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.

Del Close Marathon Going Strong at 15

DelClose15_small.jpg.300x360_q100What started as a 24 hour marathon in 1999 has grown every year in Manhattan. This year the festival featured over 400 groups from around the world on seven stages across the 56 hour span.

In some ways DCM hasn’t changed in years, but this year brought a few nice surprises. Old-timers will remember the street rituals of years gone by involving performers getting a suggestion miles from the UCB mainstage and performing a walking opening on their way, picking up more performers and confusing pedestrians as the blocks passed. The city of New York put a stop to the ritual a few years back, but word passed on hushed mouths that the ritual would take place this year to coincide with the documentary being filmed on the history of the marathon. The ritual is one of the purest forms of yes, and still floating out there and this year included a special treat when the 185 improvisors literally walked into a bar (McManus to be precise). But this time the bartender didn’t say he couldn’t serve 185 improvisors, he just kept pouring shots of some basement firewater as fast as he could.

The ritual did not end up on stage this year, but the press conference kicked off without a hitch. Amy, Matt and Ian greeted and bribed the press while sharing stories of Del and the 15 years of the marathon, including a nice history of one of the most notorious shows, Drunken Sonic Assualt). The conference ended with an unveiling of the UCB’s long promised Improv Manual.

The history of clumping theatres together has waned in the last couple of years since the opening of UCBeast. More east side venues were added this year making it easier for folks to stay on that side of town, even if the promotion for the east side shows was pretty non-existent.

A few scattered workshops popped up over the weekend, but one of the most unique events was the monthly UCB Diversity Program’s meetup. The diversity program – started by Caitlin Steitzer – is a fantastic program designed around building a better dialog around race, gender, age and sexual preference issues. More cities and festivals should strive to create programs like this.

If you’ve never been to DCM, keep in mind that this isn’t your traditional festival environment. You’re not going to have a lot of good conversations about the state of the craft or see a lot of shows from a comfortable seat. This is a party. This is a Las Vegas buffet of improv. Hundreds of groups doing 15-20 minutes and getting off stage. There are drunk shows and half-awake shows and phoned in shows to be found. But in the midst of that, there are also dozens of great shows you’ve never seen before trying new and exciting things. It can be a challenge to find them at Del Close each year, but each year they are there.

It was great to meet so many NIN members for the first time on the streets of Manhattan. We’ll be coming back again next year for sure. Look forward to a book review of the UCB Manual coming soon.


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

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