Three books you should read to get better at Improv

An Improv Instructor Prepares, part II

5 min readJul 13, 2021

I read these books to get better at Improv.

Why you should read these books

Hearing from more experienced Improvisers — especially if they teach — is always instructive. After all, that’s all a workshop is: learning from someone else’s experience.

These books add a layer of showing you what the author fought against, and what their reaction was. Johnstone fought against the oppressive conformity of school, and wanted to spark creativity and joy again. Hines had to fight other people’s egos and his own, and teaches how to ‘fight well’.

This is even better with the Mimic’s eye [article to come].

Anyway, here are the books.

Disclaimer: These are Amazon Associate links; I’ll receive a couple of cents for coffee if you purchase through my links.

What reading these books feels like

If this is your first improv book, you should read

Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre

  • See Improv through the eyes of an experienced teacher
  • Understand what good theatre looks like from a great director
  • See what your Improv teacher isn’t telling you

You should read Impro because Keith Johnstone, is to blame for starting Improv.

He was just trying to loosen up actors, but accidentally invented a ton of fantastic improv ideas.

As a director, he knew what the audience would find satisfying; and he set his students up to be crowd-pleasers.

As a teacher, he knew how to trick students into doing what he wanted, alternately coaxing and cajoling and confounding.

He also started Gorilla Theatre.

As an artist, he’s suffered a lot. My favourite part? I was moved by a powerful story he told about a girl, her teacher and a beautiful flower garden (you’ll just have to read the book).

Reading this book is like seeing the source code of Improv, but if you want to take performance-enhancing drugs instead…

How to be the Greatest Improviser on Earth

  • Practical tips from a great performer
  • Real solutions to everyday Improv problems
  • Fantastic Code of Conduct

Will Hines is not the greatest improviser on earth; but if you read his book, you’ll get a lot closer.

Pictured: Colin Mochrie, the greatest improviser on TV.

Will writes from the perspective of a regular performer of shows, instead of Keith, who writes as a teacher.

My favourite part was when he explained how to fight well; the code of conduct for being a good performer, a good teammate, and a good friend. Save yourself a lot of learning from mistakes and learn directly from him.

But if you want to tell better stories…

The Storytelling Animal, Good Omens and Wyrd Sisters

  • Explains the magic of stories
  • Describes the shape of stories
  • Fantastic books.

(This is actually cheating, but I cheat at Improv — and any one of these books is a great recommendation)

A good story makes you believe it’s real. In Improv, we just need it to be real for a second, but lose yourself in a good book and it can become real for the rest of your life.

Good Omens is a great book about the shape of stories

Stories have a shape, a rhythm, and we all know how stories should end. The dragon is defeated, the hero triumphs, the Bridget Jones/Sandra Bullock/the Anna Kendrick character finds her true love. Terry Pratchett came up with the idea of the narrative imperative: where the story wants to go next, what we want from stories.

If you need to learn about what should happen next in a scene, or how to end the stories, these books teach you all of it.

Good Omens was such a good book it was turned into an Amazon TV series. It contains some of the funniest writing I’ve read, plus (spoiler alert) half the book is about prophecies, predictions, and omens — stories we tell about the future. It makes mention of the greatest story ever told, but as a story about stories and the effect they have on people, I found it compelling.

The play’s the thing wherein they catch the conscience of the King… in Wyrd Sisters

Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett tells a story about stories. We run the gamut from Little Red Riding Hood to Cinderella and the Frog Prince by way of Never Gamble With A Man Named Doc, but also Fairy Godmothers and Good Versus Evil. It tells you why the story should go, and how it should go satisfyingly.

The Storytelling Animal, is the most serious, fact-based book; it’s practically a documentary. The author argues that Humans are the storytelling animal, and showcases how stories are intertwined in every aspect of human life. Once you start seeing stories everywhere, you’ll learn to read the patterns.

Improv classes makes more sense after The Storytelling Animal

Oh all right, quick reviews about other books:

  • Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual is all about ‘game’, or the game of the scene, and it’s a bit specialist. Unless you know what ‘game’ is or can watch an Improv show that has game, don’t bother.
  • Anything by Viola Spolin should only be read for the exercises.
  • Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up is new-age feel-good self-development stuff. Okay, but not about Improv for performance.
  • Acting: The First Six Lessons is a very short read, but a potent story with lessons about acting, deepening your craft, and the practice of the theatre. It’s more of a parable, but the lessons are important.
  • An Actor Prepares is by Stanislavsky, who is an acclaimed director. An even greater honour: the improv game Fast Food Stanislavsky is named after him. Actors take their craft seriously; so should improvisers.

Reading about improv is like dancing about architecture — (misquoting) Thelonious Monk

The best way to get better at doing improv is to do improv. The second-best way is to live a fuller life, have plenty of life experiences to draw on.

Reading makes you think, and so helps you think about improv.

Tomorrow, I’ll share my secret training secrets.

This is a three-part series about how I prepare for classes

  1. Learning while teaching
  2. The Books I Recommend (this post!)
  3. My Secret Training, Revealed!




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