where we learn about her insane diplomatic skills, among many other things.
The art is strikingly bad. Leia does not look consistent with Carrie Fisher. And that's okay — the Han Solo comic took similar liberties. But Leia is not consistently drawn *within a single comic*, either. Periodically, she's not even consistent with how faces work. We're far from the nuanced expressions of Lando here — closer, often, to "okay, that signifies a face, I guess." Space battles happen without a really convincing sense of geography. New settings appear without a strong sense of where we are or how the place feels.
I don't feel like I wasted my time on this comic, but it sits far, far down on my list of recommendations.
Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov
This is the Doug Lemov book that lists 66 techniques to help schoolteachers do better at their job.
First off, every improv instructor should drop everything and read this. I'm tired, tired, tired of hearing that improv is so unique that it can't learn anything from adjacent disciplines. Yes, teaching a high-school class is different from teaching improv, but there's a lot of overlap, and most of the ways improv teachers are tripping over themselves are solved problems in schoolteaching.
And those areas of overlap were, obviously, the most interesting parts to me. Most particularly, I loved the book's emphasis on eliminating bullshit (my phrasing, not Doug's) — eliminating the minutes students spend milling around, not sure what they should be doing, not clear on the class objective, and wasting time. Yes, not every class needs to be a time and motion study, but after spending the first fifteen minutes of every rehearsal and class having half-committed conversations and wondering if we're getting started yet, one suspects that we can do better.
Here are three takeaways I've especially taken to heart:
1. Start on time.
2. Teach the logistics of a type of exercise once, and then use that form a zillion times.
3. Make it clear and obvious when each exercise starts and stops.
And even just *that* makes a class run a lot more smoothly, and a lot more effectively. Sure, you may elect not to use those for one reason or another, in certain weird edge cases. But if you default to those three things, you can use those to get another, say, ten minutes out of every hour — and that's not only ten more minutes you can spend teaching, but it's ten *fewer* minutes that students spend standing around bored and confused.
Of course there's also schoolteacher material that *doesn't* overlap with improv, and that's all kind of useless to me. There's a lot of stuff geared towards holding the attention of, say, restless ten-year-olds. And there's a lot of material about preparing students for college, and the particular skills that states regularly test for.
But honestly, as you're reading, the 66 techniques don't strike you as falling neatly into the "relevant" and "irrelevant" bins. Instead, the whole book sort of washes over you, and you mostly remember the overall premises — don't waste time; value and expect good work; keep your students engaged.
The prose isn't amazing, but it's effective. And presenting it as these 66 bite-sized techniques gives a clear, understandable structure to the material. But again, this isn't really a book you read for pleasure — it's a book you plow through, stealing as many tools as you can.
The Dragon Prince (season 1)
This is the 2018 Netflix animated series about three children on an epic journey to save their fantasy kingdom.
The Dragon Prince is very, very good.
It's also instantly become the reference that pops into my head every time some blubbering studio exec green-lights yet another remake, reboot, or requel. The green-light happens, and then they dutifully make some unnecessary, diluted knockoff of your beloved IP, and the result does only-middling business, and nobody gets fired because everybody made all the safest possible choices.
If I were Entertainment King, here's what they would do instead: hire a bunch of the creative team from that original project, give those people a big pile of money, and have them do something reminiscent of the original work that explores new territory. That's what's going on with The Dragon Prince. Its showrunners are from Avatar: The Last Airbender. They've brought along Jack DeSena, the actor who voiced Sokka in that show. They've created a fantasy world based on elemental magic, just like Avatar, and sent kids on a desperate quest to stop an apocalyptic war, just like Avatar.
But they're still using that framework to do new things, and that makes this show much more interesting than any Avatar retread could be. Hell, netflix is even planning a live-action remake of Avatar, and fandom is responding with a collective shrug.
Of course, it helps that this team is just obnoxiously good at the basics of storytelling — simple, meat-and-potatoes things like "give him something her cares about, put it in danger, and tempt him to sacrifice it." Or "give her a secret that she thinks will ruin her friendships, and force her to keep holding on to it". It's all stuff that's easy to summarize in glib little general-example sentences like that. But putting those structures into a story is always devilishly hard, like solving a sudoku puzzle, only the numbers are plot points, and the square has ten dimensions, and the deadline is Tuesday, and everything is on fire.
They make the craft look easy, and that's honestly kind of frustrating, especially when single plot events neatly push forward several different story arcs at once. Or when they consistent setting up ticking clocks for the heroes' tasks. Or when they effortlessly raise the stakes on those tasks without letting the seams show. It all makes for gripping storytelling — and a show that, in the end, I was parceling out a little bit at a time because I didn't want to be done with it.
And I love how modern the show is in its sensibilities. Yes, it's drawing on high fantasy, the same ersatz medieval tropes that go back at least to Tolkien. But it's also willing to, for example, have a diverse cast. Even as a cis-het-white-male in a fairly segregated town, I heave a sigh of relief at watching a fantasy show whose populace looks... recognizable. That's not all middle-aged white beardy dudes. Hell, this show has a deaf character in it, and I was gobsmacked that I hadn't seen that in genre television before. My mother was deaf; the character in question was a beloved aunt.
I was moved.
And I loved the (relative) intricacy of the family structure in The Dragon Prince. We have two stepbrothers, and a mom who passed away, and the mom's sister, and the king's vizier with two children of his own. Basing it around a large family means that everybody has a strong relationship to everybody else. Putting the mother's death in the background, and letting that painful event cast a shadow, means that there are plenty of emotional arcs to work through in the present day. You don't have to labor to kickstart interpersonal issues — there's a lot of pain and awkwardness baked into the situation. And making the structure at least a little nontraditional again brings a sigh of relief that they're actually reflecting what society looks like.
Even little touches like Callum asking to pet his new friend's wolf before petting it felt like they were folding in the little kindnesses and respects we've learned in recent times.
My only quibble is that it was so short — nine quick half-hours and they're out. But, they've gotten renewed for a second season, they'll most likely run for six, and they've laid plenty of groundwork for another twenty-three-odd hours of story. I can't wait to see what they do next.
Legion (season 1) [spoilers]
This is the 2015 Noah Hawley series about David Haller, a psychiatric patient who is either (1) a superhero with bizarre mental powers or (2) a delusional schizophrenic.
I feel conflicted about this show.
It is an amazingly *well-presented* show. It is the only superhero story I've seen that is as narratively bold and avante-garde as a good comic. Most superhero yarns go like this: "this happens, then this happens, then this happens, then maybe there's a flashback, then back to the present, then the end." The story proceeds in a well-behaved chronlogical order, following a single plotline. Yeah, sure, it breaks up into three parallel stories for the big climax — the hero and two sidekicks each have to fix a separate magical whatsit before the blinkenlights clock hits 0:00 — and then everything reunites for the denouement.
Legion is more like: "this happens, then this happens, then there's an imagined vignette, then there's a flashback to the hero's childhood, then there's a whimsical French-pop dance number, then we pick up five minutes before where we left off." Legion is fearless in its willingness to use film technique as a tool to tell its story. The style is not just in service to the story — in many scenes, the style *is telling* the story. If the presentation is confusing, well, this is a story *about* confusion — about a hero who isn't sure if superheroes are real or if he's just a bewildered schizophrenic with dangerous delusions of grandeur. And the show brilliantly puts its audience right there in that emotion, as we unpeel layer after layer of insane world-building.
But I was let down by the ending. Usually I'm not too concerned about the ending of a TV season — if it's entertaining for ten episodes, then who really cares if it stumbles at the finish line? But in this case, I could trace a weak ending back to weaknesses that existed through the whole season.
So: without spoiling too much, I can say that the ending is basically a "who can punch more punchier" confrontation with the Big Bad. This is always a letdown in genre fiction, where the big climax arrives, and it suddenly feels like you're watching somebody else play a well-rendered videogame. There are ways to salvage that — for instance, you want it to be a fight that the hero *only* wins *because* of their personal growth over the course of the story.
And Legion only barely does that, at best. You could argue that David has gained in self-confidence, at least, over the course of the show. And there was some training of some sort, I suppose. But you get the sense that this fight could have gone down in largely the same way halfway through the season.
And then that problem made me see a parallel problem: there's not a "real-life story" version of Legion. Let me explain: for every great genre story, there's a way to do a real-life analog to it that doesn't require any genre elements. There's a way to do Star Wars so it's about a farmboy going off to save a princess. There's a way to do The Haunting of Hill House so it's about siblings grappling with childhood trauma that their parents never acknowledged. Hell, there's a version of The Sixth Sense that's just about a child psychologist who discovers he's got issues of his own.
The Mutant Enemy writers on Buffy expressed it another way: there's what the episode is about (vampires!) versus what the story is *really* about (many many adolescent problems!). So by that rubric, what is Legion *really* about? As far as I can tell, it's about coming to terms with mental illness. At core, it's about a man whose brain has bad, bad problems, and how he and those closest to him fight their way to giving him a life with meaning and happiness. That's a real, poignant, and relatable story. That's the real-world analog you get to when you put Legion through the "MCU-to-real-world" decoder ring.
But I don't think that emotional core of the story is there. So that means we've got a story that's about a possibly-crazy man getting caught up in a possibly-real superhero conspiracy, but it's *really* about... a possibly-crazy man getting caught up in a possibly-real superhero conspiracy. There's no emotional weight to it, beyond getting invested in the plot twists as presented. Now, the show executes masterfully, better than any show I've seen in years: the plot plays out brilliantly, and the skewed, haywire presentation is gripping. But the emotions just aren't there.
Which takes us back to the final, "who can punch more punchily" confrontation at the end of season one. It's the right way for a season of a genre show to end — have your hero fight the Big Bad — but it feels weirdly empty. The character growth didn't quite deliver. The emotional stakes never quite showed up.
In the end I do recommend this show without reservations — just watching it play out is brilliant — but don't come to it expecting an emotional payoff. Instead, just focus on the plot and the presentation and everything that the show does well.
For next week: I'm watching season one of The Leftovers and season one of Wynnona Earp. I'm also reading 1491 and listening to an audiocourse about emergency medicine. Eep, and I've still gotta write up Into the Spider-Verse.
 And yup, in retrospect, a bunch of white dudes creating something "tribal" is just as problematic as it sounds.
 Oh god. I just made that up but apparently that's a real word.
 And not only that, they went the extra mile to ensure that crowd scenes were gender-balanced and diverse, which apparently ginned up a pile of extra animation work.
 Unlike, say, Disney-Renaissance movies where they disappear one of the parents to simplify the script and reduce the animation work, and then just never mention it.
 The meme-inspired breakdown:
 The Last Jedi, for example, accomplishes this beautifully.
 Hat tip to Aspen Webster, who brought this up in discussing psychological horror.
Mood: contemplative · Music: none