Self-Improv-ment: Level Three

Comedy stage

Every story has a beginning, middle, and end. Atlas Improv Co.’s level three class is the end of my formal educational journey with improvisational theatre. Having spent a school year’s worth of Wednesday nights in the confines of the theatre space, I think about the growth and change I’ve experienced. Everyone knows stories are only good if the protagonist grows or learns something.

I have to confess—my confidence was shaken starting level three. Stage nerves tend to make me focus on trying to remember the plot, and sometimes I get caught up and can’t make a decision. I was so worried about ruining a scene that I didn’t try to put myself in any, even with the loving support of my amazing classmates. I just wanted to do well all the time, but as a wise woman told me partway through class, “Pobody’s nerfect.”

Level three is all about constructing narratives in a longer format than students have grown accustomed to. Sitting backward in a chair, Daniel Row, the artistic director of Atlas Improv Co. and level three’s primary teacher, started off telling us, “It’s different than every class you’ve taken so far … I’m sure you’ve heard lots of stuff that improv is or isn’t, but there’s a lot more to it than just the rules you know.” We went over formerly established guidelines, which Dan then threw out of a pantomimed window. “In level one and two, it’s important to instill those basic rules. Don’t do this, don’t do that. In level three, it’s important that these rules you’ve been told aren’t rules.”

To fully embrace this new rulelessness, we started with a game called Ruin That Scene! It plays just like it’s named—a few performers try to carry on a scene while one or two rogue agents attempt to derail the proceedings by any means possible. Some people just said no defiantly; others scene-cut inappropriately. I decided to shimmy across the stage midscene, yelling expletives, before going meta and addressing the audience directly, breaking down the rules of the stage.

After the liberating act of breaking old rules, we sat down to learn the new guidelines for our long-form narrative structures in the form of the Story Spine. The Story Spine is the criterion our stories should aim to meet. It’s a simple set of events—once upon a time—that describe the life of the protagonist, who should be relatable, which leads up to an inciting incident, typically a “you know what your problem is?” trope-ridden statement that sparks a journey, where there will be a few obstacles until the resolution of the story and a conclusion. Simple enough, right? Making that up with five other people at the same time? Less simple.

By the end I was feeling just dandy about being in long scenes with my highly capable associate contemporaries. Our stories were varied and always funny. We had a horror story involving a Target store that possessed people to become zombie-like wage slaves, a western involving the decimation of the local raccoon population, and a romantic comedy centered around a guy who cared more about antique baseball cards than finding love.

After our final long-form performance, the second half of level three shifted to a particular format of game-focused improv called Spokane. The best way I can describe it would be a hub scene that is grounded in reality, lacking wackiness, where others find funny things to spring off from within that scene. Someone in the hub scene (a hubber) would say something open ended, like “I used to spend a lot of time working on inventions.” One of the offstage Spokers would come and tag out the others in the scene and make up a weird invention with the hubber. Other Spokers would ramp up his inventions, getting wackier with each incarnation. That’s the Game of the Scene, which is what is funny about the interaction and what audiences and members would like to see again and again and again! After the Game of the Scene is over, everyone resets back to base, and the hubbers continue on.

Spokanes aren’t that easy to grasp. Luckily our class, with the solid majority of us having come directly from level two together, already had a connection. We knew how we worked as a squad, and we knew everyone’s strengths and weaknesses. This helped make the transition from long-form narratives to Spokanes much, much easier. It also made for an amazing final set of spokes, where I hubbed as an ill-trained surgeon.

A year ago I went into this whole thing thinking I might come out a little funnier or easier to talk to. I didn’t expect to come out of this with a bunch of friends and things to look forward to. My classmates and I have started talking about making our own Atlas-approved Indie Team. It’s been awhile since I’ve been so excited to tackle a new endeavor. My story is still being written, and the chapter numbers grow every year. Thanks to Atlas Improv and their classes, I have a new, fun chapter in my journey through life.

Photograph by Kelly Kittle

Josh Heath is a Madison-born-and-raised writer. He loves comedy, but “can be a bit much” according to strangers at parties and ex-girlfriends. Read his work in Isthmus or online at .

Atlas Improv Co.

609 East Washington Avenue
Madison, WI 53703
(608) 259-9999