“The really good idea is always traceable back quite a long way, often to a not-very-good idea that was only slightly better, which somebody misunderstood in such a way that they then said something that was really rather interesting, which was picked up by somebody else who combined it with an earlier idea, which most people had forgotten, all of which was reshaped by somebody else, and so on...the starting point of the building process can be a bad idea…” – John Cleese
It seems like I've been improvising my whole life. I don't mean living my life as improv – there would be nothing special in that since life is a big improv and we are all the players – I mean doing improv for the theater.
I first encountered theatrical improv when I was 11 or 12. My father and mother had guests over, and my father thought it would be fun to improvise a murder mystery involving all our guests. They were game and so, without telling them anything except that they would be suspects in a murder investigation. After that, I spent 1968 to 1971 improvising radio-style shows on audiotape and from 1971-1974, improvising movies on Super-8 film.
During college, I did little improv, but started performing again in 1980 on the public access cable show, Public Abscess, which eventually led to Videosyncracies, a sketch comedy show.
Looking to improve my sketch-writing, I attended an improvclass taught by the late George Todisco in 1981. I loved it. I have been improvising ever since, in class for seven years with George, Carol Schindler, Linda Gelman, Paul Zuckerman, David Regal, and Chris Oyen as my teachers at Chicago City Limits, and one memorable class with Del Close of Second City (I remember him smoking throughout the class and discarding his used cigarette butts in a Pepsi bottle).
I performed with the New York Improv Squad from 1984-1986, helped Gary Stockton and John Weber win the Stanislavski Open (an improv competition in 1986) as part of Improv DaDa, and took over the improv jam from Ian Prior in 1993 (renamed Sunday Night Improv).
I began teaching classes in 1987. My first few classes only had two people attending, but I didn’t despair; I figured if I kept coming every week and offered a good product, they’d show up. And they did. Within a few years, I was teaching on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday nights, all the time developing and adapting games to fulfill specific needs.
Looking back, I amaze myself at how much teaching I did. But I really enjoy it; teaching is as wonderful and as different as the students you instruct. Over the years, I have had celebrity actors drop in for class, people with various disabilities – a blind man, a double amputee, and a fellow with MS – and also doctors, psychiatrists, writers, comedians, senior citizens, 12-year-olds, and, of course, actors. Once, I agreed to teach 45 teenage students from Canada. And it wasn’t a straight lecture. They all had to participate, because I always feel that you learn more from doing it than watching it.
And I learned almost as many lessons as I taught.
I learned that improv is a social experience, that while the form itself is essentially shallow (a great scene gives an illusion of depth but is gone forever once it’s over) the ties and connections that develop from improv can last a life time; after 30 plus years, the relationships with some of my closest friends – Alan Saly, Tom Sinclair, Christian Doherty, Carl Kissin, Ian Prior, Tom Carrozza, and Carol Schindler – were born in the trenches of improv.
That point came home to me years ago when I taught a perfomance class with the group, The Wingnuts, which featured Denny Siegel (later on Whose Line Is It Anyway?), Beth Littleford (later on the Daily Show), Mike Bencivenga (director of the film Happy Hour and the recent hit play, Billy and Ray), David Storck (co-author of the book, Ensemble Theatre Making), and most of the cast of The Chainsaw Boys. What touched me was how everyone hung out together after those classes, how much it was like a family. All because of improv.
Over the years, my students have frequently asked me why I didn’t put all my insights, anecdotes, and mantras (like the one for “Listening, Observing, and Communicating”) into a book. I toyed with it, but never seemed to find the time. When my former teacher, Carol Schindler, returned to teaching a few years ago at my theater, we would naturally talk about improv scenes, techniques, and all that jazz. Then my book, Overheard on a Bus, was published. Carol and I were talking about that, and I said, “Why don’t we do a book on improv?” She said, “Sure!” How improvisational! And, in the end, working with Carol has been just as fun as working on a scene, except this relationship has lasted longer than three-minutes, and no one has turned off the lights yet! Thanks, Carol.
The book, A Doctor and a Plumber on a Rowboat, is finally here, available from Amazon. It makes a great gift (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). And if you really want the full experience, you can see Carol and me talking about and performing improv in my documentary on improvisation, Sense and Nonsense, at from Amazon (and this is a longer version than the one on You Tube, featuring Joe Perce, Linda Gelman, John Fulweiler, and others who got cut from the shorter version). Completists will want to pick up items from this site.
But don't believe me: here's what longtime improv teacher, performer, and master class instructor Rob McCaskill said in a recent e-mail: a beautiful, worth-while book. It's deeply informed, reflecting decades of first-hand experience and your studyof the greats. The two of you have distilled your complexunderstanding to a very readable volume. Like most great teaching, it comes across as simple. The prose style itself is clean, the syntax perfectly organized. The insights arewisely arranged and described with well-chosen examples.
The two of you have captured the history and craft in 138 pages.Hats off. You've also captured the people. Spolin and Sills. Close, Johnstone, Todisco and yourselves, along with seemingly every other improv playerand teacher in the last 50 years. It will remain a document of our time and will be read by actors and improvisers for decades to come.
But, although it is a great teaching tool for anyone who wants toimprovise well, it's really about living well. Sharing, listening,being in the moment. Saying yes to the offerings of others. I believe that was Viola's intention all those years ago. Still works today.
And your book is heartfelt guide.
Tom Soter, March 2015