Tips from Tom 1: Basics

By Tom Soter

Improv teaches you to commit and not be afraid to take a chance. The late George Todisco, founding father of Chicago City Limits, once said, “It’s better to take a big chance and make a big mistake. You learn a big lesson. Take a small chance, small lesson.” Improv is a constant learning process. And it’s not a question of thinking fast. Everyone thinks fast. But it is the improviser who can speak as quickly as he thinks. It’s not that people can’t think of something to say. It’s just that most non-improvisers censor themselves and don’t say what they’re thinking.

Improvisers go with their first impulse. So how do people get better at improv? Take a lot of classes. Perform in public. I became a much better improviser once I started public performing. My first improv group, The New York Improv Squad, performed regularly in the parks and streets of New York (earning as much as $100 a show). We learned real fast how to do good improv because there’s nothing more magical than creating a crowd out of thin air – and keeping it – purely on the power of your imagination.

Also, you can read about it. Some of the books I recommend to my students include:

IMPRO: IMPROVISATION AND THE THEATRE, by Keith Johnstone. This is probably the most readable improvisation book around.
AUDITION, by Michael Shurtleff. Basically an actor’s book, this tome also offers a lot of improv principles, such as making active rather than passive choices, creating history for your characters, and so.
SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY, edited by Jeffrey Sweet. Interviews with improvisers from the founders of modern improv, Second City and the Compass Players. Some good insights about the art of improv.
THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. A writer’s book, but also good for improvisers in what it has to say about clarity of communication.
THE OTHER MAN: CONVERSATIONS WITH GRAHAM GREENE by Marie–Francoise Allain. Pay particular attention to Greene's discussion of how the unconscious works and the magic of our imaginations.
TRUTH IN COMEDY: THE MANUAL OF IMPROVISATION, by Charna Halpern, Del Close and Kim "Howard" Johnson. Del Close is one of the original members of the Second City Improv troupe. The book is not well-written, but is useful.