No one on my college improv troupe coached or taught from a place of experience. In that way, the culture felt egalitarian. We were just 20 people that had accepted one another and formed a special-interest group. You’d participate in a long-form set once every three weeks, and in the interim, you’d give show notes and hop in for a closing game of “sex with.” It worked, but those of us with a more-than-casual interest weren’t satiated by table scraps of anecdotal knowledge.
Relative to troupe newcomers (who often had never done improv before), the elder statespersons had spent a couple years practicing once a week and had done maybe 25 shows if they were super active. We went to festivals where we’d talk to other improv nerds and occasionally take workshops from “professional” performers. We usually made the pilgrimage to improv Mecca during winter break to watch shows at iO and The Second City. While in Chicago, we’d hopefully land a two-hour slot with an ordained member of the establishment that would open our minds’ eyes wider than any campus practice could (Rachel Mason is a red priestess).
In the absence of a regularly-appearing comedy authority figure, excited nerds like myself turned to texts. Anyone who has fallen hard for improv has sought out some sort of reading material. I’ve learned a lot from name brand books and off-the-beaten-path works. This week, I want to synopsize and endorse(ish) the five texts that helped me develop my affinity for the dark arts before classes were a viable option.
Every theater has a different style of improv, and every individual performer at every theater has a different style, too. My goal here is to categorize the type of technique being pedaled, what I liked/disliked about the text, and what it has done for me as an improviser. Most of these texts you can find for around $10 on Amazon. The UCB book is $25 last time I checked.
Truth in Comedy, Halpern/Close/Johnson
For those who enjoy: Primary Colours, Cupcake, Dairy Based
Often the first text that new improvisers read, Truth in Comedy sells agreement and listening. (It also sells itself with constant references to iO alumni.) The work of Halpern, Close, and Johnson serves as a great introduction for those teaching themselves about improv. It’s heavy on “yes, and” and promotes a grounded, committed style of play. It also offers plenty of exercises that can be morphed into group games in a show (a la “conducted story” or “the ad game”). The book’s organic focus helps to stoke those group mind coals with which we all enjoy cooking. The end of the text also includes an introduction to the Harold for interested parties.
Improvise: Scene from the inside out, Mick Napier
For those who enjoy: Samurai Drunk, Kool Aid, Franzia
Napier staunchly rejects any notion of “the rules” when it comes to improvising. He asserts that taking care of yourself at the top of a scene is the best gift you can give your scene partner. The way he dispenses with the idea of “doing it right” can be a revelation for anyone stuck in their own head. By doing something, anything, at the top of a scene, you’ve chosen to act rather than marinate in the fear of the unknown. Napier also adds a lot of great exercises you can do on your own to develop your improv mind. I should note that a misinterpretation of Improvise can lead players to bulldoze or ignore the ideas of others. I would recommend it as an intermediate text, rather than an initial foray into improv reading.
Impro, Keith Johnstone
For those who enjoy: Local Honey, Age Appropriate, Release the Hounds
Impro was written before improvisation had become a popular medium. Johnstone used improv techniques and games with his students to get them to loosen up. His observations and life experiences create a rich well from which to pull little improv mantras. I especially have enjoyed his sections about status and spontaneity. You’ll see people raising and lowering their own status in every single social interaction you have after reading Impro. Those two sections in particular pair well with Improvise, for those looking to go on a reading spree. Also, there’s a weird section about masks at the end that’s kind of fun to skim through, if not totally helpful.
The UCB Comedy Improvisation Manual, Besser/Roberts/Walsh
For those who enjoy: Photobomb, The Rift, 1995 Chicago Bulls, Wheel of Formats
Totaling 384 pages, this text earns its label as a manual. Consider the UCB book a longer and more comprehensive version of Truth in Comedy, but for game-oriented improv. The authors focus on how to recognize patterns and play games more so than establish relationships in scenes. By serving the game, the rest of the pieces will fall into place. The UCB manual comes complete with loads of exercises and color illustrations. Format guidelines in the book’s final section offer great ideas for fledgling troupes looking to create a style of their own. The UCB manual has especially salient takes on heightening/exploration and crazy town. As a warning, the text is pretty analytical and can put you in your head if you’re not tempering it or discussing it with someone else.
True and False, David Mamet
For those who enjoy: Small Town, Manick, David and Terry
David Mamet doesn’t agree with Konstantin Stanislavsky. I’ve never read that guy’s books, but apparently they make acting seem like a highfaluting, elitist pursuit. Mamet instead distills acting into a simple approach: Know your lines, don’t add to them, and say them with a loud voice so that the audience can hear you. The accessibility is a relief for those of us who didn’t grow up in the theater. I’ve never considered myself an actor. I have no formal acting training. This is a great book for anyone who looks at acting as a wholly separate and mystical art form too lofty for the mind and abilities of an improviser. Plus, Mamet’s writing is just plain fun to read.
Danny Neely is currently a Level 5 student at DCH. He works part time at a bakery and another part of the time as a freelance writer. You can see him perform as a member of Big Turtle, Clover, Coiffelganger, Empty Inside, and Warm Milk.