5 Books Every Improviser Needs in 2017

Looking for something to get an improviser this holiday season besides a Chipotle gift card or a 12-pack of beer? Well, how about something to read, like a book? Every year, I put together a list of my favorite books from the previous year, and this year is no exception.

Whether you are planning to give one of these to a special improviser in your life or asking Santa to bring one to you, I am sure you will find them helpful. I know I did. And as special bonus this year, I went with a little variety so hopefully there is something on this list for everyone.

  1. Improv Nation: How We Made A Great American Art
    by Sam Wasson
    If you been improivsing for a couple of years, isn’t about time you learned the history of this crazy art form you been doing? In this giant volume of a book, Wasson gives us a complete history of improvisation starting with Viola Spolin and The Compass Players in Chicago to the creation of Second City, The Groundlings, UCB and Saturday Night Live. We meet the personalities, the improvisers who kept influencing the next generation of comedians in all the mediums: people like Mike Nichols, Del Close, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, and Judd Apatow. This was such a fascinating read, I couldn’t put it down, and being an Improv Nerd like myself, I learned ton of new stuff. As an improviser, I hope reading this book inspires you, like it did me, to realize that we are part of such big cool thing that just keeps growing and growing.
  2. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success: How We Can Learn To Fulfill Our Potential
    By Carol S. DweckThis is must read for any improviser who struggles with wanting to thrown in the towel after a bad show or getting complacent after a series of successful shows. This book is about the thing that separate the good improvisers from the great ones: the ability to keep learning and not letting the setbacks get in your way. Dweck believes people have one of two mindsets: “the fixed mindset” or the “growth mindset.” When you have a fixed mindset, you are afraid to be challenged or fail, and when you do. When you have a fixed mindset, you look at success as an extension of your self-worth, so when you succeed you are worthy if you fail you are a piece of shit. This kind of pressure destroys improvisers.When you have a growth mindset, you embrace learning and want to continue challenging yourselves, even if that mean you may fail, so you can get better. With this mindset, you believe that what matters is the effort you put forth, not the results.

    The good news is according to Dweck, we can all learn to have a growth mindset. As improvisers we are in the business of making mistakes. That is the only way we can improve. Accepting those mistakes is the hard part. This books helps us embrace a new mindset that can make us the kind of improviser we always wanted to be.

  1. How To Be The Greatest Improviser On Earth
    By Will HinesI wanted to include one how-to improv book this year, and the one I chose is UCB’s Will Hines’ terrific book “How To Be The Greatest Improvisers On Earth.” Will is a thoughtful teacher and excellent writer, who has taught and performed at The UCB since 2000. He is extremely thorough in his book, where he talks about the more practical nuts and bolts of scene work and specific long forms, as well as the realities of working with difficult people and keeping your head on straight in a sometimes very competitive art form. His improv exercises at the end of each chapter are easy to follow and so incredibly helpful. I have used some of his exercises myself in class and they have worked like a charm — not always an easy task when lifting them from a book. I cannot recommend this book enough, regardless what method of improv you are learning or which theater you are studying at right now. It definitely will make you The Greatest Improviser On Earth.
  1. Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges
    By Amy CuddyAmy Cuddy’s superb, often dense book is inspired by her Ted talk that went viral. The book’s premise is simple, and that is how our body language says a lot of about ourselves without us even opening our mouth. Backed by extensive research, this book explains that by adjusting our posture and body language, we can project a stronger presence in our lives and on stage. The most helpful part of her book was the “wonder woman poses,” which is when you raise your hands above your head like you are crossing the finish line. I use them before shows, teaching classes or auditions, when I want to project a powerful presence.
  1. Sick In The Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy‎
    By Judd ApatowI love getting in the heads of creative people, especially comedians, and find out how they think. Before he became a successful writer and director of films such as 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, Judd Apatow was a comedy nerd who had interviewed tons of other comedians. Parts of this book are very funny because he’s interviewing people who are very funny, but it is also candid and insightful. He talks to comedy legends from all different generations, from Mel Brooks to Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, Roseanne Barr, Harold Ramis, Chris Rock and Lena Dunham.

    This holiday season, give yourself the gift of improv! Sign up for Jimmy’s Two-Person Scene Tune-Up on Dec. 30, or his Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 class, starting Jan. 10.

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