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.

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