Updated: Jul 11, 2018
A Guide to Advanced Improvisation
Charna Halpern 2006
Charna Halpern was the co-creator of both long-form improvisation and the Harold with her partner Del Close, and they have trained a very long list of comedy stars. She has been director of the world famous i.O. theatre for over 40 years.
Art by Committee is a 127 page book for performers who want to understand what inspired a generation of improvisers to unite under a common goal to create ‘theatre of the heart’ by bringing ‘truth’ to comedy. This book should connect with the reader who wants to understand the lineage and traditions that have given birth to a global movement. It tells many stories about those involved, including Del Close who died in 1999, and was widely known as the guru of long-form improvisation. One of his stories explains how following a problematic show the performers gathered in Elaine Mays kitchen, Del had been in a scene where he was denied a jack when he was changing a car tyre which lead to an argument, so he suggested ‘maybe if you would have said yes, and here’s the spare’ the scene would have worked better. This was both the moment the ‘yes, and’ rule was created, and the point at which Del realised that through further analysis there might be other rules, which he subsequently worked hard developing throughout the rest of his life.
The book makes truth its central tenant, returning again and again to demonstrate how the inductive process of improvisation can unite people, and in the authors own words ‘tell me I’m not alone in my dark little world’. There are a lot of vulnerable stories which make it easy to feel a deep sense of empathy that on some level we are the same as the people in this book, and we share the same world with them.
We are not encouraged to grow into the mould of the ideal performer, but instead focus on our own peculiarities and grow into the best version of ourselves. On stage we are reminded that our characters are simply a subset of ourselves, and if we can try to react truthfully on stage as if it was real life it will ‘beat the hell’ out of trying to be funny. There are many universal truths uncovered about the human condition throughout this work, because it is our job to ‘bring a slice of real life to the stage’. This takes courage, but we are reminded that agreement is reciprocal and if we try to make our partners ideas work then our partners will also try to make our ideas work.
Committing 100% is another recurring theme, and the Zen koan ‘finger points at moon’ is referenced as a way to understand this. When we look at the moon, in order to enjoy it 100% we must give it 100% of our attention, any attention that we waste elsewhere will blemish our experience. In the same way we must be fully present for our partners. Whatever they communicate must be the most important thing in the world to us while we are on stage with them. We should be paranoid and look beneath the surface at the real meaning of what was really being said, listening with our hearts as well as our ears, instead of simply responding to the words.
There is a dvd which accompanies the book with some brilliant examples of some of i.O’s most iconic improv teams, as well as interviews with some of its stars. What stands out the most from the interviews is hearing their shared mindset, and gaining an understanding of how that mindset has had such a positive influence on them.
Throughout the book it is clear that the author is 100% committed to long-form improvisation and it is a passion which she has dedicated her life to serving. A great book for the beginner who want to feel connected to the wider community and understand what it means to be an improviser. Also a great book for seasoned performers, teachers and coaches, to remind us that we are standing on the shoulders of giants, and we have a responsibility to protect and pay tribute to their lineage. Essential reading.
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