Improv is the art of making up scenes on the fly by collaborating with one or more people. For a number of reasons, this is harder than it sounds. While pretty much anyone can improvise, not everyone can improvise in interesting ways.
This mirrors screenwriting, in than anyone can write: FADE IN: INT. DINER — DAY. Dave sits at a booth. DAVE: I want coffee, not everyone can do this well enough to get paid six figures for a spec script.
Improv has many lessons for writers. Today I’d like to talk about the four scene type theory advanced by Miles Stroth.
Miles has been performing weekly since 1992 and has performed in well over 1000 long-form shows. He has worked with Del Close and Charna Halpern, he was in the Family with Matt Besser and Ian Roberts. If you know improv, you’ve probably heard of him. If you haven’t, just go with me on this, his credentials are vast, stately, and legit.
Miles teaches out of his school, the Miles Stroth Workshop in Los Angeles. Unlike most schools, it doesn’t have an intro class. You won’t find retired schoolteachers holding hands, learning yes-and, and playing questions only. The class is for people who’ve taken classes at other schools and who are ready to branch out into something new. His class costs $300 for 8 three hour sessions. It would be a bargain at twice the price.
You might be thinking, Jesus Christ, blow more smoke, Matt. That would be a fair point, but I write this to stress how good a program Miles runs, how good a teacher is, and to segue into how much is approach had on my understanding of improv (and writing).
Miles divides all improv scenes into four types (there are variations of each and combinations of the four types, but these are the primary colors).
Straight/Absurd: One character is “straight” or normal, representing the point of view of the audience. The other is absurd, or perceptibly wrong or flawed. (1)
Sample scene: STRAIGHT MAN: Mr. President, stop pooping in the Oval Office. ABSURD PRESIDENT: Resolute Desk? More like Res-I-Pooed-Desk. STRAIGHT MAN: Jesus Christ… I’m tendering my resignation. I can’t believe you won your primary.(2)
Character Driven: A character is a point of view, patternized. If someone is a cowboy, let them be a cowboy. To quote Miles, “With character driven scenes, all we want to see is what characters are going to say next.” Specifics get filtered through the lens of characters perception. Because all characters are heightened, all characters are fundamentally absurd. In character driven scenes, the fun is derived from letting the characters bounce off each other.
Sample scene: CHARACTER A (ASTRONAUT): Look at that stripper go. She reminds me of the twin moons of Venus. CHARACTER B (FARMER): She’s purty and all, but she she wouldn’t be no good on a farm. CHARACTER A: Look at us. An Astronaut and a Farmer. How things have changed since our high school days…
Alternate Reality/Story: The alternate reality scene takes an absurd notion, but makes it a guiding principal of the world. If someone says, “Gosh, that Werewolf fraternity sure throws crazy pranks,” they’re either nuts (3), or they live in a world of werewolves. Generally, the latter makes more sense. Sometimes you’ll need to justify how the world got that way, “Gosh, the neighborhood sure has changed since the rite of blood,” other times, everything gets explained by genre, for instance, if you’re doing Star Wars, you don’t need to explain Darth Vader.
This is also called story because of genre scenes. If you’re in a western, the audience has an archetypal understanding of cowboys. If you’re doing a mob movie, they’ll understand mob stereotypes (4).
SAMPLE SCENE: CHARACTER A: I adopted a lizard. CHARACTER B: A lizard with the birthmark! He is the chosen one. We must assemble the small council. CHARACTER A: The chosen one? I am so proud of my lizard son!
Realistic The rarest type, the slice of life scenes. Generally have shades of characters (archetypal but relatable low-concept human beings) and shades of genre (naturalistic indie drama, a dogma film). The point of realism isn’t to be boring or move slow, it’s to accurately frame a human truth in a realistic way.
SAMPLE SCENE: CHARACTER A: You forgot our anniversary. CHARACTER B: You kissed my brother. CHARACTER A: Yeah. We’ve got a lot to talk about on this drive home.
FOOTNOTES (1) But wait! We live in a world of possibilities! What is normal? What is wrong or flawed? Yeah, I do understand this argument, but it’s not always useful for writing, comedy, or grounding things. (2) Examples are mine. Yes, they are deliberately bad. (3) Yeah, they could be joking, or being in a play. While those are possibilities, part of what makes improv work is to generally assume that all statements were made with integrity. (4) Consider mafia movies. Even the realistic ones, like GOODFELLAS, don’t really drill into what it’s like to pay taxes as a mafia guy. They use a veneer of realism, but tend to focus on more interesting stuff. Yes, there are movies that are actually about the minutia of being a dryly realistic cowboy or mobster. They are the exception.