• Rain Bennett

Ep. 59: The Eight Steps of the Story Spine with Kenn Adams

Updated: Nov 28, 2020

This episode of The Storytelling Lab features none other than Kenn Adams, a.k.a the inventor of the "Story Spine." Don't know what the Story Spine is? If you've seen any Pixar film, then you unconsciously know what it is. On this episode, Rain takes Kenn back in time to when and how the Story Spine was conceived, the art and structure of improv, and the importance of rules and balance within storytelling.



A few months ago on my podcast, I hosted improv comedian and storytelling expert, Kathy Klotz-Guest, to talk about how we can use the improv technique of “Yes, and-ing” to build upon our clients’ ideas and creatively lead them in a pas de deux (dance for two) that ultimately accomplishes their communication goals.

This is not the first time improv and storytelling have found themselves in the same room of discussion.

I talk about Alan Alda’s work -- using improv to help scientists communicate their findings to the general public -- in my workshops all the time. Kathy knew exactly what I was talking about.

Kathy also knew an improv instructor that had an even deeper impact on the storytelling world.

She offered to introduce me to Kenn Adams, who created a storytelling formula called the “Story Spine.” 

I was confused.

Was this the same “story spine” that I used to break down the structure of popular movies in front of live audiences when I delivered keynote speeches?? Who was Kenn Adams and how was we a real person?

I thought the Story Spine had been an immaculate conception of the storytelling gods!

Now she was telling me that I could meet the mortal behind it?

I obviously accepted.

Kenn is not only an improv and storytelling guru, he’s genuinely one of the kindest and most humble people I’ve ever met -- so much so that he’d almost certainly blush and deflect any mention of him being some sort of “guru.” 

I mean, this is the man whose work heavily influenced the strategy of the storytelling masters at Pixar. But when that gets brought up, he’s earnestly honored by the association and inspiration, whereas many of us -- myself included -- might get upset about the big brand getting the lion’s share of the Google results for the term.

Kenn truly does what he does because of his love of the art. 

We talked about how storytelling creates connection between people and when done live (which is his preferred method), that energy is palpable. 

It’s clear that he understands structure, but it’s so much more than that. It’s how to use that connection with other humans to build something together that lasts. A one hour performance is hard enough to carry out when the dialogue is scripted. To do complete improvising is to fully understand the ebbs and flows of the rhythm of the story. 

And if you don’t know the structure and what beats you must hit, there’s no way you can build that performance off the top of your head.

"Making up stories is an effort to help us find that structure because when we just look at the world itself, it is often incomprehensible."

Kenn was -- Kenn is -- a delightful human. 

He just also happens to be an expert at breaking down the structure of story in a way that any person, whether beginner or experienced, can fully understand.

If you are struggling with what parts of your story go where and how to tell stories that work every time, this is the episode for you!

Some of the highlights of our conversation:

  • Performing at Dean Lesher Center for the Performing Arts at Walnut Creek 

  • Full length plays, teaching classes to adults and children, and traveling as a one person children’s adventure theatre 

  • The challenges of holding online courses and shows on Zoom now 

  • How his main interest in storytelling being the “arc” of it 

  • Passion of getting in front of an audience and telling a story 

  • Working with business community and teaches improvisation 

  • Studying playwriting as a kid 

  • Writing as an entrance into storytelling 

  • Believing “improvisation is a noun not just a verb.” 

  • How creativity is stifled at school - right answers, wrong answers, instructed art, creativity not encouraged, social pressures, etc. 

  • The 3 rules of improv: Be spontaneous, make your partner look good, and build on your partner’s ideas 

  • Working on full-length improv plays 

  • Attending Brooklyn College & NYU for musical theatre writing 

  • The book “Playwriting: How to Write for the Theatre” 

  • His book “How to Improvise a Full-Length Play: The Art of Spontaneous Theatre” 

  • “Play-by-play” theatre - a full 2 act play 

  • Working with Freestyle Repertory Theatre in New York 

  • How and when the Story Spine was developed 

  • The eight steps of the Story Spine

  • The creation of the story spine in 1991 - teaching a workshop in California and one of the BATS Improv founders, Rebecca Stockley attending, who later went on to work at Pixar

  • The importance of balance and restrictions and rules on spontaneity 

  • Coming up with 7 new shows for online students to perform every week

  • Performing Thursdays 4pm PST and Fridays 7pm PST via Zoom 

  • His Youtube channel where all previous performances can be found 

As always, I hope you enjoy the episode!

Peace and Love,



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