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Scenic Archetypes

Scenic Archetypes is a plot-driven long-form improv technique that I have been developing since 2003. What distinguishes this technique from other long-form improv techniques is that it specifies a play structure of scenes that players follow during the performance. As of last count, three different shows have been performed using this technique.

The first show was performed by Let's Try This! in 2004. The story revolved around the perils of the B-battery; it turns out that B stands for "Bad." The play structure used was a combination of the Antigone Structure and the Dr. Faustus Structure. When they performed at the Black Box Improv Festival 2005, 7↑ used another combination of these two play structures. Let's Try This! has since performed another show, based on the Mamet Structure.

Introducing Scenic Archetypes

In a scenic archetype, archetypal characters follow an established plot pattern to accomplish predefined goals. Different scenic archetypes combine to form a play structure. Improvisers are guided by this structure to perform a play. Each scene in the play is an instantiation of its scenic archetype, with a predetermined plot and archetypal characters. Because the archetypes work together, the improvised play has a coherent plot. The play structure forms the skeleton of the play; the improvisers flesh in the details. Thus, improvisers can create a long-form with a coherent and nuanced plot.

A good play structure does more than support improvisers in creating a coherent long-form. It also gives them enough freedom to improvise. For some improvisers, this technique violates the cardinal improv rule "everything should be improvised." In scenic archetypes, the plot structure is predetermined, so the rule is broken. But, that rule is broken in many commonly played improv games, such as Three Monologues. These games have a constrained structure that guides the players; scenic archetypes are just a slightly different set of constraints. In a good scenic archetype, there should still be plenty of room to improvise (i.e., be in the moment). That the combination of these different "games" leads to a coherent long-form is just a benefit.

A-Team Episodes

In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team.

The A-Team was a popular television series in the 80s. It is relevant in that most episodes follow roughly the same play structure. (Scene 1) Somebody who is in trouble appears in a strange place to hire the A-Team. Nobody from the A-Team is there. They end up talking with some strange character and spill their tale of woe. Then, at the appropriate time, the stranger rips off his disguise to reveal that he's actually Hannibal, the leader of the A-Team. With a wry smile, he informs the client, "congratulations, you've just hired the A-Team." Thus, ends scene 1. The theme song plays. (Scene 2) The A-Team meets with their client to explore their troubles and agree to confront the bad guys. (Scene 3) They confront the bad guys. This ends badly with the A-Team getting either captured, beat up, or knocked out. (Scene 4) The A-Team regroups at a critical point. The odds seem stacked against them. Hannibal comes up with a crazy scheme. (Scene 5) Time for the infamous building scene. As the theme music plays, the A-Team creates some kind of crazy contraption, like a lettuce cannon, that is essential to Hannibal's scheme. This usually involves welding. (Scene 6) The bad guys show up and get clobbered by the crazy scheme. As they lie defeated, Hannibal quips, "I just love it when a plan comes together." (Scene 7) After commercial, the episode ends with a denouement. Everybody is celebrating their victory. Somebody accidentally lets some piece of information slip. Usually, this has something to do with B.A. (Bad Attitude), played by Mr. T, getting knocked out earlier so that the team can fly him somewhere. B.A. is afraid of flying. As B.A. is about to kick butt, the frame freezes and the episode ends with credits and music.

These scenes are archetypes, because they always contain the same plot pattern and accomplish the same thing. Scene 3 always ends with our heroes in worse shape. It demonstrates that the bad guys are really bad and fairly dangerous. It leads the audience to believe that the A-Team may be in over their heads. Thus, Scene 3 is an archetype that contributes the same thing to each episode. Because this pattern of scenes works well together, the episode structure works. One of the keys to making a scenic archetype work is that each character is an archetypal character. In the A-Team, Hannibal is the brains; B.A. is the brawns. One could easily see adapting the A-Team play structure to another setting, such as Knight Rider or MacGyver.

Creating the Play Structure

There are two ways to construct a play structure:

Deconstruct Another Work
Find a work (a play, a book, a movie, a TV-show, etc.) that can be deconstructed; the scenes and the characters of that work need to be general enough that the plot can be transferred to a new situation. The way to deconstruct the prior work is to reduce it to its necessary scenes and characters. Then, abstract what goals each scene needs to accomplish in the structure of the play. On this site, you can find three different deconstructions: Antigone Structure, Dr. Faustus Structure, and Mamet Structure. You could also deconstruct the A-Team episode structure or a Law & Order episode structure.

There are couple of advantages to this technique. First, the original work has already proven itself to be compelling. Its structure is solid. Second, there are many concrete details of the original work that improvisers can adapt. While this may not be necessary, it does help. So, for instance, in the A-Team, Hannibal is more than just the leader. He's confident, clever, and charming. An improviser playing the Hannibal archetype can integrate some of these qualities into their character. These characteristics work for Hannibal in the TV-show; there's a good chance they'll work for the improviser in the play. There is a critical difference between playing an archetype and simply playing the character. In the play, the improviser is not playing Hannibal. He or she is playing the Hannibal archetype—a strong, clever, confident leader that eventually triumphs.

Improvise Your Own
  1. Start off improvising one scene around a scenic archetype. For instance, A gets into a fight with B over the way B treats C.
  2. Have improvisers play this archetype a number of times to see how that archetype works best. Perhaps, it works best if B is hot-headed and unreasonable.
  3. Create a new scene to follow the existing scene. For instance, B gets furious with C for getting A involved.
  4. Play the two archetype scenes together. Don't simply repeat an older scene; come up with completely new instantiations of the archetype. See what makes the whole structure work.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until the play is constructed.

There are a couple of advantages to this technique. First, you create an original work that is all your own. Second, as you are improvising its parts with your fellow improvisers, everyone will better understand how the overall structure fits together. As a rehearsal technique, this will get your fellow improvisers on the same page. If the same actors are to perform this play, there are plenty of past examples that they can draw on.

Workshopping Scenic Archetypes

When working with people not familiar with scenic archetypes, I first give an overview of the technique, explaining the A-Team example. This allows the improvisers to start getting used to the idea. Second, I introduce people to the Dr. Faustus Structure. It is easy to explain and relatively simple to execute. Next, I have people start performing the first scene of that play structure repeatedly. The focus of this is so people can get used to instantiating the archetypes. I emphasize that the Lucifer character is not supposed to be the devil, but rather just a devil-like character. He or she has lots of power and is evil. You could easily make Lucifer a politician, a mob boss, a bully, the prom-queen, a terrorist, or a Hollywood agent. You could make a regretable deal with any of them. I continue repeating the first scene until the players have a good grasp on instantiating a scenic archetype. Then, I have them run both the first and the second scene back-to-back. This way they start getting used to having the scenes relate in this way. The focus now shifts to making sure that the plot works. Are the players properly accomplishing the goals of each scene? Do the scenes work together to further the plot? Finally, once a particularly good second scene concludes, I have them go all the way through the play.

After working the Dr. Faustus Structure, I move on to the Antigone Structure; it's a bit more complex. It's fairly easy to combine elements of these play structures to create a new unique play structure. You can adjust the play structure to better suit your players. If you notice that a certain relationship works well, make it a goal of the scene. The more players are familiar and comfortable with the play structure, the more they will be capable of performing a scenic-archetype play. When performing, I keep two or so copies of the play structure backstage for players to refer to if necessary.

Reflection Games

Often, when using a play structure in a show, it helps to integrate some reflection games. These games help summarize or reinterpret what has happened so far. At the end of the play, it allows the audience to relive the play again. Here are some useful reflection games: