Book review: Improv Wisdom

watercolor of trees and mustard field by Patricia Ryan Madsen

Every once in a while, you read a book you wish came bundled in stacks of 11, so that you could keep your own copy but immediately, or maybe even upon finishing Chapter 2 or 3, share the experience with a solid two handfuls of people.

Improv Wisdom by Patricia Ryan Madson is exactly that kind of book. By her own admission (an adorable mea culpa in the epilogue, reflecting on the irony of taking 20 years to write a book about improv), it’s the work of a lifetime, her own lifetime of learning and teaching improv to a variety of students, “civilians” and thespians alike, and folding into it the other modalities of learning and living she picked up along the way: tai chi chuan, Zen Buddhism and Constructive Living, to name a few.

The book fuses all these modalities but uses 13 core tenets of improvisation to suggest a simple, sturdy framework for living. “Just show up” winds faith and action together into something more useful and beautiful than either is on its own (and, as any adherent of Woody Allen knows, is 80% of success). “Pay attention,” a chronically underutilized tool that will change almost anyone’s game in startling ways, makes for what is probably my favorite chapter: in addition to some especially useful (and illuminating) exercises, it includes a moving story of epiphany and a number of surprises that absolutely got my attention.

I think that was the biggest surprise of the book, how delightfully light and unexpected the lessons were. As a survivor of the improv-as-career-propellant school, I girded my loins for Chapter One, which of course draws on the cardinal rule of all improv: “Say yes” (or, as the game goes, “Yes, AND…”). But rather than a heavy-handed, in-your-face talking-to about the necessity of throwing yourself off a cliff over and over again, it is a series of simple and slyly compelling nudges towards taking the kinds of small risks which will instantly and forever change your world. The words took me back to the pure joy of those early days of improv, when glory was so non-imminent the only sane reason to do it was for fun, and reminded me that when I apply those lessons to my daily life, waking up, releasing attachment to outcome, turning my attention outward rather than inward, how much more joyful and rich are my experiences.

Some chapters will resonate more or less, depending on where you’re at in your journey. Some people will want to use Improv Wisdom as a guidebook, doing the exercises chapter by chapter, turning their focus to a different aspect of awareness-sharpening each week (or month or day). Some will read it all the way through for inspiration and insights; some will dip in here and there for the same reasons.

I’m hard-pressed to think of the person who could gain nothing from reading this wonderful little book, though. It’s gentle, kind and inspiring in exactly the way you’d expect the work of a lifetime to be.


Watercolor ©2010 Patricia Ryan Madsen.

Yo! Disclosure! Links to the book in the post above are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt’s excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.


  1. Hi Colleen: This is a book that I took out of the library and realized that I needed to purchase because of the wealth of information in it. I took a year’s worth of improv classes back in the 90’s and even though I never became an actor, those classes had a profound impact on me. Actually, last week I sat down and had coffee with my first improv teacher to thank him. I would agree with you that your readers could learn some good stuff from the book. Looking at Patricia Ryan Madsen’s schedule, I wish I were able to take her class at Stanford. Great book choice!

    1. Glad to hear someone else confirm my experience. (Okay, I didn’t get it from the library first—a parallel experience, then.)

      I don’t anticipate letting this go from my library for some time. Quite good stuff, agreed!

  2. Some days I wake up and the world is perfect. Today was one of those days, thanks to you, Colleen. As I sipped my Earl Grey tea I found your kind and deeply generous review, thanks to a Google alert. (Lordy, the Internet is awesome.) You likely know that nothing makes a writer happier than to discover that a reader “really gets it.” Wow. I think you understand my book better than I do. And, what a tribute . . . to have taken the time to find and post one of my watercolors. Wow. Thank you. You rock.

    1. And I could not be more honored by your comment. Nothing makes me happier when I’m reviewing than having the author feel like I saw them correctly.

      Thank you for your beautiful book, and for overlooking that I misspelled your name right and left. (Which I’ve corrected, of course, but still. Oh, the shame!)

      1. You just prove the maxim: “Make Mistakes, Please”! Take a big circus bow: TA-DA!! I never mind misspellings, but it is kind of you to correct it. And, keep an eye out for something small in the snail mail.

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