Improv: Where Did You Come From & What Are You Doing in My Living Room?
From the Hollywood Reporter Comedy Special Report.
January 26, 1988
BY BRUCE BEBB
The improvisational theater movement began in Chicago in the summer of 1955. A bunch of young people started a project called the Compass. Led by a couple of young directors with offbeat ideas, David Shepherd and Paul Sills, they put on shows that were different each night. Shepherd wanted to work in a manner distantly related to the commedia dell’arte of Renaissance Italy and France, doing topical satire without a set script. Sills brought a background of years of playing theater games under the tutelage of his mother, Viola Spolin.
Sills went on to form the Premise and Second City, which spawned the Committee, which gave birth to such troupes as the Wing and the Synergy Trust. Together these companies helped shape hundreds of’ performers, among them Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Alan Alda, Barbara Harris, Dick Schaal, Valerie Harper, Del Close, Severn Darden, Stiller and Meara, Shelley Berman, Joan Rivers, Lewis Arquette, George Segal, Howard Storm, David Steinberg, Gilda Radner, Peter Bonerz, Henry Jaglom, Paul Mazursky, Robert Benedetti, John and Jim Belushi, Robert Klein Ron Liebman, Shelley Long: Harold Ramis, Avery Schreiber, Martin Short, Betty Thomas John Candy, Bill Murray, Carl Gottlieb, Richard Libertini, Rob Reiner, Felton Perry, Howard Hesseman and many, many more.
Sills’ mother, Viola Spolin, didn’t set out to foster any sort of, new movement in the American theater, let alone one that would eventually surpass Stanislavski’s influence. (“The first time I met Viola,” Howard Hesseman a former Committee member and current star of ABC’s “Head of the Class,” recalls, “was after a show, and she told me she liked my work. That was such a stroke it was like Zeus reaching down and saying, ‘You’re pretty good.’ “) Spolin started in the 1920s, working with a Northwestern University sociologist, Neva L. Boyd, who founded a school at Chicago’s Hull House. According to Spolin, Boyd’s teachings provided “an extraordinary training in the use of games, story-telling, folk dance and dramatics as tools for stimulating creative expression in both children and adults, through self discovery and personal experiencing.
After the Depression hit, Spolin went from Hull House to a WPA payroll, teaching theater skills to people who would, in turn, become teacher-directors in neighborhood work. In the ’40s, she moved to Hollywood, where she still lives today. She established a group called the Young Actors Company and continued to refine and expand her concepts and techniques for developing stage skills. New ideas came out of practice, and a new vocabulary. For years she used the method simply prepare actors for traditional stage plays. Then, on a trip back to Chicago, she saw how her son wits using theater games combined with suggestions from tire audience to create professional entertainment.
Spolin had had a book drafted for publication for years. It took Second City’s success to prompt her to revise the manuscript into a final draft. “Improvisation for the Theater,” published by Northwestern University Press, has since become the bible of the movement.
But it isn’t the only force at work, and like; my classic it can be interpreted from a variety of’ perspectives. “The improv that is the way for me is the idea of support,” says Felton Perry, who performed with Second City’s touring company and later was a member‑ of the Synergy Trust; today fie co-stars on ABC’s “Hooperman. ” Perry adds, “It probably helped tire to deal with whatever kind of big ego I would have had, you know, ‘I’m a star, I’m a star.’ It’s the idea of’, ‘If I’m a sky, then I can be a star.’ I can support. Once you’ve go (trust going, and everybody feels good, you start going into areas that you never would get ‘into if you were operating off’ of’ that ego trip or star paranoia. “
Perry says not all improvisers work according to Spolin’s theories, ”I’ve been told, ‘OK people, let’s improv the scene,’ and I’m ready to improv as I’ve been taught with support, to give to the other person, and a lot of times improv seems to a lot of people to be hostility. They operate off Plenty of “Me-me-me.’ What happens on stage will never get past a certain point because there’s not a whole lot of trust up there.” Hesseman agrees. “I frequently find it disturbing, particularly in Hollywood, ” he says. “Over and over I see people sacrificing a scene for the sake of maybe getting a job from someone who might be out there in the audience. I see them trash a scene in order to get focus for themselves to show how clever they are. They leave their fellow actors in the lurch and the scene just sort of disappears. ” What has improvisational training done for their work in television and films’ “The awareness that improvisation requires just seems to sort of form a checklist in your head, ” Perry says. “You look around and check things off’. Your awareness is heightened. Which makes what we’re doing with the show so great. You know Barbara Bosson (co-star of” Hooperman’) was with the Committee. I just love to watch Barbara work, because the support makes everything else possible.”
Hesseman says the fundamentals carry through to all of his work. “One value is the absolute necessity of learning to really listen when another actor is saying something, and to really see what another actor is doing in front of you. Allen Myerson (director of the Committee) used to talk about being able to have a sensory impression of 360′, all the way around you. You gotta know what the actor’s doing behind your back. That stuff is really helpful, because it keeps attuning you to the myriad possibilities that any moment offers you in life and as an actor.
“It was Viola’s contention that rather than stand and act and emote and indicate all of this stuff, that in life you generally have a task at hand that you are trying to complete. In other words, we are really doing something while we’re talking to people, and our objectives are not always right on the surface. With theater games training, you start learning there are ways to free yourself so that there is some spontaneity in what you do, and it’s the truest you that is in the scene — not some concept of what people will like and what will get you a job if you do this well.”
The seeds planted by Viola Spolin, and by David Shepherd and Paul Sills, went deep. Nobody can say just how far they spread, but the scores of improv groups all over the country are their direct descendants, and many of the best TV series, such as “Cheers” and “Barney Miller,” are closely related as well. The ideas in “Improvisation for the Theater” are not simply different from familiar notions; in many cases they are contrary to hallowed educational practices. Anybody who reads the book and tries to put its lessons to work will never be the same.
From the Hollywood Reporter Comedy Special Report. January 26, 1988