Exploring Improv

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A SHORT HISTORY OF AN UNUSUAL ART FORM

 Improvisation is the “comedy of the moment,” and it has become so successful since its rebirth in Chicago many years ago that hundreds of improvisational groups have sprung up around the country with names like Chicago City Limits, The Upright Citizen’s Brigade, ComedySportz, Awkward Compliment, The Focus Group, The Un-Scripted Theater Company, The Chainsaw Boys, the N.Y. Improv Squad, and Second Nature Improv. And Improv alumni like Tina Fey, Amy Poehlner, Robin Williams, Drew Carey, and others have used their improv skills to catapult them to stardom.

But what is improv? It has its basis in the commedia dell’arte, an Italian Renaissance form of theater in which a traveling comedy troupe would perform farces without a written script. Though the basic scenario was agreed upon, the pacing of the story often depended on audience reactions.

Modern improvisation began as drama exercises for children, developed by Viola Spolin and described in her book, Improvisation and the Theatre. Her son, Paul Sills began experimenting with improv for adults and performance in Illinois in 1955 when he – and students from the University of Chicago – began performing improvised skits from their own scenarios. This group developed into the Compass Players and later into Second City, the most successful improvisation group in history from which all modern improv groups owe their existence.

In an interview with Tom Soter in 1982, improv guru Del Close, who worked with The Compass Players and Second City, explained the genesis of the first improv troupe: “When we started out at the Compass, we were entertaining each other and our peers. Where did you go to hear jokes about Dostoevski or Newton’s third law? Certainly not the burlesque house. And in the anti-intellectual environment of the 1950s it took a certain amount of courage to stand up in public and admit that you had an education you weren’t ashamed of.” He added: “Improv is mutual discovery, mutual support. It is the adventure of finding out what it is we’re doing while we’re doing it. All you know is where you’ve been. You don’t know where you’re going.”

 

WHAT IS IMPROV?

 two teachers

Talking about improv: the credentials of the two speakers.

 

 

 

Carol Schindler

I have had the good fortune to study with three amazing improv teachers: Del Close, Paul Sills, and George Todisco.  Each of these men was passionate about improv and each had a unique style of teaching the art.

Del was experiential and undisciplined. We never knew if he would even show up for class. He’d often get frustrated with us and walk out of class. He was high a good deal of the time. We stuck around because he was a genius in terms of improv and when he was on, there was no other teacher like him. He pushed us to allow our imaginations to fly.  I found working with him thrilling. I was part of his Farwell Salute to ChicagoShow and what a wild and wacky bit of work it was. He was my first improv teacher and I learned to love improv listening to Del and watching Second City. 

George was a true artist. Like Del, he lived on the edge but George was driven. I met George in Del’s class. He founded Chicago City Limits through that workshop.

 He wanted to form a great improv group.  He wanted Chicago City Limits to be better than any group out there. He took us on the road to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and New York City so we could learn from the best and get our performance chops.  He moved us to New York because Chicago did not need another improv group. And he was right. George was all about the performance. We worked our shows until they were perfect. We rehearsed and rehearsed the set pieces and drilled the improv games and scene work. He worked with us until it got to the point where we could almost read each other’s minds. George wanted dedicated improvisers. If you were not willing to risk all for improv, you weren’t welcome in the company. It was through George that learned to be passionate about improv and I realized that improv was going to be my life’s work. 

Paul was more quiet and studied. He was very interested in what unfolded in the moment.  He would not accept anything that was untrue, not organic to the moment.  We struggled in his class to find the moment of truth in scenes, which often did emerge in the moment. He had cut his teeth on improv. His mother, Viola Spolin had written the first book on it,Improvisation for the Theatre.He was not easy to study with because he was strict with his ideas and would not tolerate anything else. I was an experienced improviser when I studied with Paul. Studying improv with him for me was like trying to be a boxer with both hands tied behind my back. He tolerated none of my quick wit or active choices. Paul Sills introduced me to working in the moment. 

Unfortunately, all three of these wonderful teachers has passed away leaving this planet way too soon.  I grieved for them all but mostly for George who I loved dearly as a generous and good friend as well as a teacher. 

In this book I will try to pass on to anyone interested a little of what these three men taught me.  I will also pass on what I learned in my many years performing improv, for experience as they say, in the end is the greatest teacher. I am grateful to them and to everyone who I have ever performed with but especially the cast of Chicago City Limits[1], Linda Gelman, Chris Oyen, Paul Zuckerman, David Regal, and our wonderful pianists, Rick Crom, John McMahon, Eddy Ellner, and Wayne Barker. These are the people who not only taught me about improv but who worked and struggled and laughed and gave all to make Chicago City Limits what George wanted it to be, a great improv company. 

I could fill these pages with the names of the wonderfully talented people that I have been privileged to work with and teach these many years. I am grateful to all of them. I’m also grateful for Tom Soter who never gives up, always keeps working and loving improv, and who nagged me until I began to teach again. Tom is my co-author of this book, he lives and breaths improv and has taught me much more than I ever taught him. Thanks Tom.

 

Tom Soter

It seems like I’ve been improvising my whole life. I don’t mean living my life as improv – there would be nothing special in that since life is a big improv and we are all the players – I mean doing improv for the theater.

I first encountered theatrical improv when I was 11 or 12. My father and mother had guests over, and my father thought it would be fun to improvise a murder mystery involving all our guests. They were game and so, without telling them anything except that they would be suspects in a murder investigation. After that, I spent 1968 to 1971 improvising radio-style shows[2]and from 1971-1974 improvising movies.[3]

During college, I did little improv, but started performing again in 1980 on the public access cable show, Public Abscess, which eventually led toVideosyncracies, a sketch comedy show.

Looking to improve my sketch-writing, I attended an improv class taught by the late George Todiscoin 1981. I loved it. I have been improvising ever since, in class for seven years with George, Carol Schindler, Linda Gelman, Paul Zuckerman, David Regal, and Chris Oyen of Chiacgo City Limits, and one memorable class with Del Close of Second City (I remember him smoking throughout the class and discarding his used cigarette butts in a Pepsi bottle).

I performed with the New York Improv Squad from 1984-1986, helped Gary Stockton and John Webber win the Stanislavski Open (an improv competition in 1986) as part of Improv DaDa, and took over the improv jam from Ian Prior in 1993 (renamed Sunday Night Improv).

I began teaching classes in 1987. My first few classes only had two people attending, but I didn’t despair; I figured if I kept coming every week and offered a good product, they’d show up. And they did. Within a few years, I was teaching on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday nights (I amaze myself looking at how much teaching I did. But I had learned from great teachers and I worked with great performers.)

I also taught a perfomance class with the Wingnuts, which featured Denny Siegel (later on Who’s Line Is It Anyway?), Beth Littleford (later on the Daily Show), Mike Bencivenga (director of the film Happy Hourand the recent hit play about Billy Wilder), David Storck, (co-author of the book, Ensemble Theatre Making), and most of the cast of The Chainsaw Boys. What touched me was how everyone hung out together after the class, how much like a family it was. All because of improv.

Over the years, my students have frequently asked me why I didn’t put all my insights, anecdotes, and mantras (like the one for “Listening, Observing, and Communicating”) into a book. I toyed with it, but never seemed to find the time. When my former teacher, Carol Schindler, returned to teaching a few years ago under my auspices, we would naturally talk about improv scenes, techniques, and all that jazz. Then my book, Overheard on a Buscame out, and when Carol and I were talking about it, I said, “Why don’t we do a book on improv?” She said, “Sure!” We shook on it – and what you have here is the fruit of our efforts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]The original cast of Chicago City Limits was George Todisco, Sandy Smith, Bill McLaughlin, John Redman, and Ann Wendell.  When we began to travel, Suzanne Suzinsky joined us.  By the time we moved to New York City, the cast was as I listed it above. There are many other wonderful improvisers who passed through the cast of CCL including several of whom I consider my dearest friends and all of whom I consider wonderful improvisers.

[2]They can be found at the website Elysian Fields

[3]They can be found under the name “Soter” on YouTubeand Vimeo.

 

 

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