Quality improv texts for beginners

While I con­tinue to mas­sage drafts of future posts, now seems like the per­fect time to dis­cuss some great books about impro­vi­sa­tional the­ater. After my Core Con­ver­sa­tion at SXSW, a few peo­ple approached me look­ing for some book titles. These are the three begin­ning texts I recommended:

  • Impro by Keith John­stone — I started with this book, thanks to a rec­om­men­da­tion from Andy Crouch, my level one instruc­tor at the Hide­out The­atre. Of all the books I’ve read since com­plet­ing Impro, noth­ing intro­duces impro­vi­sa­tion quite like Johnstone’s book. He makes a strong case for the cre­ative impor­tance of impro­vi­sa­tion and encour­ages a notion that any per­son can become a good impro­viser. John­stone offers sev­eral exam­ples of great games and exer­cises to whet a novice’s appetite, and also tack­les a few dense sub­jects for the wily vet­eran. Be warned: there’s a pretty crazy sec­tion about the use of masks to induce trances near the end of the book. It’s best to prob­a­bly avoid that sec­tion unless it gen­uinely appeals to you.
  • Truth in Com­edy by Charna Halpern and Del Close — Most Chicago-style improv the­aters encour­age start­ing with this book, which is a bit eas­ier of a read than Impro. Both books are short, but this one is ulti­mately focused on pro­duc­ing a spe­cific improv com­edy for­mat: The Harold. Halpern intro­duces con­cepts in a fun and engag­ing man­ner. She often col­ors them with anec­dotes involv­ing famous impro­vis­ers. After read­ing Truth in Com­edy, I had a more con­crete idea of the met­rics that define a good improv show. If you can only read two books about impro­vi­sa­tional the­ater, choose this and Impro.
  • Jill Bernard’s Small Cute Book of Improv — This one might be a bit harder to obtain, but it’s a great intro­duc­tory tool, and a book I enjoy read­ing through once every six months or so. Jill Bernard is an awe­some impro­viser and human being, and she has a really fun world­view. She finds unique ways to describe the same basic con­cepts oth­ers write about, which makes her book, when started, almost impos­si­ble to put down until fin­ished. Very short, but very sweet.

  • Primal Truths

    When­ever I lead a rehearsal for one of my improv troupes, there’s a great sto­ry­telling exer­cise I like to include. Pri­mal Truths orig­i­nates from Carol Hazenfield’s Act­ing on Impulse, which is a won­der­ful book for impro­vis­ers, direc­tors and teach­ers. The pur­pose of [Pri­mal Truths] is two-fold: 1) to let play­ers note how it feels when […]

    Unlocking additional creativity

    Impro­vi­sa­tional the­ater classes pro­vide a great way to enhance your cre­ative side. Unsur­pris­ingly, forc­ing one­self to make up con­tent with­out prior plan­ning will lead to some unex­pected results. It might appear chal­leng­ing to pull ideas out of thin air, but time spent onstage will prove it is eas­ier than most think. In Keith John­stone’s Impro, Johnstone […]

    Creating a shared reality

    The sim­plest con­cept to boil down from an improv class and share with the out­side world is the idea of “yes, and”. It’s a pow­er­ful tool that lies at the core of every good impro­vised scene and col­lab­o­ra­tive cre­ative process. “Yes” rep­re­sents the accep­tance of another person’s offer. One impro­viser might begin a scene with […]

    The Value of Failure

    The most impor­tant les­son any­one can learn in a novice improv class is this: do not fear fail­ure. When a per­son is afraid of fail­ure, he/she has a strong ten­dency to avoid tak­ing risks. In impro­vi­sa­tional the­ater and in life, risks are often key to sub­stan­tial growth and suc­cess. Suc­cess­ful com­pa­nies like Google and Apple […]

    Relaunch and Purpose

    I first reg­is­tered this web­site in Novem­ber 2005. Over time, it tran­si­tioned into a rel­a­tively generic per­sonal blog. I chron­i­cled my taste in music and tele­vi­sion shows (includ­ing spec­u­la­tion about the fate of Arrested Devel­op­ment), among other things. The old blog was an inter­est­ing out­let, but it lacked focus and grew rel­a­tively inac­tive over the […]