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An Improvised Life

3.53  ·  Rating Details  ·  251 Ratings  ·  56 Reviews
Alan Arkin knew he was going to be an actor from the age of five: "Every film I saw, every play, every piece of music fed an unquenchable need to turn myself into something other than what I was." An Improvised Life is the Oscar winner's wise and unpretentious recollection of the process--artistic and personal--of becoming an actor, and a revealing look into the creative m ...more
Paperback, 224 pages
Published March 1st 2011 by Da Capo Press (first published February 3rd 2011)
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Community Reviews

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Jan C
I guess this is actually 1\2.

I listened to this book and who could read it better than Alan Arkin himself? No one I'm thinking. Partly memoir, partly teaching platform.

At some point, after undergoing psychoanalysis, Arkin started doing improv/acting seminars. There were several moving tales here. One was at a college on a Native American reservation and no one was cooperating. Finally, he has one of them being a Native who had run away and was now back, with the assistance of a couple of soci
Mostly about using improvisational acting exercises as a means of self-discovery, this book may be a useful tool for actors, but it's not likely to endear anyone to Arkin. His voice as author is overbearing and self-congratulatory. The reason for the "I know everything" aspect may be that the book is not really about Arkin, it's about what Arkin does as a vocation. A memoir requires a certain degree of humility to endear the reader to its subject, but Arkin remains aloof - even a little snobbish ...more
Barry Hammond
Jun 08, 2014 Barry Hammond rated it liked it
Whether you know Alan Arkin from the 1960's and 70's in films like The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming or Wait Until Dark, or more recent films like Argo or Little Miss Sunshine, his performances are always special and original. In this memoir he discusses his arc as an actor, especially in regard to improvisation, which has been central to his method. Like his performances, his writing is full of surprises and takes directions different than one would expect from a standard actor's ...more
Rich Baker
Nov 25, 2014 Rich Baker rated it it was amazing
I cannot say enough good about this book. The honest and extremely well told account of a man who has grown and learned and changed over an extraordinary lifetime. As an improviser/actor this book is invaluable. But even for a person who has never stepped on a stage, I believe it is an amazing read. So many things to take away from this book. I plan on rereading it very soon. BTW, I listened to the audio book as read by the author and I cannot recommend that version enough.
Jul 17, 2011 Joni rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: those interested in the acting field
Recommended to Joni by: found it at the library
This book was not what I expected; maybe I should have read the review or write-up first. This memoir covers Mr. Arkin's professional life of which the most interesting to me was his talking about his experiences at Second City in Chicago. Maybe if I were an actor I would have enjoyed his diatribes about acting. I felt Mr. Arkin was, at times, angry and at best, arrogant. His tone was borderline arrogant. Of course, this is just my opinion and if I were in the acting field might feel differently ...more
Mar 13, 2015 Katie rated it really liked it
This is very much a book about acting and so those who are not interested in that at all might want to stay away. That being said, the main point of the book is that acting is a very transparent metaphor for life and so through acting, Arkin has discovered essential truths about the human condition. I am not an actor. I tried to be in high school, but I am one of the people who like to applaud the people on stage, not be a person on stage. However, I am a human being and I think that the point t ...more
Joel Fishbane
May 05, 2014 Joel Fishbane rated it liked it
Alan Arkin, if you believe his father, knew he was going to be an actor at the age of five, a fact which would seem to belie the title of his book: despite his claims, there's the distinct sense that his professional life went more or less according to plan. An award-winning actor and director, Arkin is best known today for playing old curmudgeons, such as in Little Miss Sunshine and The Change-Up (he also has a cameo in The Muppets). But he's appeared in over 80 films and has a theatrical track ...more
Oct 05, 2011 Bednarzterry rated it liked it
I listened to this book on audioCD.. read by the author. If you enjoy hearing about the craft of acting, you'll enjoy this insight into what it means to Mr. Arkin and how he approaches the job. I enjoyed most of this.. especially read in his rich , warm distinctive voice.. some of the "advice" was a little too "out there" for me personally.. but I enjoyed all the parts about his own insights into his life and the joys and challenges of the acting profession.
William Koon
Apr 13, 2013 William Koon rated it did not like it
I have admired Arkin since before he was an actor with the Tarriers. I think he is a brilliant actor. However, he dismisses his musical career and pays faint attention to his acting career in this thin volume. There is little about his roles or films, more about his Broadway experience. Instead he writes mostly about improvisation and his career in rather bland terms. Once again, trust art, not artists.
Jul 06, 2011 Kar added it
This is one of the very best books on creativity and living as an artist I have ever read. It's funny, moving, interesting and deeply insightful. Mr. Arkin writes with a completely unique style. One of the best books I ever read - and I have read MANY books.
Mar 04, 2011 Gretchen rated it really liked it
Fascinating -- made me want to re-watch all his movies, especially The In-Laws. Very introspective, a little more new-age than I would have expected.
Kathleen Hagen
An Improvised Life: a Memoir, by Alan Arkin, narrated by Alan Arkins, produced by Blackstone Audio and downloaded from

Arkin did a wonderful job narrating this book. He is one of the authors who should narrate his own work. There are other authors who have done so who should not. The publisher’s note says it as well as anyone so I’ll include it here.
In this insightful memoir, Oscar-winning actor Alan Arkin reflects back on finding his place as an actor and what theater - specifically
Selim Tlili
Apr 04, 2015 Selim Tlili rated it really liked it
Alan Arkin discusses how he became an actor and director in this honest and endearing book. He mostly eschews a lot of the drivel that haunts many books about developing the "craft" of acting. I really enjoyed his insights and the value he has placed on improvisation, particularly his experiences with Second City in Chicago, in terms of his career.
Any actor interested in learning from a genuine character actor would do well to read this book. Short and sweet and lovely
Jan 30, 2016 Klega50 rated it liked it
I gave this a 3 star rating because there's not a "neither like or dislike" rating. It was alright but if I'd have known it was more about how actors become better actors I wouldn't have started it. But, as with most books, even those I'm not enjoying, I finished this one. I like Alan Arkin and think he's a fine actor. I wish him happiness and success but probably won't read anymore of his books.
Jul 31, 2015 j_ay rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
Less a "memoir" rather than a some brief anecdotes and mostly a personal treatise on improvisation. Yet, it's the book Arkin clearly wanted to write. So if you are looking for a biography where you learn what his great grandfather did for a living and/or quirky tidbots from the set of Wait Until Dark, look elsewhere.
Suzanne Colligan
This title touches upon actor Alan Arkin's life but it's really more about acting technique and what he's learned about it over the years. For me the best part of this book is from a professor's point of view. I am an adjunct professor and I teach a reference class. More often than not my experiences on the job (day job as a librarian) have dealt with my ability to improvise when necessary. As a librarian, you train to use your reference tools but not every question is neat nor does is there alw ...more
Christopher Day
Jul 22, 2015 Christopher Day rated it it was amazing
An amazing book. Best example of using the methods and techniques of improvisation in life and work and art. Not really a memoir, the chronological life story stops less then half way through, but a great book on mindfulness and the drive to be present in creation.
Donna Barnes
Jun 23, 2013 Donna Barnes rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this book because it was very different from typical memoirs. Mr. Arkin DOES go through big moments in his life, but a lot is missing, mostly his personal life. What the book focusses on is his improv life ---- how his big break was with Second City doing improv, how it got him on stage, how he preferred film over stage because he could do more improv, and how he conducts workshops with his wife now on improv. I suppose I liked it because it focusses on the techniques of acting, ...more
Steve H
I've appreciated Alan Arkin's work over the years, but haven't really sought him out. This memoir is mostly insights into acting method (improvise, be yourself) overlying biographical elements (wanting to be an actor since age 5, high school, college, Second City, various movies and plays and workshops). Listening to this work has the benefit of being able to listen to Arkin perform, which on this CD he does oddly unevenly. The biographical sections are somehow a little rote, but the parts where ...more
Feb 15, 2013 Nancy rated it liked it
Not the usual trip down an actor's memory lane, this is Arkin's exploration of his career and his exploration of the self. His journey reaches into the psyche and the artistic process. In the workshops Arkin teaches he uses improvisation for participants to find out more about themselves - the results can be particularly poignant. Much of this book would be very useful to an aspiring actor; it also resonates in everyday life. Arkin: "That's what we're all doing, all the time, whether we know it ...more
Oct 15, 2014 Tom rated it did not like it
I so wanted to love this book because I love Alan Arkin. I was ready for a book full of anecdotes from his long career and instead I got a book on improvisational acting. Boring.
Carol Linn Hawkins
this was alright but a little boring. it was interesting hearing the life of an improv artist and hearing how he got started and what not, but it seemed to lack any sort of depth and ended sort of randomly.
Jun 23, 2015 Edna rated it it was amazing
A wonderful read, most interesting about his professional history, craft, and also how it relates spiritually. Well worth the read!
Fauzia Lakh
Feb 18, 2015 Fauzia Lakh rated it it was amazing
Loved this book. Has insights for everyone whether you're looking to be a better actor/artist or just a better human being.
Patricia L.
May 10, 2014 Patricia L. rated it did not like it
Most annoying. I couldn't finish it. Or maybe I did and just forgot it because did I tell you, it was most annoying.
I've admired the acting of Alan Arkin since I saw "The Russians are Coming" back in the mid-60s. The book starts with him describing how he got into performing in a folk act, then acting and then joined Second City in Chicago. Not much description of his family life after that but more a discussion of his finding out who he is with psychoanalysis and self-study. Then the last half was a discussion of the weekend workshops that he holds for non-actors and actors alike. It was a short book but ent ...more
Less memoir and more acting manual, still a fun read.
Andy Taylor
Alan Arkin takes on a journey that not only covers the expected highlights of his acting career, but opens up into to something larger about the creative process, self-awareness and what it means to be human.

As an audiobook the author's narration is a bit rushed at points, but otherwise takes a causal tone of him relating these episodes from his life over dinner. Would recommend to anyone interested in Arkin's career, acting in general, or even just the creative process. Something there for eve
Juliahoney Kamenker
Sep 07, 2015 Juliahoney Kamenker rated it it was ok
more about improving than actual personal life experiences disappointed
Arkin does a great job narrating his memoir about his acting career. More about how he learned his craft over the years than anecdotes, which I would have preferred. The second part is about the Impov workshops he teaches and stories about special experiences in certain classes. All fine, but I hope he will write a real autobiography about his personal life and career next. I think actors and aspiring actors would get more out of this book than I did.
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“That's what we're all doing, all the time, whether we know it or not. Whether we like it or not. Creating something on the spur of the moment with the materials at hand. We might just as well let the res tof it go, join the party, and dance our hearts out.” 3 likes
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