Book Highlight: UCB Manual

ucb_cover_1Most improvisors have the same core books in their libraries; Truth in Comedy (Close / Halpern, Johnson), Improvise (Napier), Impro and Impro for Storytellers (Johnstone) and of course Jill’s Small Cute Book of Improv. These are the great starting books to learn the core of our craft. There are of course dozens of other great books that focus on specifics, and countless terrible books.

Many of these books were written in a near vacuum. They were invaluable resources for people who had previously had practically no introduction to true improv. This last decade has been an exciting time of growth. Theatres across the world are resources for this knowledge. We’ve reached a form of critical mass where there is a market for something more, something more specific.

Anyone who went to The Del Close Marathon this year (and saw the mystery box) knows that after a long wait, The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual is finally here and one of the first books to make this step into more specialized improv training.

The book is perfectly named, this isn’t a book like Improvising Better. This is a manual, a textbook. And I don’t mean that it’s cutely formatted like a text book. It’s an Honest to God text book on UCB style play. The book is filled with exercises, terminology, examples, scene analysis and all the other things you would expect from this kind of book. No book can ever be a substitute for actual live training, but the book will solidly prepare you to understand the method and techniques of performing at The UCB.

Does that make this book useless for those who play in other styles? Of course not. The core ideas and evaluations will make any performer stronger, but it’s certainly designed specifically around UCB’s style of play. And that’s fantastic. It fills a gap left by more generalized books on the subject.

The book does indeed seem designed for those with a functional knowledge of longform play, but is always careful to explain even the simplest concepts for the truly beginning improvisor reading the book. That said, although the book is extremely thorough and attentive to the smallest detail, there does seem to be one oddly missing piece of information. Being a UCB book, there is a strong emphasis on game play. There are dozens of wonderful examples and exercises to identify and create game, but there doesn’t seem to be any intro to what a game “is”. That seems to be the one and only assumption the book takes in it’s readers – an understanding of the concept of “the game”. I found this surprising, but even if an unfamiliar reader might be confused in the early chapters, I think the concept becomes fairly clear, if not explicitly addressed.

Improv is growing and education and sharing of ideas is growing with it, both online and in more tangible forms. The UCB Manual is a fresh new take on improv training and I think every performer – UCB or not – longform or not – should give it a read. And this isn’t the end. There are more books coming in the next year with exciting other forms of training. (Including one that will be discussed in two weeks right here.)

What about you? What other books are you excited about?

Hooray books!

Currently Bill is an instructor at The Torch Theatre and producer for the Phoenix Improv Festival. He tours teaching and performing across North America.