The Heroes Journey and Improv

For the past year or so I’ve been mildly obsessed with the book The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler The book is intended as a guide for screenwriters on how to use Joseph Campbell’s work on world mythology in their screenplays. It has four sections. The first section overviews the steps in The Heroes Journey. The second section goes into detail about each stage in the journey. The third section goes through the character archetypes used in the mythic journey. The fourth section analyses several popular movies through the lens of the heroes journey.

Here’s an excerpt of the overview of the hero’s journey:

1. Heroes are introduced in the ORDINARY WORLD, where
2. they receive the CALL TO ADVENTURE
3. They are RELUCTANT at first or REFUSE THE CALL, but
4. are encouraged by a MENTOR to
5. CROSS THE FIRST THRESHOLD and enter the Special World.
6. They encounter TEST, ALLIES, and ENEMIES.
7. They approach the INMOST CAVE, crossing a second threshold
8. where they endure the ORDEAL.
9. The take possession of their REWARD and
10. are pursued on THE ROAD BACK to the Ordinary World.
11. They cross the third threshold, experience a RESURRECTION, and are transformed by the experience.
12. They RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR, a boon or treasure to benefit the Ordinary World.

In my dream world, this kind of formula could be used to take longform improvisation to the next level. Ground it in universal meaning. Giving it greater scope and something for players to focus on.

I’m always on the lookout, when I’m watching TV, a movie, a play or reading a book. I’m looking for improv scenes I’ve never seen before. Often in improv shows I will see the same type of scene over and over while there are whole worlds of scenes that never get explored in improv. For example, I’ve seen a million it’s my first day on the job scenes or I’m the creepy guy in love with the girl scene, or I’m a really bad parent scene. And they are good scenes, nothing wrong with them. But part of why I feel so strongly about this is when I look at the stages of the story, I see scenes that I never see in improv shows. I almost never see a hero refuse the call to adventure, or a quality mentor scene, which is a classic comedic scene. Also longforms usually stop at their first plausible ending, around stage 9 of the heroes journey listed above. We never see stages 10-12–the endings that make stories really satisfying and complete.

I think that’s what attracts me to genre long form. All of the stages of the heroes journey are hidden inside a genre like Star Trek or Broadway Musicals. But I want to be able to do them separately from genre or within more specific genres that emerge from the moment.

The challenge is it’s going to take a while to get these skills in to my subconscious, so I can just whip them out on stage without thinking. Fortunately Shannon and I have been working on them and getting better at recognizing them in the moment. Right now, it’s still a bit clunky and not as entertaining as I think it can be. We’ll see where this little experiment leads.

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About Shana Merlin

Merlin Works is the brainchild of Shana Merlin: improviser, teacher, and performer. Since 1996, she’s been leading classes that stretch people’s imaginations, push them out of their comfort zones, and make them laugh out loud for hours at a time.
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One comment

  1. Frank Wernet said:

    I’m open to these ideas, been teaching improv in Chicago for eight, hope to hear from your thanks

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