Improvisation: A Practical Guide

Jason Moran
Crowood Press

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Crowood has added to its illustrated practical guides for theatre with this overview of the art of improvisation from Jason Moran, Artistic Director and founder of the LiveWired improvised comedy group in London, for whom he also teachers a beginners course on this subject.

The book focuses largely, as you might expect, on training for 'improv' (the author prefers the US abbreviation over what certainly always used to be the preferred British term 'impro') for an audience, both the short-form, game-based style—as seen on Whose Line Is It Anyway? on TV and from groups such as the Comedy Store Players and Paul Merton's Impro Chums—and long-form improvisation, where more substantial scenes are developed that aren't necessarily aiming for comedy, such as the work of Improbable. However, it also touches on the value of learning these skills for pleasure or to increase self-confidence and has a chapter on using it in corporate training.

It begins by explaining some basic terms and a highly selective (and not entirely accurate—or really necessary in a practical guide) history of improvisation before covering important areas such as accepting—referred to here as "Yes, And..."—spontaneity, use of the body and the space, storytelling and connecting with the audience. There is a short section on online impro performance, with the improvisors on camera in separate locations, which would have been more timely a year ago but may still be useful for some.

The last chapter is a collection of games for impro, some of which are referred to elsewhere, but there are only 11 of these as the book is more about general skills and techniques than the specifics of a performance. It seems to be aimed at performers, teachers, hobbyists and those wanting to use these techniques to improve life skills, which is a lot to cover in just 160 heavily illustrated pages.

While the book covers some useful areas, the descriptions are often rather vague for a practical manual, especially for beginners. I could see it working well as a companion to Moran's in-person classes, but as a standalone guide, most of the explanations aren't detailed enough for someone to easily translate them from page to stage or classroom without some guesswork. The photos from Moran's rehearsal room don't often demonstrate what is explained in the text in any obvious way either, just looking like rather washed-out images of people in abstract poses.

Years ago, I found Keith Johnstone's Impro (mentioned in this book) to be a life-changing book, covering far more than it's title suggests, and I have a few volumes of games for impro for in the classroom, rehearsal room and on stage, but this book doesn't aim to be any of these. As a standalone guide, it's explanations are a bit too vague for someone starting out in improvisation, but as a companion to drama classes, it may help to broaden the subject and fill in a few gaps, although with a £20 cover price for a paperback, it's quite an investment for that.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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