The Most Interesting Person in the World

Lauren: Now Improv Literate!

Posted on: July 16, 2010

It all started just before my last family vacation, when I borrowed an improv book to read on the beach (not that I ended up on the beach much–too much sun!). Before then, I believed that improv is something to practice, to watch, and to learn from an instructor, not to sit alone and read about. But I had some spare time, so I thought, I might as well dip into the knowledge of the vast history and read from the creators themselves. So I borrowed Del Close and Charna Halpern‘s Truth in Comedy from my improv troupe’s director.

Near the end of that, I picked up Keith Johnstone‘s Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre (that’s right, spelled the Canadian way, because it’s British). This is a book that I knew was amazing, because it was on my reading list in university. Despite being the most useful piece of assigned reading there, it was available for borrow at the library, so I forwent making the purchase in favour of buying the stuffy heavy tomes on the history of classical theatre–a now-useless investment which I mostly donated to my Speech and Drama instructor. I hope one day a student will park their fun and improv-related books in my library.

When I signed up for next week’s Master Improv Retreat, I made a deal with my dad: I would pay the $1000 for room, board, tuition, and transportation, if he covers the cost of the recommended readings. I knew I was getting a great deal, because when ordering, he would go nuts and buy everything that looked good, whereas I would have just stuck to the reading list and maybe even tried to borrow some of them.

It paid off, and he bought me four books. I started with the one written by someone who will be teaching me next week–Michael Gellman’s (and Mary Scrugg’s) Process: An Improviser’s Journey. To my surprise, I read it in 24 hours. Keep in mind, I love reading, like nobody’s business. But I am a sloooow reader. It usually takes me months to go through a pamphlet. So for me to be finished a book in one day is massive. It helps that the book was written as a first-person narrative (à la Stanislavski‘s An Actor Prepares). It was full of good improv exercises, like an active guided meditation that I tried out myself, and then with my next improv class, and on both occasions it was transcendental. The best part was reading about visualizing a beach, while I was visualizing going outside to try it out, until I realized… I was right next to a beach. So I had to visualize something else.

(Side note: I was interspersing this read with a book on health and detox from the spa retreat where I gave an improv workshop the week before. This heightened my awareness of improv’s spiritual and healing attributes.)

Now I am alternating between Anne Libera’s The Second City Almanac of Improvisation, which is full of interviews with improv gurus and tips for exercises, and Improvising Better: A Guide for the Working Improviser by Liz Allen and Jimmy Carrane, which is the best gift I could be given for teaching exercises around themes useful for making better decisions, both in improv scenes, and in life. (Sad that the phrase “working improviser” means “you obviously teach improv, because there’s no money in performing it,” but I digress.)

The next book on my list is Mick Napier’s Improvise.: Scene from the Inside Out. It is such a privilege being inspired by these great minds, and coming back to my workshop every week with a whole new set of ideas. It truly makes every drop-in session a new package of gold!

Post-Script: In researching for this blog entry, I found that the oft-referenced Bible of Improv, written by the literal Mother of Improv (not only a founding woman, but the mother of Paul Sills, who went on to co-found Second City), is available in its entirety online. Without further ado, here is Viola Spolin’s Improvisation for the theater: a handbook of teaching and directing techniques


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