Five Resources for Aspiring Improvisers

March 9, 2011

Improv ExampleYou’ve been thinking about taking an improv class for a long time and you’re wondering how you can prepare for your classes and “get a leg up” on your classmates. Or perhaps you’re wondering how you can incorporate a little more improvisation in your daily life.

It’s been a long time since I completed a year-long improvisation program. As you may have read in my previous post, the program changed my life. Unfortunately, I did not have an improv mentor and knew of few resources that could help me become a better improviser at the time.

In an effort to help you become a better improviser more quickly, I am sharing five resources that might help you…

5) The newspaper and/or other sources of news. When it comes to improvisation, it’s important to be aware of current events and newsworthy topics. This will allow you to insert timely references into your performance and make them more relevant. Judging by past and current show titles at Second City (“Rod Blagojevich Superstar” and “Rush Limbaugh the Musical” come to mind), news and politics play a big role in improvisation performances.

The good news: you’re probably already aware of what’s happening in the world right now. But if following news and current events is a weakness of yours, you might want to pick up your local newspaper or check out news powerhouses like The New York Times or

4) A Netflix subscription. OK, you don’t have to subscribe to Netflix, but your knowledge of movies and pop culture will take you far and open up plenty of improv possibilities on stage. It might also be helpful to know the various film genres in the event you’re called to participate in an improv game. For example, I played a game that challenged our group to play a particular scene in the style of a film noir. Luckily, I remembered watching “Double Indemnitiy” with a college roommate, which helped me get an idea about how I needed to approach the scene. But there were plenty of moments I wasn’t familiar with a particular movie or genre. In cases like these I deferred to other team members on stage and did my best.

3) Comfortable shoes. Really, all clothing worn during an improv class should be comfortable. Comfortable shoes (and clothing) will help you when it comes to getting physical on stage. You don’t need to be as physical as Jim Carrey, but audiences respond to physical action on stage. Personally, some of my favorite moments on stage happened when I got down on my knees and played a young child or an animal. Wearing comfortable clothing (including shoes), in my humble opinion, will help you be prepared for any improv situation and help you feel loose.

2) “The Second City Book of Improvisation” by Anne Libera. This is the book that I wish had been around when I started improvising. It’s filled with improv rules, history and words of wisdom. Some of these nuggets of wisdom include: “Try not to tell; try to show” or “Be prepared for anything, like a Boy Scout.” It’s important to remember that this book, while incredibly informative, is no substitute for the real thing. So take some of these principles and apply them in your classes. Experiment.

If you want to incorporate more improvisation in your life, but you’re not ready or willing to take classes, you might want to check out books like “Improvise This: How to Think on Your Feet So You Don’t Fall on Your Face” by Mark Bergren, Molly Cox and Jim Detmar or “Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up” by Patricia Madsen. These books are great for applying improv principles at work or at any moment in your day. But don’t just read the books for their creative ideas, really apply them. Strike up conversations with a stranger in an elevator or at a coffee shop. Remember that improv is not necessarily about trying to be funny…it’s more about listening to others and responding appropriately.

1) Your Beautiful Mind. When it comes down to it, your success and enjoyment as an improviser are linked to what’s between your ears. It matters not whether you’ve ever been seen on the cover of Vogue, Details or People. Perhaps you were always the last person chosen when you participated in team sports back in school. It doesn’t matter what happened ten or twenty years ago – improv is about right now.

Improv is about bringing your life experience, your unique point of view to a scene. It’s about listening, playing and letting loose. It’s about facing fears and taking a risk that you might appear silly in front of others. It’s also about being in the present moment and having an open, curious frame of mind.

While these resources are no guarantee for improv success, hopefully they lead to greater enjoyment on stage and can be tools that help you to get where you want to be a little faster.

How about you…do you think about taking improv classes? Do you have any resources that you’ve used and applied? I’d love to hear more about it…

Creative commons photo courtesy of Mild Mannered Photographer.

1 Patricia Ryan Madson March 10, 2011 at 9:55 pm

What a great post!!! Excellent suggestions for all improvisors. And thank you for kindly including a plug for my book IMPROV WISDOM. That is how books move through the world these days. I am in your debt today.
With gratitude
Patricia Madson

2 Tim March 11, 2011 at 8:33 pm

Hi Patricia: Thank you for stopping by and for your kind words. I know that it’s been awhile since I’ve been on stage improvising, but in many ways I improvise every day. There’s a possibility that I get on stage in the near future – I’ll be sure to share more about this if this is the case. But seriously, thank you for sharing your improv knowledge and reminding us that improv is not necessarily about getting on stage, but how we approach every moment.

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