“Improvised Life” Led to New Book

(Apar Books, 2014)
(Apar Books, 2014)


It seems like I’ve been improvising my whole life. I don’t mean living my life as improv – there would be nothing special in that since life is a big improv and we are all the players – I mean doing improv for the theater.

I first encountered theatrical improv when I was 11 or 12. My father and mother had guests over, and my father thought it would be fun to improvise a murder mystery involving all our guests. They were game and so, without telling them anything except that they would be suspects in a murder investigation. After that, I spent 1968 to 1971 improvising radio-style shows on audiotape and from 1971 to 1974, improvising movies on Super-8 film.

During college, I did little improv, but started performing again in 1980 on the public access cable show, Public Abscess, which eventually led to Videosyncracies, a sketch comedy show.

Carol Schindler, co-author of A DOCTOR & A PLUMBER IN A ROWBOAT, performing with Chicago City Limits and Robin Williams in 1983.
Carol Schindler, co-author of A DOCTOR & A PLUMBER IN A ROWBOAT, performing with Chicago City Limits and Robin Williams in 1983.

Looking to improve my sketch-writing, I attended an improv class taught by the late George Todisco in 1981. I loved it. I have been improvising ever since, in class for seven years with George, Carol Schindler, Linda Gelman, Paul Zuckerman, David Regal, and Chris Oyen as my teachers at Chicago City Limits, and one memorable class with Del Close of Second City.

I performed with the New York Improv Squad from 1984 to 1986, helped Gary Stockton and John Weber win the Stanislavski Open (an improv competition in 1986) as part of Improv DaDa, and took over the improv jam from Ian Prior in 1993 (renamed Sunday Night Improv).

Tom Soter (pointing), co-author of A DOCTOR & A PLUMBER IN A ROWBOAT, performing with the New York Improv Squad at the Village Voice Festival of Street Entertainers in 1985.
Tom Soter (pointing), co-author of A DOCTOR & A PLUMBER IN A ROWBOAT, performing with the New York Improv Squad at the Village Voice Festival of Street Entertainers in 1985.

I began teaching classes in 1987. My first few classes only had two people attending, but I didn’t despair; I figured if I kept coming every week and offered a good product, they’d show up. And they did. Within a few years, I was teaching on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday nights, all the time developing and adapting  games to fulfill specific needs.

Looking back, I amaze myself at how much teaching I did. But I really enjoy it; teaching is as wonderful and as different as the students you instruct. Over the years, I have had celebrity actors drop in for class, people with various disabilities – a blind man, a double amputee, and a fellow with MS – and also doctors, psychiatrists, writers, comedians, senior citizens, 12-year-olds, and, of course, actors. Once, I agreed to teach 45 teenage students from Canada. And it wasn’t a straight lecture. They all had to participate, because I always feel that you learn more from doing it than watching it.

And I learned almost as many lessons as I taught.

Tom Soter (pointing) performing at Sunday Night Improv in the 1990s.
Tom Soter (pointing) performing with Greg Pak and Tom Carrozza at Sunday Night Improv in the 1990s.

I learned that improv is a social experience, that while the form itself is essentially shallow (a great scene gives an  illusion of depth but is gone forever once it’s over) the ties and connections that develop from improv can last a life time; after 30 plus years, the relationships with some of my closest friends – Alan Saly, Tom Sinclair, Christian Doherty, Carl Kissin, Ian Prior, Tom Carrozza, and Carol Schindler – were born in the trenches of improv.

Chicago City Limits in the 1980s.
Chicago City Limits in the 1980s.

Over the years, my students have frequently asked me why I didn’t put all my insights, anecdotes, and mantras (like the one for “Listening, Observing, and Communicating”) into a book. I toyed with it, but never seemed to find the time. When my former teacher, Carol Schindler, returned to teaching a few years ago at my theater, we would naturally talk about improv scenes, techniques, and all that jazz. Then my book, Overheard on a Bus, was published. Carol and I were talking about that, and I said, “Why don’t we do a book on improv?” She said, “Sure!” How improvisational! And, in the end, working with Carol has been just as fun as working on a scene, except this relationship has lasted longer than three-minutes, and no one has turned off the lights yet! Thanks, Carol.

Tom Soter's documentary about improv, on DVD from Amazon.
Tom Soter’s acclaimed documentary about improv, on DVD and available from Amazon for only $10.

The book, A Doctor and a Plumber on a Rowboat, is finally here, available from Amazon. It makes a great gift (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). And if you really want the full experience, you can see Carol and me talking about and performing improv in my documentary on improvisation, Sense and Nonsense, available from Amazon (and this is a longer version than the one on You Tube, featuring Joe Perce, Linda Gelman, John Fulweiler, and others who got cut from the shorter version). Completists will want to pick up items from this site.

But don’t believe me: here’s what longtime improv teacher, performer, and master class instructor Rob McCaskill said in a recent e-mail: a beautiful, worthwhile book.  It is deeply informed, reflecting decades of first-hand experience and your study of the greats.  The two of you have distilled your complex understanding to a very readable volume. Like most great teaching, it comes across as simple.  The prose style itself is clean, the syntax perfectly organized. The insights are wisely arranged and described with well-chosen examples.

The New York Improv Squad, performing on the street in 1985.
The New York Improv Squad, with Tom Soter, second from right, performing on the street in 1985.

The two of you have captured the history and craft in 138 pages. Hats off. You’ve also captured the people.  Spolin and Sills. Close, Johnstone, Todisco and yourselves, along with seemingly every other improv playerand teacher in the last 50 years.  It will remain a document of our time and will be read by actors and improvisers for decades to come.

But, although it is a great teaching tool for anyone who wants toimprovise well, it’s really about living well.  Sharing, listening,being in the moment. Saying yes to the offerings of others.  I believe that was Viola’s intention all those years ago.  Still works today. 

And your book is heartfelt guide.

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