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When you hear the word “artist,” what do you picture?

(a) That Picasso guy

(b) Turtlenecked hipsters who say “juxtapose” and “deconstructed” while stroking their Llewyn Davis beards

(c) That Van Gogh guy

(d) This

Well, it’s time for a new definition.

I don’t care if you’re a barista, a broker, or a shoe salesman. I couldn’t care less if you haven’t picked up a paintbrush since 1992. I don’t give a shit if the last time you did something creative was when Mr Beresford gave you a D minus in pottery.

What you do in your day job is not who you are, even if you work in a so-called “creative” field. Also, fuck Mr Beresford.

Being an artist doesn’t require paint or clay or a stage. It’s not about the medium you choose, it’s about using your ability to create, and using it daily.

That last part is key. Because while you’re an artist, the chances are very good that you’re blocked. Most of us are. We spend hours, weeks, months, years working on other people’s ideas, but somehow we never seem to find the time for our own.

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron will unblock you.

It’s a 12-week course in recovering creativity. You’ll learn how to silence your inner critic, make new discoveries as you heal old wounds, and find the joy in making space for art in your everyday life.

As a kid, I loved to draw, write stories, play the piano, and make my own “TV shows.” I did these things every day as far back as I can remember. But when I started working in advertising, I stopped making art for myself.

After 20 years of squeezing what creativity I could into ads for cars and banks and cleaning products, two things helped me find my own voice again: learning to improvise, and The Artist’s Way.

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” – Pablo Picasso

If you feel like you’ve lost your sense of play…

If you yearn to make short films or decorate cakes or write your own comics or make things from popsicle sticks…

If it’s been so long since you did something creative, not for money or someone’s approval, but just for the fun of it, you need The Artist’s Way.

Just as important, the world needs your art.

P.S. I bought the watercolour set above four years ago. The colours made me smile, so pretty in their little trays. But when I got home, I got scared. What if I tried to make something and it SUCKED? So I put it in storage and promptly forgot about it. Within two weeks of starting The Artist’s Way, I got over my fear, as you can see.

A special thank you to Shari Hollett for introducing me to The Artist’s Way.

When we came across the bookshelfies tumblr, we were smitten.

Here’s our improv-related section. Like a good Harold, it’s got a bit of this and a bit of that, but somehow everything’s connected. (See below for links.) What’s on yours?

Bookshelfie

The Artist’s Way – Julia Cameron

Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them – Al Franken

Final Cut: Art, Money And Ego In The Making Of Heaven’s Gate, The Film That Sank United Artists – Steven Bach

Zen And The Art of Stand-Up Comedy – Jay Sankey

A New Earth – Eckhart Tolle

On Writing – Stephen King

The Right To Write - Julia Cameron

The Actor’s Art And Craft – William Esper and Damon DiMarco

Comedy Writing Secrets – Mel Helitzer and Mark Shatz

And Here’s The Kicker: Conversations With 21 Humor Writers On Their Craft - Mike Sacks

You’re Not Doing It Right – Michael Ian Black

American Theatre Book Of Monologues For Men – Stephanie Coen

Taking The Leap: Freeing Ourselves From Old Habits And Fears – Pema Chodron

The Glass Teat – Harlan Ellison

Magical Thinking - Augusten Burroughs

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane – Neil Gaiman

Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life - Steve Martin

Truth in Comedy: The Manual Of Improvisation – Charna Halpern, Del Close and Kim Johnson

The Basketball Diaries – Jim Carroll

Improvising Better: A Guide For The Working Improviser – Jimmy Carrane and Liz Allen

The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual – Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Ian Walsh

The Art And Craft Of Storytelling – Nancy Lamb

Story Line: Finding Gold In Your Life Story – Jennifer Grisanti

The Art Of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live The Life You Want And Change The World - Chris Guillebeau

Improvise: Scene From The Inside Out – Mick Napier

Play: How It Shapes The Brain, Opens The Imagination And Invigorates The Soul - Stuart Brown

Your Screenplay Sucks! 100 Ways To Make It Great – William M. Akers

The Elements Of Style – Strunk and White

The Office: The Scripts – Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant

The Zoo Story and The Sandbox – Edward Albee

Look Back In Anger – John Osborne

A Practical Handbook For The Actor - Melissa Bruder, Lee Michael Cohn, Madeline Olnek, Nathaniel Pollack, Robert Previtio, Scott Zigler and David Mamet

Christian Capozzoli is an actor/improviser/instructor, member of the fiercely funny 4Track, and author of Aerodynamics of Yes: The Improviser’s Manual. We asked him a bunch of stuff, and he was nice enough to answer.

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P&C: Why did you decide to write Aerodynamics of Yes? Is there a specific audience you wanted to reach?

CC: I’ve been touring and teaching for about five years now, and often I’ll come into town and have three hours to squeeze in an entire methodology. It’s a pretty big undertaking.

I know that my workshop is all about moving and reacting, but that leaves very little time for the students to take notes. It’s hard to read a billboard on a bullet train, and I’m asking them to play Where’s Waldo? So I wrote the book primarily to supplement my teaching – go back and unpack each lesson with time and care.

I suppose I did it because I also like to write. By no means do I think I’m saying anything new. I’m saying the same old stuff, just I’m saying it my way.

As a Master of Ed and Lit, I try to take into account all types of learners. Some need to move on their feet, others need to hear it explained, or tether it to a metaphor; some just need to see it written down pickled in prose.

P&C: Your book covers a wide range of topics, from improv fundamentals to scene work to formats. How long do you think it takes to truly master these things?

CC: You don’t. It’s forever. The more you do, the more you realize how much more there is. Or how choices can be made in minutiae: from sentences, to words, to syllables, and the gaps between when we speak, the heat and weight of what we say, every second, gesture, eyebrow lift can be filled with choice, colouring our scene.

And just when we learn to react in the now, moment-to-moment or second-to-second, then there will always be nano-seconds.

Improvising with Peter Grosz, I was amazed at how fast he was. How quick and textured. Speed is relative of course, but I don’t know that we ever master it. I think we just get comfortable with that speed, more familiar with these synapses, and we get more comfortable being present and making choices. So comfortable or Zen that it looks like mastery to others.

The less hippy dippy answer: 10 years of time, discipline, performance, rehearsal, and failure would be a good foundation to feeling competent.

P&C: Who were/are your mentors or heroes in the improv scene?

CC: Susan Messing – she uses all of her brain to be funny.

Heroes, in this order: Paul Scheer, Rob Huebel, Brian Huskey, Zack Woods, Jason Mantzoukas, TJ and Dave, John Lutz, Peter Grosz, Dan Backedahl, and Scott Adsit.

P&C: What’s the one thing you see being taught today – or not being taught – that irks you most?

CC: Anytime improv comedy forgets it is on stage, it irks me. Live theatre should be theatrical.

P&C: You say “Improvisers would rather be right than foolish.” How can improvisers get over that need to control?

CC: They have to be willing to fail. Unfortunately, we hold stage time and scenes so precious that we put too much pressure on ourselves.

Repetition is key. Let yourself be wrong. Scenes are a sine wave; they don’t have to start a specific way, they need only begin and invest in information and it will work.

P&C: You cover 4Track form in the book. How did it come about, how did you develop it?

CC: I was in a master class with Kevin Dorff. We hit on the idea of making scenes grow, [of] protecting energy.

I was also really into The Eventé, so I suggested we do a high energy-matching scene, followed by a character extraction to a series of tag-outs. It worked and evolved from there.

P&C: Many teams come and go, but a handful stay around long enough to become almost legendary. What makes a great team?

CC: Confidence, connectivity, trust, exposure to new things, agreeing to play a piece the same way!

Aerodynamics of Yes is available for download on your iPad or iBooks. Click here for iTunes or here for the Kindle edition.

This slim volume was one of the first improv books I read, and it’s still one of the best.

It’s also unique in that it’s filled with exercises, as well as insights. It’s perfect for coaches, which is no surprise, since Liz Allen won the Del Close Coach of the Year three years running. Carrane meanwhile, was an original member of The Annoyance Theatre and the legendary Jazz Freddy, and is the creator of Improv Nerd.

Even though the subtitle is A Guide for the Working Improviser, you don’t have to be a pro to benefit from this book. The exercises are simple and fun, and the advice is spot on for both newbies and seasoned vets alike.

You can buy it on Amazon here.

Mick Napier says, “Do something.”

I say “Buy this book.”

Do it.

I promise it’ll be the best $15 you’ve ever spent.

(Those Star Wars figurines? That Coldplay album? The KFC Double Down for you and your date? They can’t do what this book can do for you. Serious.)

So why should you spend an improviser’s fortune?

Because.

Because it’s the best goddamn book on the subject – and it’s funny.

Because Napier, founder of The Annoyance Theatre, knows what he’s talking about.

Because if you want to have fun, feel freer onstage, and stop second-guessing yourself, this book is for you.

I love the ideas in this book so much I’m thinking of getting them tattooed on my arms. Or maybe Brailled. Sure, I’d have to learn Braille. But I could run my fingers over my forearms onstage, and people would think it was part of my character’s deal.

Napier would hate that of course. Not the “having a deal” thing; he’s all about that. The tattoo/Braille Cliff Notes thing. You see, Mr Napier abhors rules.

“‘Don’t you have to know The Rules first before you can break them?’ 

I’ve been asked that question a few hundred times. It’s usually a student who has already spent $2,658 on improv classes. (People like to justify their expenses.) I wish I could provide comfort, but unfortunately the answer is ‘No.’

I do not believe one must learn The Rules in order to break them.”

Wow.

When I first read that passage, I’d been learning improv for about two years. My mind was swimming with advice and admonitions. If I started to do something in a scene, I’d remember a reason not to. In short, I was so fucking far in my head it’s a wonder I could see the stage. If he could help people like that, then maybe, just maybe there was hope for me.

Improvise offers a different way to play, one that starts with trusting yourself. It covers a wide range of topics and situations, including:

  • two-person scenes
  • group scenes
  • entering scenes
  • techniques to achieve richer, more layered scenes

It even has exercises you can do on your own. (Or in front of ol’ Vader and Jar-Jar, if you want.)

Reading the book for the third time, I still laughed out loud. As Homer says, “It’s funny ’cause it’s true.”

Everyone I know who’s trained with Mick came back a more playful, empowered performer. If you can take a class or intensive at Annoyance, I highly encourage it.

In the meantime, do something. Do yourself a favour: buy this book.

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