Book Review: Art by Committee
Cassidy is constantly considering becoming a librarian. Every few weeks, she’ll review a different improv book. Get ready to get nerdy.
Art by Committee: A Guide to Advanced Improvisation
by Charna Halpern
What did I think in general?
This is Charna Halpern’s (founder of the iO theater) second book – a follow-up to the classic Truth in Comedy. It combines advice, anecdote, interviews and a few exercises to give advice to the advanced improviser. Is it the best improv book I’ve ever read? Nope. Does it have merit? Hell yes.
Halpern has worked with and influenced a lot of incredible people, a fact which she seems to like to mention. This is a blessing as well as a curse. There’s a lot of name dropping and a seemingly completely unhelpful thirteen page spread of black and white photos of famous people doing improv – curse. But there are some straight-up gems in the interviews with and essays by other people included in this book – blessing. I especially loved Susan Messing’s essay – she’s funny and intense and fantastic and a little mean (my favorite kind of person) – “more times than I can remember, I have watched people on-stage, standing in the middle of an abyss, making generalized statements like ‘This is fun.’ I am watching and thinking ‘I sure don’t know what this is, and it sure as hell isn’t fun.’” Susan. Yes.
Halpern loves to talk about Del Close, and while I’m not faulting her for this, it gets a little old for me. The last third of the book is a history section, which mostly focuses on her work with Close – if you like reading this part, you should read his biography. That guy was insane. While I didn’t love this section, I hadn’t read Del Close’s General Principles for the Harold before – the first is pure gold: “1. You are all supporting actors.”
What’s my favorite part of the book?
Absolutely hands-down the best part about this book is that it comes with a DVD of shows & scenes to watch. I know DVDs aren’t the hippest piece of technology, but if you can figure out a way to play it, it is so very helpful. It is 100% important to read about improv, but the best way to learn is by watching. Halpern writes a chapter and then tells you what to watch and what to be focusing on in that set – it’s an amazing tool.
Who would this book be most helpful for?
Here’s what I would say: buy this book when you’re ready to study a little bit. It doesn’t break anything down beat by beat. And it isn’t a generalized overview written for the absolute beginner. This is where its greatest flaws and greatest strengths lie: there is someone for everyone. If I could only bring one improv book to a desert island (work with me), it certainly would not be this one. But if you have a few hours to do some general learning, this book is great. As I mentioned – the video/reading component is something I haven’t found anywhere else. It’s like getting to sit next to a great instructor during a show – and having them lean over and whisper “See? Thats what we were talking about in class!” while you watch.
Finally, a great thought from the book:
“Having confidence and being nonjudgemental are also traits that make a good improviser. This type of person will share the work with his friends, accept everything that is given him, and make it work. He hears from his heart as well as his ears. Confidence brings about calmness.”