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Improvisational Comedy

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General Information and Where to Start

This is intended for anyone interested in learning about improvisation, commonly called improv. Improv is theater based on audience suggestion and performed without rehearsal, usually by an ensemble (or “troupe”) with skits, games and songs. Improv is generally performed by one ensemble, but in the case of competitive improv comedy, two teams will battle it out for audience rating. Print and Web-based sources are included, as well as information about national improv organizations.

Internet Resources | Print Resources | Organizations

Internet Resources

These sites are great first steps in understanding improvisation as a creative form.

The Improv Page
As its name suggests, this site gives a very complete and well-written look at what improv is all about, including a brief history of the art form and an astounding list of existing improv groups.

The Spolin Center
This site promotes improvisation based on Viola Spolin’s creation of theatrical games and techniques to promote self-expression. It also includes links to other improv-related sites. See below the reference to Spolin’s book, Improvisation for the Theater.

Keith Johnstone
This site, based on the work and writings of English improviser Keith Johnstone, offers historical information about his development of Theatresports and other forms of competitive improv.

Once you have your feet wet, you may want to lurk or even post to the following improv-related newsgroups, known for firm opinions and lively discussion:

  • alt.comedy.improvisation
  • rec.arts.theater.improv

Also, feel free to explore Yahoo!‘s directory by clicking on: Arts and Humanities – Performing Arts – Theater – Improvisation.

Print Resources

Understanding Improv

Many books have been written about improvisation. If you’re looking for resources in an academic library, you can find material using the Library of Congress Subject Heading: Improvisation (Acting) and class number PN2071.15. In a public library, you can search using the Dewey Decimal call number 792.028.

The selections below offer a strong theoretical foundation, as well as a history of the art of improvisation.

Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre
Keith Johnstone: Routledge, 1981.

Keith Johnstone is sometimes called the father of improvisation. His text moves from Johnstone’s very beginnings as an improviser and instructor through a series of discussions about aspects of improvisation that, when mastered, change the learner’s overall outlook as a performer.

Improvisation for the Theater
Viola Spolin: Northwestern University Press, 1990.

If Johnstone is the father of improv, Spolin is its mother. She developed a series of theater games based on experience with the WPA and post-WWII Hollywood, later sparking the growth of improvisation in the US. Her son, Paul Sills, went on to co-found the U.S.’s first professional improvisational theater, The Compass. Spolin’s book offers many games and techniques, as well as ways to work with actors of widely ranging ages and experience, and a useful glossary of terms.

Truth In Comedy: The manual of improvisation
Charna Halpern, Del Close and Kim Johnson: Meriwether, 1994.

This book also offers tips on improvisational training games and techniques, seasoned with Close’s very definite views on what is and is not effective in improvisation. The book’s goal is to familiarize readers with the “Harold”, the improvisational structure originated by Close and now used worldwide by improvisational ensembles.

Landmark Improv Troupes

The Compass
Janet Coleman: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

The Compass is a history of the improvisational theatre that turned American comedy on its ear. Created in the mid-50’s at the University of Chicago, the troupe included such improv greats as Mike Nichols, Elaine May and Paul Sills. These are just a few of America’s early improvisers who went on to achieve fame and fortune in improvisation and sketch comedy.

The Second City
Donna McCrohan: Perigee, 1987.

This chronicles the tumultuous history of America’s famous training ground for Saturday Night Live cast members and comedic movie stars. While Second City shows do not consist entirely of improv, key improvisational skills are used in developing sketches, and the company offers extensive improv training programs. A must-read for the star-struck.


Think you’d like to try this stuff out? Most improv organizations welcome inquiries and are eager to involve new members. With so many regional improv troupes around the US and the world, finding a nearby troupe is most easily done by using a search engine with the search phrase “improvisational comedy” and the name of a particular city.

This pathfinder created by Gretchen Almy