top of page
  • Writer's pictureFrancisco Mahfuz

E111. Tell Stories Like Pixar with Kenn Adams

Below is an AI-generated transcript and therefore it may contain errors.

Francisco Mahfuz 0:00

Welcome to the Storypowers podcast, the show about the power of stories, the people who tell them and why you should be doing it too. I'm your host, keynote speaker and storytelling coach Francisco Mahfuz. My guest today is Ken Adams. Ken is the artistic director of the improvisational theatre company synergy theatre, and the author of the book how to improvise a full length play the art of spontaneous theatre. Ken is also the reason that every child of my generation has been massively concerned that our toys are coming to life behind our backs and plotting against us when we don't treat them fairly. Now, he didn't actually write Toy Story or work for Pixar. But he invented the story structure used in just about every single Pixar movie ever made. It's probably a good thing that he can take the blame for any of the Disney movies with their horribly sticky soundtracks and endless merchandise, or have really struggled to keep a civil tone during this episode. Ladies and gentlemen, the master of improv himself, Ken Adams. Ken, welcome to the show.

Kenn Adams 1:03

Thank you so much for the generous introduction. Thank you.

Francisco Mahfuz 1:06

So that introduction. It's obviously something you've talked about a tonne. I think just for people that have no idea what I'm talking about the briefest of summaries is that you. But without any connection to Pixar, I think many years, perhaps many years before Pixar was invented. I think before Pixar was a big thing, at least, you invented the story spine, which is once upon a time every day. But one day, because of that, because of that, and because of that, until finally, and ever since then, which is the structure that essentially is the one used in every single Pixar movie. But a lot of people refer to that, not as the story is fine. But as the Pixar pitch. I actually this just this just this morning, I was listening to a friend of mine, a speaker called Brian Miller talking about story. He does some some some of us he does a story work. And he mentioned the Pixar page, and I'm listening to you. It's like it's not a bigger page. It's the stories fine. So what's your what's your relationship with the fact that this thing you created has become so big, but not necessarily big? It but not necessarily known for your thing? As much as a lot of people know it is a big sort of thing?

Kenn Adams 2:29

Yes. Such as life? Hmm. I'll tell you how the whole thing happened. I invented the story spine back in 1990, late 1990 91 When I was working with a theatre company called freestyle Repertory Theatre in New York City, they perform theatre sports, New York, they're the New York home for theatre sports, and they're an improvisational theatre company. And that's where I learned everything. And when I started working with them, I was still in school studying playwriting and writing for the musical theatre. That was my original interest in theatre was playwriting. And it was just about early 1990 When I started working with freestyle Repertory Theatre, and one of the early projects I did for them, was directing their first full length improvised play, we weren't doing anything like that back then. So I started improvising learning short form in order to play theatre sports. And I was all obsessed with playwriting at the time. And immediately, I thought, why do we have to stop after two or three minutes and start a new scene? Why can't we improvise a full length play, just like I was learning how to write one. So I put together a bunch of tools in order to allow us to do that well. And one of them was the story spine, which as you said, Once upon a time every day, but one day because of that, because of that, because of that until finally and ever since then, now, I will be the first to admit that I did not invent story structure. I didn't invent the idea of a beginning and a middle and an end all the story spine is is a condensation of how great stories work. All good stories have a beginning and a middle and an end. And the story spine is just a condensation of the major points. That brings us from one of those sections to the other. So it is descriptive, not prescriptive. It says what happens, not what you must do. Nonetheless, there I was using it in order to work with freestyle Repertory Theatre as we were rehearsing and developing our first full length improvised play. And shortly after that, we travelled to San Francisco where our sister company Theatre sports out here in San Francisco Bay Area theatre sports or bats was holding a convention, a festival and bringing people together. So when I was there, I ran a workshop on story structure and play structure and I introduced the story spine one of the people who was there was one of the founding directors of Bay Area theatre sports, this wonderful improviser named Rebecca Stokley, so Rebecca learned the story spine from me, then, I don't know exactly when. But a few years later, she started working at Pixar running improv workshops for their writing staff. And she taught the story spine to Pixar. And then it got picked up like that. So that's how it kind of travelled from New York where I invented it over to San Francisco and eventually to Pixar. So I am proud and happy that the story spine is out there. And I credit a couple of people for letting the world know that I did invent it. And you are now the next one in a long line to my I'm very grateful, though. Thank you very much for that. But I'm very glad it's out there. I certainly hold no ill will against anybody. I don't think anybody did anything purposefully in order to take credit for something that wasn't there as it was just the way these things work. And similarly, you know, I teach word at a time story. I have no idea who invented that there are things that are just out there. And I'm very proud to have contributed to the treasure.

Francisco Mahfuz 6:02

I doubt that was how it happened. But I would have loved that the story was in one day I was in the cinema, I was watching this new movie that someone had told me about. So it's called Toy Story. And then as soon as it started with fake contagion to the beats of the story with Hold on, hold on. I know exactly. 70 here.

Kenn Adams 6:23

Yeah. And again, I'll point out, you know, people have been telling great stories for 1000s of years right long before I came along. So again, I don't claim to have invented anything, I just claimed to have discovered certain key elements that help shepherd a good story from its beginning into the middle and then into the end, and how they link how you go from one section to the other.

Francisco Mahfuz 6:47

Yeah, it was actually one of the questions I had, I had for you, but you've covered it already was, I wanted to know, if you felt that you had created something from scratch, if you had uncovered it. Or if you had just actually picked something that had been in in in the world, like the hero's journey in just simplified it. Because yours is not the same as the hero's journey. There are some elements that are similar, but it's not actually the same structure. But, but I think that's common enough. When we look at story structures, or frameworks to someone, some people feel they created everything. But more likely than not they they simplified it or uncovered thinking that they had invented it. And then were told by other people that they hadn't, which was what happened to me in the avocado toast, which are generally felt I have invented for a data view that I have not.

Kenn Adams 7:42

Well, I still attribute avocado toast to you. So yes, while I blushed to put myself in any category that also contains Joseph Campbell or the heroes myth. I do think that is the similar process, Joseph Campbell studied myths from all around the world and took the key elements that they had in common and put them all together into his monomyth. And that's what I think the story spine is you can take a look at all of the stories in the world, see how their beginnings lead to their middles and their middles lead to their end and pull out these transitional moments that I found and call the story spine. So I discovered what was there and just made it simple so that people could see it more easily. Yeah, because

Francisco Mahfuz 8:24

I think to an extent, what anyone that does any work with with story is eventually is paying attention is there is no way to not to, to hit upon the same sort of beats or the same sort of frameworks. If you're if you're actually trying to understand how this thing works, where, where perhaps yours highlighted something that to anyone who was very familiar with Joseph Campbell's work should have been, they should have known this already. But for other people to just think of stories as beginning, middle and end might not have been as obvious is what comes before the problem in what comes after the problem. To my mind, the the idea that the beginning needs to involve in ordinary life for this is how life used to be. And then how that needs to be shown to be different at the end is something that a lot of people don't get when they tell a story or they just think of you know, you know, they think of the beginning, middle and end but they won't necessarily go okay, what goes in the beginning is just you know, where I am when the action happens. The end is when it ends, is there anything missing there? So I think yours very clearly highlights those things in a way that the more basic structures don't know if you felt there was any other elements that were that you hadn't seen around when you came up with yours.

Kenn Adams 9:48

Yeah, I think that's one of the reasons why the tool is helpful because we are all intuitive storytellers. Human beings are simply storytelling animals as I think there's a famous book called The Storytelling animal. But just like any other art form, you can have a natural talent for it and an intuition for it. But there are still parts of it that you won't pick up unless you study it. So you have to practice music in order to understand the scales and harmonies and how it all works, even though you might have a natural gift for music. And I think the story spine helps one do that, because you can intuitively tell a story, sometimes you'll hit gold, but sometimes you won't. And unless you know how stories work, you won't know why sometimes your intuitive stories are better than others. The story spine gives you something that you can use as an outlining tool or as a lens to look through in order to see okay, where is my story idea, not following along with the way organic stories work, and then you can go in and fix it.

Francisco Mahfuz 10:51

Okay, so I really like that you said that because one of the one of the recurring conversations I had on this show is the one where I make a lot of story people nervous. And I tell them that I don't really like story structures, or that I don't believe it is the instruction. And then the sudden people start, like wanting to finish the conversation, because clearly this guy doesn't have a clue what he's talking about. But the way I feel is that having both for this podcast, and for my own development as a storyteller, and someone who talks about storytelling professionally, I've read dozens and dozens of books on storytelling, and now must have heard hundreds of podcasts of people who are very well known in this world. And a lot of people have a story structure that they teach. And what I found is to say, Okay, I have been telling stories for a while, I think I'm pretty decent at it. Let me actually try and use this story structures and see if it improves in any way, what I'm doing. And what I tended to find was that I was trying to cram the, you know, the things that happen and the way I would normally tell the story into a structure. And that sometimes wasn't a particularly good fit. Or I kept thinking I needed the elements that were in the structure. But my story didn't have those elements. And then, you know, does that mean that the story doesn't work? And I didn't think that that was the case. So where I've landed is that, I think it's something like what you said earlier in the beginning. So you said that it's a descriptive to not a prescriptive tool. And where I've landed this story structure is great as a checklist, but it's not necessarily what you sit in front of and try is not a fill in the blank thing is a did I go wrong somewhere? Is there anything that I'm missing? Is there any other way of organising this thing? I've got now on the page that perhaps would flow a little better? So that's my feeling for most story structures, particularly for people that have some experience with storytelling? Is that what you meant by prescriptive, descriptive and not prescriptive?

Kenn Adams 12:59

Yeah. By descriptive, I mean, we can look at stories describe what they do, and then copy what they do, as opposed to just making up arbitrary rules and saying, every good story needs to contain these. So you look at 10, great stories, what do they all have in common? Well, they all have a beginning in which there's some status quo, then they all have something that happens that breaks the status quo and puts the hero or the main character into some sort of Jeopardy or danger, then that Jeopardy escalates. Then there's a climax later on, in which the hero is put on their path towards either success or failure. And then by the end, there's either success or failure. And that's just what happens, like look at a whole bunch of stories. And you will see, that's what happens. Not every story, of course, but the large majority of stories have this basic beginning, middle. And so we can learn from those stories. And when we are creating the story, we can have a status quo in the beginning, we can break it with an event we can raise the stakes and then put the hero on a path towards success or failure. What I like about the story spine is that like any of these structures for stories, I think it has to achieve two things. One is it has to be specific enough that it separates a story that follows it from one that doesn't, but it has to be broad enough that it doesn't alienate any idea for a story. So it has to be all encompassing, yet specific enough that it distinguishes some things from other things. So unlike the hero's journey, which is a very specific set of plot points that myths have in common. The story spine is not about plot points specifically like in the hero's journey, there is the call to adventure. Then the hero sets out and there's the Guardian at the frontier that prevents them for it scares them away from leaving And then later the belly of the whale where they are somehow incapacitated for some time. And that leads to growth like those are plot

Francisco Mahfuz 15:08

points that in their most their innermost cave meets the Goddess.

Kenn Adams 15:13

Yes, not every story is going to have those things. So you couldn't say that the hero's journey is a good model for any story you would ever want to write. It's only good if you want to write a myth, write the story spine, works for myths, but also works for any kind of story you would want to write because it's not about a particular type of story. It is about the basic DNA of all stories.

Francisco Mahfuz 15:37

Yeah, I think where the place where I have had more trouble with any story structure, not not yours in particular, but any story structure in general is because a lot of the types of stories that I traffic in the very, very small day to day things, you know, I'm home, my kid says something, and then we have kind of a very short dialogue, and then all of a sudden just flips completely my idea of how she sees the world. And those, it's really, really hard to stick them into any kind of structure like you can. But there is a chance that in trying to do that you, you try and broaden a story that's really meant to be told in a minute or two, because you're trying to fill in some type of Once Upon a Time in every day, and those things are probably not needed to get the impact of what that story is. So that I think that's why I struggle with that.

Kenn Adams 16:34

Yeah, just just to use the story that you just told as an example, we could say that the Once Upon a Time and every day is you came home from work and your daughter was there, the but one day is your daughter said something to you. So you see any series of events that has a beginning and a middle and an end feel to it can be you can discover the story spine within it. And then you can make modifications to it if you want to based on highlighting certain aspects and de emphasising others. So like the once upon a time, the every day, the routine, it doesn't have to be grand in scope. That's why I think the story is fine is effective, because it works for any type of story Big or small, and something that feels like a traditional story or something that just feels like a little anecdote, it all can be analysed through that lens.

Francisco Mahfuz 17:26

Yes, I think there is also an element of your understanding of the structure is understandably, substantially better, or deeper than the schmuck like me who looks at the structure and starts making conclusions or assumptions about what goes where, you know, I heard, I heard you on a different podcast. And you were trying you end up the host of that show. We're doing the Romeo and Juliet in the story structure, and satisfying. And then we're she she struggles with the end of it because she's not quite sure at what point is the is the until finally is when Juliet dies or thinks pretends to die. And is that when Romeo kills himself in your answer was we actually know that until finally is When Romeo kills Juliet's cousin and everything that comes after that is just a resolution. I don't think that that's a point that most people would have, they wouldn't have thought that that was the case, I wouldn't think at least not on with a superficial understanding of other stories binaries.

Kenn Adams 18:33

Well, two things I'll say one is, first of all, there are two different tools at play. One is the story spine, which is that simple eight line exercise, then there is a much more elaborate model that I write about in that book, how to improvise a full length play, which is a very specifically about how plays are structured. And it largely fits the same model is the story is fine, but it's much more intricate, because please do certain things that stories don't have to do with that all other kinds of stories don't have to do. So that analysis of Romeo and Juliet you're talking about was using a more elaborate structure than the story spine was using what I call the play by play structural model. The other thing is the the host that you're talking about is a is my friend Kat. And to be very, very fair, I I figured out Romeo and Juliet 20 years ago and have been using it ever since. So I just know that one because I've said it a million times. It's a very thick play with lots of stuff happening in it. And it is not surprising that someone who hasn't been you know, repeating the same, the same script about it for 20 years would not see it as clearly.

Francisco Mahfuz 19:50

Yes, I think you're being you're being tremendously generous there with the analysis. But there's also the point that where a story resolved It resolves itself is not always obvious to the person who's not neck deep into story. And the example that comes to mind here is, I had an episode of this show that I love with a with a storyteller called Matthew Dix, who is the guy who's won more math stories lambs than anyone in history. And he's giving me the example, he always talks about how a story is about change, whatever is the chair in whatever state the characters in at the beginning, they will change by them if the story is any good. And that's where the story really ends. Everything else is just, you know, resolution. And he gives the example of Jurassic Park, and how the main character I forgot the name of the actor, now, seven year old, the actor played by the character played by Sam Neo is the sort of gruff archaeologist and he hates children. And he dates Laura burns in the relationship, there's some tension because he hates children, you can kind of guess that, probably she wants children, he doesn't like them. And then there is a point maybe three fourths of the way into the movie, where he's being really protective of the little kids when they're running away from a T Rex. And Matthew said, that's where the story ends. He's emotional arc is now over, he's now come to terms with the idea that he actually likes kids. And he can probably have them if that's what his girlfriend wants. Everything else is just dinosaurs trying to kill people. Right, the store the store is now over. And I don't think that that's the type of conclusion anyone or you know, what are the one you have from Robin? Judith is someone, anyone that doesn't have a deep understanding of the stuff? They're not going to get that? Okay, you might you might take the box out. Now, I can see that that happened. But in your mind, this is not the end of the movie, at least for most people. I don't think it will be. Yes,

Kenn Adams 21:48

correct. I don't know Jurassic Park well enough to, you know, to really reflect upon its plot right now. I haven't seen it in many, many years. But certainly, I think reasonable people can look at the same story and have different interpretations of it even using the same tool. Like if I very well understood, tell me the gentleman's name, again, that you were just referencing.

Francisco Mahfuz 22:12

He has an unforgettable surname. His name is Matthew Dicks.

Kenn Adams 22:16

Matthew Dicks, if I was very familiar with Matthew's model, perhaps I could use his model look at Jurassic Park, and still come up with a different answer to no, no, I think it's there that you know, and use that model. And certainly, people have analysed plays using my models differently than I would analyse them. And sometimes I would say, Oh, wow, that's a really good point. You're right. And sometimes not. So, you know, a lot of it is still up to interpretation, and a subjective viewpoint, perhaps. But there, there is something to be said for that moment, which I think Matthew might have been identifying, which in my model, I refer to as the dramatic climax of the play. And the dramatic climax is that moment where the hero is set on their path towards success or failure. Now, there still might be a great deal of the movie left or the play left. But the fate is now set, the hero does something that puts them on this path, even though they don't know it yet. The audience doesn't know it yet. Nobody knows it yet. But once the play is over, you can look back and say, Oh, I see if he didn't have that interaction with the kids, then they wouldn't have gotten married at the end. So you can find these moments that I call the dramatic climax, this moment in the story that doesn't end the story, but brings us from the middle into the ending. Now the ending can last for quite some time. And that's all part of the story. So I wouldn't say the story's over. But I do understand Matthew's point of view, the important question concerning the main character is, is pretty much resolved. And now we're just watching everything play out around it.

Francisco Mahfuz 24:00

Yeah. So there was a point more about how in his mind or his model, as you'd call it, it's that a story is about change. It's about about a transformation of the characters and how they see the world and how they feel how they interact with other people. So this, he always says that his kids won't let him watch movies with them. Because he spots whatever's happened in the first sort of foetus says, you know, this is what's going to happen by the end. It's like, how can you possibly know that is like, well, you know, it's a dog, he's, he's at a pet shop, he's looking sad, all the other dogs will be taken away. So you know, some family is gonna take him in, and he's gonna find some friends. I mean, that's ahead of us if that's gonna happen. They get really angry with him. So when was something else I heard you say? I think in that same podcast, was we were playing around with the story spine and people were using it to tell stories from their own lives. And I think you said something like, well, I On, I haven't actually used the stories bind to tell my story and didn't have me thinking about limitations do you? Do you find that there are there are types of stories for which the story spine is not terribly well suited for, or that there are other structures that are substantially better? And I don't necessarily mean in the, in the, you know, if you weren't writing a whole play, I realised that that did other things will come into play that but if you're thinking of shorter stories, the type of stuff you'd tell as a storyteller, Are there limitations to the stories fine or not?

Kenn Adams 25:38

Yeah, in my opinion, no, I do not think there are limitations to the story spine, I think that the story spine can fit on any other story structure there is. And that's one of the things I think that's powerful about it. Because again, it's not a series of very specific plot points or particulars that you need to accomplish. It simply identifies the beginning, the middle and the end. So like you could have, you could use the hero's journey and write a myth. And the story spine would fit on top of that you can use x story structure and write a screenplay and the story spine can be found there, too. So the story spine goes everywhere. I think what I was referring to, I think in that section of the podcast, you were you're mentioning is how people have found ways of applying the story spine to areas outside of creating fiction. And that was something that was really surprising to me, because I created the story spine as a way to create fiction as a way to write stories, people like cat kaput and a million other people who spend a lot of time doing organisational development and life coaching. And what we call applied improvisation taking the improvisational technique and applying it to different areas in business or personal relationships, organisational development, they have found ways of using the story spine towards all of that. And that and one of those two, one of those ways was having people tell their personal story using the stories fine. So when I said I never used it for that, it's because I never used it for anything except creating stories. And so anytime people tell me stories about how they've been able to apply it to other areas of professional development or personal development. I'm just blown away by that because I never even realised its potential.

Francisco Mahfuz 27:31

Yeah, I think there is. It's an interesting, I'm not sure if this counts as a dichotomy. But there is this interesting feature of things like the story spine is that they sometimes get taken completely out of context. And that might explain some of the challenges that some people perhaps without having studied it deeply find from it from, for example, you said you created to write fiction, you didn't necessarily create it, to take a story from your own life, and find a better way to tell it. Now, there's nothing to say that that it couldn't be used that way. But that wasn't how it was originally intended. Like the hero's journey, right hero's journey wasn't intended as this is how you write stories. It was this is what stories are is not tell your own stories through these processes. Now, I've just broken down what stories actually look like. And if you tell the story of your life, it will probably fit this criteria, because that's what is the DNA of a story. It's not a tool for writing stories, at least, the hero's journey wasn't yours was. I think some people bump up against the whole structure thing in it, because sometimes it's being used for something that wasn't its original intention, at least. Yeah,

Kenn Adams 28:49

that's very smart. I'm sure that's true.

Francisco Mahfuz 28:51

So something else I wanted to ask you was, because most of the world you live in, is the world of fiction. So either through improv, or through playwriting, right? And what has been your experience, or what have you found that works fantastically well in that world, but doesn't apply to other types of storytelling? I'm not sure if you thought of it in those terms.

Kenn Adams 29:18

Well, like I said before, the story is fine is a simple model, and then that leads to this more elaborate model that I use for playwriting, and in playwriting, at least and frankly, I would, I would suggest this holds to true for a lot of other types of stories as well, but certainly not all stories. In playwriting one of the one of the differences in the model is that in a play, we require what I refer to as two main characters. And this is what some people call the protagonist and the antagonist. I don't use those terms because I think they're a little bit hard to define, but I call them character one and character two, Romeo and Juliet. For example, character one and character two and one It holds true in a well structured play is that there's some dramatic question concerning those two characters will character one, do something to or get something from character to? And the play raises that question by the middle of the play by the centre of the story. So the whole first half of the story is geared towards raising that question, Will Romeo find happiness in his marriage with Juliet? The whole second half of the play is dedicated to answering that question, either yes or no, it's always a yes or no question, that dramatic climax that I mentioned earlier, where Romeo kills Tybalt. That's the event that character one does, that puts them on the road to the question either being yes or no. And by the end, it's yes or no. So that is one way in which play structure and screenplay structure I would say, is different from maybe a myth or other types of stories. It really requires those two characters, and requires a dramatic question that involves the fate of those two characters, that has to be answered before the play can satisfactorily end.

Francisco Mahfuz 31:15

Something else I heard you I heard you say any was, I think you were complimenting the person that had tried us the story spine, and saying how she had laid down to enough groundwork so that when the, the conflict came later, we could care more about the characters because they understood it a little better. And then what I what I started thinking about is a lot of stories, perhaps not necessarily oral stories, but definitely in the in the movies in TV shows, I think in the theatre, probably as well. Use in media res, they start in the middle of the action, and then fill us in gradually to through the rest of the conflict. That's not how the story is finding particularly is structure. But what is your take on on that, other than a more chronological approach to laying out the story?

Kenn Adams 32:07

Yeah, I think that's a wonderful observation. So here it is. The story spine is like its name implies just the bare bones of the structure, it is not the whole story. So just like our own spine, right, when you look at a person, you, you know, they're being held up by a spine, but you don't see their spine and you don't react to their spine, you react to the smile on their face, and the texture of their hair and everything, the sparkle in their eyes, right? There's so much more that goes into making a person than the spine, but you need the spine. But that's not what the audience is paying attention to. They'll know if it's not there, because it would just fall apart. But if it is there, they should be blissfully unaware of it. And they should be looking at everything else. So things like starting the story in the beginning, in the middle, or anything else that stories have other than the spine, like the character development, the setting, the beautiful language, all of the things that make us care and empathise about the characters, or pull us in with an exciting hook in the beginning. All of that is just other essential ingredients of the story. But it doesn't change the fact that stories have a beginning and a middle and an end. And in fact, even though in media Ray suggests that we're starting in the middle, we're not really the beginning of the story is always the beginning of the story, because the audience only gets the story in real time. So you sit down to see a play. And it starts one of my favourite TV shows aliased with Jennifer Gardner, you know, it always start you sit down, you turn on the TV, and it starts and she's like running through a canyon, and they're shooting at her and you have no idea where where she is or how she got there. And then they shoot her in the head and she dies. And then it says 48 hours earlier. And then we go back and she's at a cocktail party, right? So even though that started with a scene from the middle, that scene from the middle was part of the beginning in the story that I saw as an audience member, because the beginning is everything that happens up until that routine is broken. So part of the Once Upon a Time every day in a story that has immediate Re is that something happened before that you don't know about. And that's just part of the status quo that is going to be broken later on. So you can't really start a story in the middle. You have to start a story in the beginning, even if moments in the beginning are foreshadowing of something that's going to come later. And that's really all in media that example of in media right? Another way of immediate way of starting something in the middle is like to people just run into a room and they're breathing very heavily and they say oh my god, I can't believe that happen. Yeah, right. Lock the door. Let's make sure they don't find Deus. So we're smack in the middle of something right for the characters, but not for the audience. For the audience. This is the very beginning. And they have all of the work to do in the beginning of building the status quo that they're going to break later.

Francisco Mahfuz 35:15

The example I always use is the beginning of Breaking Bad, where he is Walter White is wearing a shirt and no pants and holding a gun, and he's in the middle of the desert, and you hear police sirens. And you think what the hell is going on here? And then it backtracks. But one thing I've told people plenty of times, when, when I'm helping them craft their stories is I always tell them that the story should start as close to the end as possible. And what identifying this, particularly if you're using dialogue, one line or two is often more than enough to establish what the status quo was. Because, you know, you walk into the house. And then unlike what she always did, my daughter was whatever. And then you kind of established that something is different, and whatever. And I noticed a lot that people, particularly if they don't use dialogue, or something I was posting about today, if you don't use dialogue, there is a tendency to want to write out the beginning and set the context so people know what the hell you're talking about. Whereas if you use dialogue, you wouldn't do that. Because you just sound like terrible, terribly written dialogue or exposition. So you just find ways of saying, you know, you know, Have you have you seen other anko is doing in our uncle is like, it's just, every Christmas is the same done? I don't need to say anything else about my uncle.

Kenn Adams 36:37

Yes, I think there's a lot of wisdom to that. In fact, we did. We do an annual retreat every year where we go away for a weekend and focus on a certain skill. And this last year, we were focusing on improvising 10 minute plays. And the big question was, what what is the difference between a 10 minute play, and a scene that lasts for 10 minutes? So what is the difference between a play and a scene, and one of the differences we discovered is that in a play, as, as you mentioned before, from Matthew Dix work in a play, something fundamental has to change in the life of a character, so that by the end of the play, they their world is different than it was before in a in a meaningful, profound way, that's hard to accomplish in 10 minutes, especially if you have too much platform too much foundation, because you only have 10 minutes to deal with the life altering change. So we discovered similar to what you're saying, we need to start very, very close to the major problem, which usually comes in the middle of a play. So if you're doing the a two hour play, you have like an hour to get there before, you have to start winding things down. But if you're doing a 10 minute play, you only have like two or three minutes to get there before you have to start dealing with the ramifications of the crisis. So you want to start with just a few lines, you know, to 1012 lines of dialogue in order to take care of all of the foundation everything in the beginning and get to what makes today different real fast, so that you have time to deal with the change that the character has to experience. So in that case, I think starting near the end, that's a very wonderful way of saying that we thought

Francisco Mahfuz 38:19

we kind of circled around the the improv topic. And I wanted to ask because I know this is something you you used to you've talked about, and you used to like, Whose Line Is It Anyway, which is an amazing show. I absolutely loved it when they were showing it in Brazil. But I was always kind of in doubt. And I watched that because what I suppose in doubt was, is this real? Right? Are they actually improvising? This? Is it real time? Either if you know the actual answer to this, but was it real?

Kenn Adams 38:51

Oh, yes. I mean, I have no inside knowledge about that TV show. I had no involvement with it whatsoever. I just watched it on TV like everybody else. But in fact, I did have a friend who appeared on it for a season, I believe. And what I did understand from her, as well as from some other people over the years is that yes, it is all absolutely improvised. So they're not writing it or making it up or rehearsing it. But they do improvise many, many, many more scenes than they actually show in each episode. So you know, they are making this up now. But let's say you know, they improvise for two hours, and then they take the best 22 minutes and put that in the episode. So I don't think that takes anything away from what they accomplished, but at least that much is

Francisco Mahfuz 39:37

true. I might be corrupting something you said for my own purposes, but it's improv theatre for playwrights who really want to act bootcamps

Kenn Adams 39:53

I hope not. I hope not. But what I what I do think the reason that I was so attracted to improvisation is because I enjoyed acting, but not enough to like really want to devote my whole life to it. I really loved doing it. I just loved everything about theatre. So I grew up, just loving acting. But when I discovered writing, then I really discovered a passion. And it was much more of a burning passion than acting. So I really started focusing on playwriting, then I discovered improvisation. And I realised, holy moly. This allows me to do all of the wonderful things I get to do as a playwright, and have the fun of being onstage and entertaining an audience with it. So it brought together two things that I loved very much and allowed me to do it in a way that I never thought possible. I will admit that I think I am a better writer than I am an actor. And I will tell you this, I get ket i cast myself in improv roles that I would never be cast as if I was out auditioning for roles. So I'm often playing the young leading man. And that's it that's a role that I wouldn't get if I was out auditioning for scripted theatre, so. So that much is true.

Francisco Mahfuz 41:21

I'm gonna I'm gonna give you what might be a bit of a soft softball, but but it's to be is a genuine question because I'm someone who, as much as I, I fully recognise the many different transferable skills you can get from improv into the real life or the corporate world or whatever. On the one hand, the type of person who hates improv, I think that says more about my own psychology, improv itself. But also, I was wondering, why the skill of writing a story or developing a story in the improv style, why would someone want to learn that or focus on learning that over, for example, more what I do so what I, what my focus is more is in finding stories from real life, figuring out what the point of those stories are in using that to communicate more effectively. So which is a completely different approach, then the improv type of storytelling? So why would you suggest as I'm sure you have plenty of times, people should practice that and can get a lot from that? What's the what's the real appeal, or the real advantage over other types of, of storytelling, for example? Well,

Kenn Adams 42:41

that's a great question. So I think there are many layers to the answer there. So the first question is, if you are not interested in performing improvisation, then I don't think there's any great benefit to learning my play structure through improvisation, you might as well just learn it through playwriting, because the play structure is the play structure. And it's the same if you're improvising a play, or writing the play. So your written plays will be better if you use my structure, and your improvised plays will be better if you use my structure. But if you don't want to improvise, there's no reason to learn how to improvise. Just study the structure and then write it. So that's my answer to that. And then another answer is that there are all types of benefits to studying improvisation, whether you study how to improvise a full length play, or just a beginning improv class, which teaches the basics of improvisation. And one of those benefits is it frees up your creativity, and it teaches you how to accept your own offers how to have an instinct, and rather than shelve it or decide it's not good enough to accept it and build on it and go with it. So a lot of times when writers write, and I speak personally, you know, when I write, it is a painstaking experience. And you sit there and you think, and you get an idea, and you reject it and you type something you think is not good enough. There's something so permanent about putting something on the page that makes you feel like, it has to be perfect right now. And then you say, Oh, now I have writer's block. I can't think of anything to write. But of course, that's not true. You can think of things or you'd be dead, right? As long as you're alive. You're thinking of things. But what you mean is, you're not happy with anything that you're thinking about. So what improvisation does is it helps free up the creativity of the writer by allowing them to write as spontaneously as an improviser. Improvisers.

Francisco Mahfuz 44:42

I'm not sure if there was ever a sentence that was truer than what you just said that we are constantly thinking of things but who does have things.

Kenn Adams 44:55

And that's the beauty of improvisation. You can't do that the whole point of improvisation is as soon as that instinct occurs to you, you've, you've got to express it. And that is very freeing as a writer, because we don't give ourselves that permission. Often.

Francisco Mahfuz 45:09

You know, to me, it's somewhat mysterious why I dislike the idea of of improv as much as I do. Because one of my favourite things, when I'm on stage is when I get to improv, you know, somebody shout something from the audience, and I have to react to that, or it's a q&a after a keynote. And then to some degree, I'm not following a script of any type, I haven't rehearsed it. And even when I, when I do workshops, one of them, one of my favourite things to do in the workshop is teach people a structure for a presentation, and then have them choose a topic, and with them very quickly come up with something, and then without any rehearse, so I'll get what they've told me and present it back to them. So I don't know if it's, I think it's I like it when I do it. But I don't like it if there's five. Me? I don't know. Yes.

Kenn Adams 46:15

Well, I have a thought about that. And is that very often, improvisation is performed by people who are not good actors are not good writers, and are not good stage directors. People study only improvisation and then get in front of an audience and and claim that they're going to improvise theatre. You see, they don't say that, but that's what they're doing. And they don't even know it. So they go up on stage. But there's nothing that is compelling. Not fair. Not that there's nothing that's compelling to watch. But the audience is not treated to a great piece of theatre, because they might be watching people who know how to improvise, but they're not watching people who know how to act right or direct. And if you're going to entertain an audience thoroughly with a piece of theatre, especially a long piece of theatre, it has to be good theatre, it can't just be good improvisation, it has to be good theatre, you're not just improvising, you're improvising theatre. So if if more people understood that, and spent the same amount of time studying, acting, directing, and writing as they do studying improvisation, that would be more improvisation that would make an audience think, oh, there's really something here. This is not just people horsing around.

Francisco Mahfuz 47:34

Well, there is something else, which, if I, if I dig not terribly deep into my psyche, I know to be true. And I think this might resonate with a lot of people that don't like improv, not necessarily because they dislike it, perhaps because they're just terrified of it, is that I think there's always that fear of not showing up as your best self. You know, I'm someone who, if I have any type of stage presentation that I have to do the beat storytelling or speaking or training, I will plan for it, I will probably practice and rehearse it, and depending on the level of importance of practice, and rehearse it attend. So you know, rehearse it until it looks like I haven't rehearsed that. It's all very natural and improvised. But I care about what happens on the stage, and I want to deliver my best work. And improv in that sense, is nerve wracking. Because as much as you can have practice on the thing itself, you're not going to have practice on the particular scenes. So I think there's, there might be an element of, well, I want to look good on stage. And I might not, and I don't like that. I like to say, but I like to know, I'm gonna be good on stage. I don't want to be terrified that I will completely suck.

Kenn Adams 48:56

Yes. In that way. Improvisation is has something in common with playing sports, or doing something like a circus, where there's some element of potential failure to the daring feat you're about to do you do practice. Of course, like you said, if you're a professional baseball player, you practice a lot, even though the game is going to be improvised based on what happens out on the field. So we do try to prepare ourselves as much as possible to be successful on stage through practice. But then there is that element of risk. So just like if you're a Acrobat, you know, you're going to practice and practice and practice and you're going to go out and you're going to try to do this amazing flip from one trapeze bar to the other, and you might fall and nobody wants to fall. But part of the thrill for the audience is knowing that you might and that's that added one added layer of entertainment that improvisation has. When an audience is watching. They're experiencing two things at the same time. They're experiencing the plus Lay you're improvising for them. And they're empathising with the characters and following the story and wondering what's going to happen just like any play, but then they're also on this meta level, enjoying the fact that they're making this up. And at any moment, they might not be able to put the pieces together, or like, Oh, my goodness, how did they possibly put that puzzle together at the end there when they had no idea that that's where they were going. So it's that extra level of potential failure that adds that kind of extra level of entertainment that improvisation offers as an art form?

Francisco Mahfuz 50:35

Yeah, this is the moment where I, in a way sort of regret that in my older and slightly less immature age, have gotten some self awareness. Because this, this look from the outside of, I think they're winging it, and it could completely collapse any moment now is the one I have when I look at my life with detachment, watching real time, and I know I'm prepared enough that I should just be able to learn this. But who knows?

Kenn Adams 51:13

What is that the imposter syndrome, right?

Francisco Mahfuz 51:16

So people love talking about impostor syndrome. In any it's true to some degree. But as I don't believe you disagree, if you are a performer, you know how much effort it goes into getting to a level of skill and confidence that you can deliver a performance of a certain level. And the more variables that are in that performance, the more of a chance that something's not going to land in now, I do keynotes for most of the time, I don't do improv. So I know my stuff. I know my text, I know, what should happen. But I can't account for you know, is not every audience finds the same things funny. Not every audience gets emotional about the same things. So there are variables that I have to manoeuvre while I'm up on stage. So even in a slightly more controlled environment like that one, you know, it's not like I'm winging it, I'm not winging it. But it would be a, you'd be a lie. If I said, I know 100%, how that's gonna play out. I know exactly how much they're going to enjoy your learn from it. Because if it if it ever got to that point, it will be so boring. And I'll have to start trying to do more difficult things or dealing with more difficult audiences or preparing last. So I got the thrill of being on stage because otherwise, you know, if he can't go wrong, give him a little bit. You know, what's, where's the excitement in that? Right?

Kenn Adams 52:50

Not to mention, is the technology going to fail? Right does, you can't get the slideshow to work, like those types of things happen all the time. So there's always some element of risk. I mean, even with a scripted play, you can forget your lines, you can, you know, a prop might not be there when you need it. So nothing that we do in our world, I think is completely risk free. It's just that when the audience is watching improvisation, they are more keenly aware of the risks, right, like everyone sitting watching your script is expecting it to go right. Yeah, I think that

Francisco Mahfuz 53:24

there is with virtual virtual presentations with speakers have been put in this weird position that couldn't exist in the real world, where if the attack you using or the host is using doesn't allow for a great deal of interaction, which is what happened to me in a presentation a couple of weeks ago, I could barely use the chat or have other people use the chat. I couldn't see the audience, I could only see the host. So I had to deliver a 45 minute presentation where I basically can't interact with anyone. If it was a recorded presentation, it essentially be the same thing as far as the artist is concerned, because I'm not interacting with them. But apart from that, even in cases where it's going really well, I think once you get into a certain level of performance, there is there is something happening that is in my brain where I'm thinking, okay, that part of the humour lended really well. There's other parts not so much. So maybe I should adjust this bit that's coming a bit further down the line, because it's not going to learn the way I want to. So even when it's going well when you're doing stuff you're familiar with, there's always adjustment and there's always well that was funny. Can I make it fun year? Can I can I play this up? But at this but at all times? I'm thinking there is no guarantee this is going to work. It often works, but not every time.

Kenn Adams 54:46

Yes, yes, that's true. One reason why practising improvisation is helpful for people who perform scripted theatre or Keynote presentations like you do is it gives you an extra level of comfort with that knowledge. So you know things are might fail. And that makes you nervous, right? Because you want everything to go well, when you practice improvisation, you you become comfortable, more comfortable with that element of risk. And so you go out there, and you are less worried about things going wrong, because if things go wrong, you have a higher level of confidence that you'll be able to adapt.

Francisco Mahfuz 55:24

Yeah. And I think to a point that I'm not sure if anyone who who is a big advocate of improv sells it that way. But perhaps you should, and they should is two people that have any level of anxiety in their lives, either at work or just with everyday life. Sometimes there is this, there's this tendency to try and control for everything. And in thinking that the solution to anxiety is knowing how everything is going to happen exactly. Like it's going to be this and then it's going to be that. So I'm okay, I don't have any reason to be concerned. And I think in many aspects of my life, at least what I have learned is, you don't feel confident because you know exactly how things are going to play out. You feel confident, because you know, you can handle them. However they play out, which is a very big difference.

Kenn Adams 56:12

Yes, that's very well said. And that is exactly what improvisation develops. So even if you are not interested in performing at all on stage, it's still valuable to practice improvisation because it trains on certain things. One thing is improvisers have to learn how to give up control. When you're improvising, you are one small part of a collaborative process. And you can't have an idea that takes us all the way from the beginning to the end, and then shoehorn it in and expect everybody to follow suit, you can't control what happens. So just like in life, you cannot control what happens. And in life, as you say, a lot of our stress comes from wanting to control what happens. And improvisation helps us give that up. And then you can apply what you learn in the improv studio to life. There's a lot of connection, in fact, between improvisation and mindful meditation, and that has to do with the improvisational skill of being in the moment, the way I teach improvisation. There's three rules of improvisation be spontaneous, make your partner look good. And build on your partner's idea that first rule be spontaneous has a couple of levels of meaning. The first is, like we were talking before about writing and writer's block is accept your own creativity, if you have an instinct, put it out there, share it, and let other people build on it, rather than hiding it. But the other and deeper level of spontaneity involves being in the moment, and really understanding what's happening in the moment, and not trying to control or fix it, but just accept it, understand it, and react appropriately to it. And that's what you do when you practice mindful meditation, you practice just being in the moment, being aware of what's happening to you, and acknowledging it. So those two tools are helpful and applicable to life in the same way, which is, if you're stressing out about what's going to happen tomorrow, improvisation and meditation help you in experience what's happening now, without worrying so much about tomorrow?

Francisco Mahfuz 58:16

Well, I am a dedicated meditator. And as delightful as this conversation has been, I think I probably should end it before I talk myself into improv, which is many, many choices in my life was, was a quick closer scrutiny that I'm perhaps not ready for.

Kenn Adams 58:40

With my luck, yo, with my luck, you'll start improvising, you'll go out on stage and your pants will accidentally fall down or something and you'll have the worst experience of your life.

Francisco Mahfuz 58:51

Which would be you know, content for stories, which is, which is my philosophy in life is, you know, did did it work? Or did it make for a good story? That's pretty much all you need to know about anything that happened in your life. So if people want to if people want to find out more about the stuff you're doing other than watching any books or movies, what else? Where can they go? Well, they

Kenn Adams 59:16

can go to the website, synergy. sy N ERG, wi th e t e r synergy I teach online classes. So we have online beginning improv classes, as well as experience masterclasses specifically and improvising the full length play. And then if anybody is local to the Cal Northern California Bay Area, that's where we teach in person classes in Berkeley, California, and we perform our shows in Walnut Creek at the Leisure Centre for the Arts.

Francisco Mahfuz 59:48

Amazing. I'll put I'll put most of the stuff in the in the show notes. And I also tell Kathy cloth guest that we have this conversation. I believe she's A she's a friend of yours and a previous guest of this show. Oh, how

Kenn Adams 1:00:05

wonderful. I'll connect with her. It's funny because Kathy and I only know each other through Facebook. I have never actually met her. But we've developed this friendship on Facebook. Yeah,

Francisco Mahfuz 1:00:14

yes. I'm not going to start the conversation now that I've had many times at home where whereas my wife and I disagree if you can actually be friends with people that you haven't met in real life. I am of the opinion that you can, but every time I say this friend of mine, it's like, I know your friends. Who is this person? A friend.

Kenn Adams 1:00:34

Well, you can tell your wife that I now consider you my friend.

Francisco Mahfuz 1:00:39

See, but if I tell her there's like you just met him. You're just making my point.

Kenn Adams 1:00:45

And then I'll really mess you up. I'm going to start calling your home and leaving weird messages.

Francisco Mahfuz 1:00:51

That might make salad Pepto. That's That's right. Thank you again for your time, Ken. This has been amazing. My pleasure. Thank you. Alright, everyone. Thanks for tuning in. Take care of yourselves. And until next time.

I hope you enjoyed the show. And if you did, I'd love for you to subscribe and leave us a review or rating on the Apple podcasts app. It's very easy. You open the app and find the show. Then scroll down a little and when you see the stars tap, I'd really appreciate it and it does help other people find us. And if you'd like to get in touch or find out more about what I do, reach out to me on LinkedIn or visit my website

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page