Meriwether Publishing, Second Edition (2015)
Reviewed by David K. McDonnell for Reader Views (01/16)
“Improvise” is a “how-to” book, of sorts, as a primer on how to perform improvisational comedy. I say “of sorts” since improvisation is not an art form conducive to a “how-to” book. It is, as author Mick Napier defines it, “getting on stage and making stuff up as you go along.” It takes, as Stephen Colbert describes in the foreword, “a free spirit, a brave heart, or a quick mind,” and it probably takes all three. In fact, the author admits that the book is useless since you can only learn improv, and get better at it, by doing it again and again.
Yet despite these inherent and admitted limitations, “Improvise” contains valuable insights into improvisation. There is indeed a formula to good improvisation. The first element is overcoming fear – fear of appearing unscripted on stage and fear of doing or saying something outrageous once there. Overcoming the first fear may be obvious, but the second one is equally important. It’s the starting of an improv with something outrageous that provides the scene in which those in the improvisation can be at their creative best. Also a scene that can draw in an audience.
The second element is to go with the flow. Once the scene has been set, those on stage should stay within the scene – reacting to each other and to the audience while remaining within the context of the scene. Staying in context provides a familiar framework for the improvisers and the audience, while setting up a surprise or twist, which makes the familiar funny. And nothing kills an improv scene better than changing the subject.
That’s it! That is all there is to improvisation, according to Napier. Of course, a quick mind and a sense of humor don’t hurt. As well as practice. There are many “rules” to improvisation, most of which Napier says to ignore. While many failed improvisations violate the rules, so do many successful improvs. And there are many hints and pitfalls – preconceiving scenes, forcing funny lines, playing tried-and-true characters, too much explanation or justification, using objects nor mannerisms, and others – all of which are discussed in “Improvise”. As are do-at-home practice exercises and tips for auditioning.
Napier certainly has the credentials for this book. He spent decades in improv including many years with Second City, taught improvisation to students who, like Colbert, became masters of the craft, and founded several improvisational groups including The Annoyance. The tips and warnings in “Improvise” come from one who has tried nearly everything in improv, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, and has more than a good feel about what usually works and what usually doesn’t.
The book is written as if it were presented orally, in workshop or seminar form, rather than as a book. An entire chapter applies the laws of thermodynamics to improvisation, which seems a bit of a stretch. Napier uses his 20-year-old internet journal to describe the Second City production process. And the book is directed to a very narrow audience – those who are in, or who aspire to be in, an improvisation show.
For those within the targeted audience and for those curious about improvisation, “Improvise” by Mark Napier is an eye-opener into the art form. It is as close to a “how-to” book on improvisation as one might ever see. For those fans of improvisation, like me, who are in awe of the process, “Improvise” gives us a peek into a process that often leads to comedic genius.