The Odyssey of Long-Form Improv

I‘ve been seriously dabbling in fiction for twenty-five years. Took three 16-week graduate-level seminars from published authors; wrote at least twenty short stories; submitted three or four for publication. And did I ever publish a story? No. Well, maybe I’ll become famous posthumously. Trouble is, if I did I’d never know. Case in point. According to Greek mythology, Odysseus was the only living person to visit Hades and then return to the land of the living. While he was there, he looked up his old friend Achilles, the biggest badass warrior of the Trojan War. Odysseus, the biggest smarty pants of the Trojan War, sought out Achilles to ask him what he thought about being such a renowned warrior now that he was a permanent resident of Hades. Achilles said he would rather be a living slave than a dead hero. Which I translate as follows: Forget about making your mark and enjoy life while you can; it’s over before you know it.

That being said, I’d still like to publish a story someday, though I plan to enjoy myself even if I don’t. And here’s the good news: Now that I’m taking advanced improv classes, I can have fun while I continue to learn about storytelling. In Merlin Works’ advanced classes they teach something called long-form improv. The storytelling aspect of long-form is based on something I learned in graduate school called, The Hero’s Journey, a concept introduced by Joseph Campbell in his book, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” (1949).

In a nutshell, the Hero’s Journey is a story that features a hero who goes on an adventure, faces overwhelming obstacles, wins a climactic victory, and then returns home transformed by the experience. What’s this got to do with improv? The framework of the Hero’s Journey serves as a template for improvising a story that’s never been told before or will be again. How can this be? Once you know this basic storytelling framework and how to develop it with your hero and support characters, you and your improv associates are free to weave your improv talents into a memorable story that’s fresh and entertaining. By the way, the story of Odysseus, also known as The Odyssey, is arguably the most classic example of the Hero’s Journey.

–Michael Finney


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