Book Highlight: Improv Wins

by Chris Trew and Tami Nelson

by Chris Trew and Tami Nelson

I met Chris Trew and Tami Nelson at the 2004 Southern Improv Festival. I immediately liked them. Their passion for improv wasn’t unique, but their drive to see improv continue to grow and change rather than rest on its successes was something very dear to me.

It was more than talk. In the ten years that followed, Chris and Tami have reshaped improv, not in one town, but in the entire Southeastern part of the country. They’re personal style can be seen in much of the improv in that region, but each city also grows in its own way making its own unique form of those ideas. That’s what’s great about Chris and Tami and everyone at The New Movement. I was excited to receive a copy of their book in the mail and more than pleased to share some thoughts on the book here.

Recently, a review of the UCB Manual of Improv appeared in these pages. In many ways this book is similar to that one. Both are structured more like textbooks than improv books of days past (although Improv Wins is presented in a slightly less linear fashion). Ideas are broken down with exercises for the reader to do at home. Both provide real world examples with discussions of the answers. Likewise, both can very clearly be seen as guides on performing in the style of their respective theatres. This book, in fact, has a very wonderful introduction that is very honest about this; that there are many ways to approach improv and this is but one of them. In these respects, both books are both similar.

But in what I believe to be a very important way, they are also quite different. The UCB Manual could be viewed as a definitive guide. I’m certain it will be sold at the UCB Theaters for years to come. Students reading that book may go on to eventually teach from the same book. Improv Wins is far more aware of the constant changing and growing nature of the craft. There is still great wisdom to be gleaned from Impro for Storytellers, but much of the content of that book is less applicable in a modern improv environment. Improv Wins is self-aware that it likewise is a snapshot of it’s time – a book for 2014, not 2036. Whereas the UCB Manual teaches how to solidify a current form of improv, Improv Wins encourages the reader to use this book as a starting point to reinvent and reshape improv in new ways going into the future. In fact, I would argue that while many of the exercises in this book may be considered quaint in fifteen years, the value of this book will still be in the ideas of continued reinvention.

Tami and Chris

Tami and Chris

For the many students of established improv theatres across the world, is this book a good resource? Sure. It’s a nice supplement to your existing teaching and perhaps offers a different take on ideas that may be easier to understand for the reader. It will be a very useful supplement to their learning, if not necessarily a revelation. But to the hundreds of performers in small towns across the country without access to professional teachers, this can be a huge benefit. This book not only presents exercises that might be presented in a classroom setting, but offers the insight and explanation a teacher might provide. This book shouldn’t be considered a replacement for formal training, but it’s an excellent substitute when that training is not available.

And that works on the flipside as well. I know many many performers who have been playing for a while and are now looking to begin teaching. Read this book. This book can be an example to follow on how to effectively communicate ideas and organize thoughts. Even if your specific focus is different than the teachings of The New Movement, this book can be a useful template for how to present information in a way students can understand.

Although not formally separated into two sections, the book does change focus about halfway through. The second half of this book is why I’m recommending this book to my personal students. After several chapters of how to work well onstage. The second portion of the book offers advice which has rarely seen written form on how to behave offstage; working with your ensemble in healthy ways, building relationships with other ensembles and theatres, good advice on traveling to festivals. (And a special thank you to the authors for the kind words spoken of the festival in my home town.) These ideas are not wholly new, but have existed for far too long as only oral traditions. Thanks to Chris and Tami for putting these thoughts together on paper for those performers looking to grow and sustain their troupes.

Overall this book is cleverly and very personally written. It’s a useful guide to performance as well as a genuinely entertaining read for any performer. But for the beginning troupes, this will be a tremendously useful book in growing. Not growing into The New Movement or The Reckoning or Baby Wants Candy, but growing into something new, something beyond those. This book will help the next generation of performers discover more and leave us in the dusty past. Highly, highly recommended.

You can get the book here.

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.

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