Scaffolding Narrative Structure

We are in the business of telling stories.  As a teacher, I delight in sharing a love of compelling narratives with my students.  As an improviser, I work to tell real stories--not just look for the funny "gag" to get a laugh.  As a human, I understand the world and my experiences with others through constructing narratives.  We are natural storytellers. 

Highlight: improv coach focus.  It is my job to support my students' innate abilities to make meaning through story while simultaneously building the necessary skills to learn how to tell better stories.  What do I mean by "better"?  Funny you'd ask such a thing; it just so happens I have three points to consider.

1. A good story has a main character who changes and learns something.
Through repeated exposure to this mantra--to this overarching goal for storytelling--students not only learn about protagonists, but they have a basis for evaluating stories' plot/character development and theme.

2. A good story shows causal connections and focus.
Rather than being a "bed-to-bed" story or a "Then...then...then..." list, lean narratives serve the scene and the characters.  Compelling narratives are obvious in their next steps rather than random shots in the dark for surprised, uncomfortable laughs.  This takes a lot of practice.

3. A good story has a clear structure.
This structure may be any variation of the "normal world-->problem-->resolution" model we've come to understand through repeated experiences in telling, reading, and acting out stories.  Keith Johnstone calls this "platform-->tilt" (Read Impro and/or Impro for Storytellers for an in-depth study of these concepts.)

So...how does an improvisational teacher support students in realizing these lofty goals?  We plan, over-plan, observe, revise, and then plan some more.  Whether we're looking at one improv workshop or a unit over time, we must approach integrated improv as we do any other pedagogical and curricular tool.  In over-planning, we have options to consider and pull from.  That way, we can adjust the path of our class based on our real-time observations of what's happening at the moment.  We also scaffold to support skill-building, risk-taking, conceptual complexity, and autonomy.  What follows are brief descriptions of this scaffolding process in two contexts.

In both of the following scenarios, my end goal was to guide players through understanding and applying Kenn Adams' Story Spine.  (For a deeper exploration of this work, read his book How to Improvise a Full-Length Play: The Art of Spontaneous Theater.)  This structure not only establishes a protagonist, the setting, and the norm; but it shows when the tilt/problem occurs, has a built-in process for integrating causality, and the resolution establishes the new norm/platform.  Its applications are both rich and varied.** 

Story Spine
Once there was...
Every day...
...
But one day...
Because of that...
Because of that...
Because of that...
...
Until finally...
Ever since then...

Scenario One: A Unit-Over-Time With a First-Grade Class
Before expecting primary students to make the jump to causality, I started with an adjusted story spine. (See my earlier blog post for details: http://www.improv-education.com/2011/08/story-spine-my-scaffold-our-first.html)
We then told numerous stories as an entire group using the Kenn Adams story spine.  We set these stories in different genres, and we always debriefed to find out who the protagonist was, how they changed, and what s/he learned.
Later, I introduced Character Cards.  These are wonderful tools for noticing and connecting; each beautifully illustrated card has some subtle clues which connect it to a number of other characters.  Two may end up being one protagonist and a side character, or they might be a protagonist and an antagonist.  After a few sessions of getting to know the story spine and then familiarizing ourselves with the fantasy-based character cards, we brought the two worlds together.  First telling stories as a whole group allowed us to model and discover a multitude of possibilities.  But the world really came alive when pairs of students minimally rehearsed and massively improvised stories that they acted out in front of the group.  The story spine was theirs...and it was delightful to watch.

Scenario Two: One Narrative Workshop With a 5th-8th-Grade After-School Group
This afternoon, my enrichment class ended with narrated and performed story-spine mini-plays.  To get there, I scaffolded storytelling through a number of exercises.
1. Word-at-a-time stories with various partners
2. "Ricochet": a word-at-a-time story with one person in the middle, giving every other word with three other group members alternating who is giving the other word.
3. Conducted story
4. Partners telling story spine stories simultaneously
(See an earlier post for another example and explanation of scaffolding a narrative workshop: http://www.improv-education.com/2010/07/pick-me-eyes-and-exploring-narrative.html)

As we played, each member of these two ensembles gained skills in the structure and nuances of focused narratives.  What's more, these improvisers learned to co-create stories.  When I have an idea that I think is really quite fantastic, and the "conductor" in the game suddenly points to someone else, I may find that it's incredibly difficult to let my idea go.  I might think it's better than the one I just heard my team member say.  As our ensemble discovered this afternoon, the letting go and trusting that a collaboratively developed story is at least as worthy as one someone writes alone is THE LESSON.  Up next: the precarious balance of two principles of improv--commit and make-your-partner-look-good. 

**I first learned about the story spine through Laura Derry and Rebecca Stockley at BATS Improv in San Francisco. Rebecca's work in applying this concept to business and personal growth contexts has been incredibly inspirational and motivating for me as a coach and as a teacher.

"I don't think I've ever laughed that hard, mom!"

The title of this post is one of the best compliments I've received.  Knowing that one of my students was full of joy and excitement at the end of our class fueled my enthusiasm for teaching improv to kids.  Of course, the previous post (the note from a student about how improv has completely changed her life) is the kind of thing that makes me weep, sigh and take comfort in the fact that I am absolutely doing the right thing with my life.  And then there's the kind of compliment that you can never really expect:

Being stalked by a fifth-grader.

No, no...not the creepy kind of stalked.  Just the, "When is improv class starting again, Carrie?"  sort of stalking.  Every. Single. Day. 
I loved it.  He would find a reason to show up in my classroom, to see me on the yard, to point at me as we were driving next to each other on the freeway.  He COULDN'T WAIT for our little improv family to start meeting after school again.  And, really, neither could I.

My passion is being a classroom teacher...and coaching other teachers on how to integrate improvisational theatre activities and the principles of improv into their classrooms.  I consider myself an improvisational teacher in that my pedagogical decisions are guided by these principles every day.  However, last quarter, I began being a "teacher of improv" in addition to being an improvisational teacher.  What's the difference, Carrie?  Oh, yeah...an after-school elective.

This is the kind of teaching that dreams are made of.  It's like the chocolate souffle of performing arts and education.  Sure, there's an occasional overly drippy, sort-of flat moment; but it's still gooey, delectable chocolate.  Heaven.

Last week, I met with my sold-out class of 5th-8th graders for our first after-school adventure together.  It began a bit uncertain and awkward--as every class does, really.  But I had them 15 minutes into Ball.  It was hard to find time for a break because we were all laughing so hard, but I crammed a 2-minute water break in so we could have time for the games for which they were literally begging.

Perhaps my favorite moment was the collective enthusiasm about starting an improv flash mob... an idea that came entirely from the students... four or five of them... at the same exact moment.  This occurred right after I taught them a game I learned from Rebecca Stockley at BATS Improv in San Francisco (and I think she may have learned it up in Seattle): Hoo Hah, Bunny Bunny.  The ideal size group for this game is 10-20 players, but you can definitely vary that number.  It's an exercise in commitment and groupmind, of letting go and going for it. 

Hoo Hah, Bunny Bunny
Level one: The person who is "it" makes bunny ears with her fingers, points them at her own eyes, and says, "Bunny bunny" in a very low voice and serious tone.  She then points her bunny fingers at someone else and says, "Bunny bunny."  And so on.
Level two: Level one PLUS Everyone chants "Hoo hah, hoo hah..." while bouncing up and town with their arms straight down and palms facing the middle of the circle.  It feels very tribal, kind of exciting, and perhaps a bit wrong.
Level three: Levels one and two PLUS When someone is saying "Bunny bunny" the two people on either side of him face him, put their arms straight out to either side and say, "Toki toki..."

It all happens very fast, is quite intense, and is ridiculously hilarious.  Perhaps you have to be there.  You never know...you may just end up in the middle of a tweens' flash mob.  If you do, I have one piece of advice: Just go with it.  Hoo hah.