The Improv

A novel based on a true story

Coming - January 2013
Mature Young Adult Fiction

ImprovCoverFinalsmIt is 1982 at a New England university, and drama major Margo Laughton is thrilled and terrified to be cast as “Sheila” in the rock musical Hair. The show’s director, Professor Harrison P. Adler, is known for his exhilarating and sexually-charged shows. There are suspicions about how he gets actors to break through their inhibitions. Rumors have circulated for decades that Harry prefers working with boys, encouraging them to become violent and explore their sexuality in carefully guided improvisations or improvs.  In 1969, an actor in one of Harry’s plays committed suicide. Officially, it was drug-related, but he jumped from his dorm-room window after participating in a Harry-led improv with another young actor earlier that day. Is Harry a brilliant ground-breaking acting coach, or is he a manipulative voyeur who has found an academically and artistically sanctioned way to indulge his perversions?

Margo develops a crush on her leading man, Doug Mulloy, who is playing “Berger.” They enjoy a playful flirty rehearsal relationship that is shattered after a highly secretive, males-only improv. Margo is determined to find out what happened in the improv. She and her fellow-actress and best friend, Jen, do detective work on the 1969 suicide. Their discoveries lead Margo to risk her romance and her hoped-for acting career in order to make sure that Harry never directs another play at the college.


Praise for The Improv

"M.J. McDermott writes in two voices. One is the bright, hopeful and funny college student she certainly was, and the other is the news professional, mother and woman she has become. In The Improv, she returns back to that girl and that time, but writes through the prism of a woman who understands how a place of learning and joy can also be a place of confusion and pain. The Improvis the kind of book people always say they are going to write. Kudos to McDermott for getting over her stage fright, and putting one of her life's dramas out there."

~ Nicole Brodeur, Columnist, The Seattle Times


"M.J. McDermott has written a chilling account of the college theater experience. Based on a true story, The Improv works like a 'whodunit' although in this case, it's a 'whatwasdone.'  McDermott sustains an air of mystery and foreboding that makes The Improv impossible to put down once you've started reading."

~ Alice Kaderlan, Award-Winning Arts Journalist for, KUOW, Seattle PI


“Too many college theatre directors abuse their power and violate their actors, as do those in other competitive arts where the fear of ‘being cut’ can cause participants to sacrifice their own moral compasses. I worked briefly in the real setting that inspired this work and can testify to stunning improprieties. M.J. McDermott has done a wonderful job of telling the truth, with humor and humanity, while protecting other victims from further embarrassment. I hope this book will cause more young artists to stand up and speak out."

~ Robert Barton, Professor Emeritus, former Acting Program Head, University of Oregon
Author of Acting: Onstage and Off, Theatre in Your Life, Life Themes, Voice: Onstage and Off, Acting Reframes, Style for Actors


"I thoroughly enjoyed the book for so many reasons - but one of them for me was the fact that it took me back to my own college days and life in the college theatre department. I had not really thought much about those years of my life for a while. Now, I didn't have nearly the intense experience the characters had, but I as I reflected on the story and my own experience I quickly saw how easily manipulation could have taken place and what power we all felt held over us - both imagined and real. Power and manipulation are such complicated issues, and one of the things I found so intriguing while reading The Improv  was the idea that we sometimes are aware we are being manipulated, and yet we let it continue thinking the best of the person who is doing the manipulating or feeling like we ourselves might be to blame or somehow at fault. What a screwed up way to deal with things - and as we grow into adulthood for most of us we start to realize that we don't need to let people deal with us this way. 

I was totally taken in by the characters and what they were experiencing as they dealt with someone who was a mastermind at manipulation. I found myself caring deeply what would happen to these people, and while I was thrilled when HAIR turned out to be a success it was so troubling to see many of the characters say "the ends justified the means." It doesn't and it never did.  How we get there is just as important as where we arrive at.

Thank you for sharing this story with me, and with the world. I believe there is much to be learned from reading this book."

~ Bill Berry, Producing Director 5th Avenue Theatre, Seattle, WA


 “With what has come to light about Penn State regarding Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno and all who knew of ongoing predatory sexual behavior but kept silent or dismissed the allegations, The Improv is a very timely book. While our concern tends to focus on the youngest of children who are abused, there is plenty of evidence that similar crimes take place in other academic / teaching environments as well, couched as ‘games’ or ‘improv’ and implicitly sanctioned by institutionalized power structures. For young adults there is perhaps less sympathy but an equal need for speaking out.

M.J. McDermott deftly illustrates the thin trapeze line that young actors navigate between trust and betrayal, creativity and repression, youth and adulthood - as her very real characters grow up in ways they could never have anticipated. A good read indeed.”

~ Perry Norton, PanRight Productions




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