Webpage Supplement to Foreword:

Reflections on Improvisation

David Shepherd & Adam Blatner

October 27, 2006

Further Personal History

David Shepherd was born in 1924 and lived in New York at Madison Ave and 83rd St, a block from the "Met. Museum of Art." He was brought up by his grandmother and step-mother--the single child of an Army Colonel and high society architect.

With Paul Sills, David Shepherd is the founder and co-producer of the first professional improv cabaret theater in America, Chicago’s COMPASS, which evolved into Second City, launching the careers of noted comedians such as Jerry Stiller, Mike Nichols, Alan Alda, Barbara Harris, Elaine May, and Shelly Berman. Alan Arkin said, “David Shepherd is the Johnny Appleseed of Improv.” Others have called him the father of improv.

The general formats of games and suggestions from the audience have percolated through a couple of generations of improv theatre and may be discerned in more contemporary approaches, such as the television improv show, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, as well as Second City (improv theatre) and even Saturday Night Live.

Shepherd attended secondary school at Exeter and then Harvard University, graduating summa cum laude in 1948. Graduate studies were at Columbia, graduating with a M.A. in 1950 in Comparative Literature. This was followed by a Fulbright Scholarship, during which he traveled. Shepherd reminisces further:

Not long after, I became disenchanted with theatre. I had directed Shavian comedy in Bombay OK, but when it came to my obsession for what I termed popular theatre," my first model was not a winner: It was Moliere!—brought to the Catskills in a truck stuffed with chairs and a hastily squished back drop plus spots on rickety stands. We sold hastily printed tickets to a few people who ventured out of their bungalows, but I was deaf to the message: it was the dawn of TV, where boxing matches and mother-in-law comedy were being devoured—not the carefully translated, memorized and blocked "Medecin Malgre Lui." Had I had this book under my truck stop pillow, I would have saved thousands.

What prompted me to leave NYC for Chicago was despair and disgust: I  despaired of starting a popular theatre in the home of the chi-chi Plaza Nine (Julius Monk), and I was disgusted with the banality and sterility of Broadway. I felt Chicago would have the vigor and clarity to underpin a popular theatre. And I was right.

I hitchhiked to Chicago, having chosen to start a cabaret theatre there. I fell in  with a talented, adventurous crowd, which, it turned out, was not interested in cabaret at all. They wanted to explore the classics-- in repertory. I had to choose between looking elsewhere—Cleveland?   Detroit?--or going along. I went along. For two years I poured my  energies and resources into rep—so I could win their enthusiasm and  loyalty. By 1955 they were ready to back up my innovation, and they did.

For my cabaret I knew exactly what would work—scripts embodying a strong, simple story enriched with songs, arguments, pantomime, monologs, comedy bits, vivid characterizations of people in the community.  But the writers I commissioned (@ $100 per writer) sent me manuscripts that lay dead on their wrappers: with no allure or  surprise. And here we were ready to launch a theatre that would “change theatre history,” with not a clue how to do it. That’s when my partner, Paul Sills, said, “Don’t worry. My Mom will train our company to improvise our way through a whole show.” And true to his word, Viola Spolin did put 40 candidates through her games, creating a tight cast of 6 that took on the public—right on time. (See her “Improvisation for the Theatre.”)

My second model was a tad more popular—at least in literate Chicago. It was a repertory company that a dozen new friends demanded to jerk them away from file cabinets & typewriters and launch them onto theatre. It was well intentioned, traditional, correct, but it didn’t reflect a Midwest farm and factory vitality that ignored Sophocles and Sartre. Had I known of an interactive format at that time, Playwrights Theatre Club might still be alive.

I was searching for a richer, more rewarding theatre to give the customer direct control over the content and activity of the stage.

The third model was a storefront theatre near the University of Chicago. That’s where my friends agreed to experiment with tight scripts generated at $100 per by writers who read my appeal in the Hudson. Review for dynamic stories overflowing with song, mime, dance, jokes, chases, marches, changes of costume, tirades & endorsements, noise, action. But what arrived in my mail box had nothing of this flavor. It was talky, complicated, dry, insipid. And here I had a dozen associates for a cabaret meant to revitalize American theatre--with not a clue how that would be done.

I wanted to see more relevant issues addressed in more realistic ways

"Improvise," said my partner, Paul Sills. "My Mom will train the company."

During the 1940s, Paul’s mother, Viola Spolin, had developed theatre games as an elaboration of the simple children’s games of her teacher, Neva Boyd, and was introducing those to various actors and theatre troupes. She shared some with us and we began to do a mixture of scenario plays and improvisation.

True to Sills' word, Viola Spolin appeared and wrestled with the bad habits and stage ignorance of 40 candidates for the cast of six, that would open COMPASS theatre—on time.

Decades later I learned it was not just improv that saved us. It was a combination of the market (University students, profs, employees, grads); society (McCarthy in Washington and an atomic experiment under a nearby stadium); the genius of local people like Isaac Rosenfeld, who understood exactly what kind of story we needed and how to write it; the persistence of Elaine May in lugging story after story to coffee after coffee—until she revised enough to last our first six months doing a new show every week.

To continue, our path was through stories written by customers and by the prolific Elaine May. Stories gave us characters we fostered. Stories held the attention of the public. Stories gave the show variety.  Stories led the audience into realms other than raucous comedy. But when the stories ran out, when I found myself supporting a series of comic scenes (usually performed by two people), when the cast insisted on a weekly raise from $25 to $55, I went along with it! I soon racked up a $10,000 debt in unpaid withholding taxes. “Anything to keep the doors open!” I muttered to myself.

Today I see I could have shut down and created a second COMPASS, run by players who had off stage incomes. And I could have started workshops where collectively customers created a surplus of story scenarios.

Since 1953, the number of improvisational theatre events steadily increased so that it has become a major trend in contemporary theatre arts. In the 1960s, I founded other Compass Theatre groups that improvised based on audience suggestions, and now-well-known actors such as Alan Arkin, Jerry Stiller and Ann Mira, and Alan Alda worked in these troupes.

On page 14 of Paul Sills' 2000 book, Story Theatre, David Shepherd is acknowledged as the produce and director of Compass, the first improvisational theatre. It happened in Chicago in the 1950s, and gave birth to Second City, which has given birth in turn to ImprovOlympics, a proliferation of different kinds of improvisational theatre (and now television programs), applications of improvisation and drama in business and other areas, popularization of theatre games in school, infusing creative drama with a new type of energy, and in general, helping to birth what has become the subject of this book: applied theatre.

Improvisational Theatre Expands

I founded several other Compass theatre programs in 1957-1965, in different towns; Second City continued and multiplied, a number of groups in the 1960s-70s, and other groups.

Be willing even to change the identity of a format. This happened when Second City, a company that plays Chicago, Toronto and many other cities, adapted to the needs of businesses that wanted employees to be as quick and creative as the players they admired on stage. This shift of customers from passive to active also shifted the income of Second City from predominantly box office to fees! paid for workshops. Today just about every improv company has  a corporate program along with a program for children and other special populations.

Beginning Improvisation Olympix

In the 1970s, I began to develop the idea of "Performance Sports," which led to some intra-scholastic programs in local school districts. (Around the same time, independently—we didn’t know about each other’s efforts—in Canada, Keith Johnstone was developing his "improv" approach that led to TheatreSports (as discussed in Chapter 27).

I developed a format called ImprovOlympix, which was adopted by Canadians as Canadian Improv Games and planted in 300+ high schools. I learned:

Listen to your audience. In 1981, when Charna Halpern and I kicked off a format called Improv Olympix, we were at a loss where to build a tournament of teams. Chicago told us loudly: base each team on an affinity group: lawyers, rabbis, therapists, teens, seniors, inmates.... Thus the material improvised in any match revealed the experience and values of the team. This made for automatic authenticity and variety.

Later, when the Canadians turned our Olympix into CIG (Canadian Improv Games) the sports metaphor bloomed again. High schools  fielded teams, and teams offered keen competition and comradeship.According to CIG, troubled youngsters bound for suicide or jail were brilliant when they improvised --all the way to the finals in Ottawa. My point: personally I had the power to plant only 11 teams (in the Bronx) but young Canadians with close candid relations with teachers had the power to spread my format all over Canada. David Shepherd has been given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Canadian Improv Games and also by the Chicago Impro Fest.


(See chapter 21): In the 1990s, I began to work with groups in creating movies. More about this may be found in my book, That Movie in Your Head: http://www.gerepublishing.com/books/movie_head.html


More recently, I have been experimenting with a "playshop" model in which medium-sized groups experiment with "stretching" themselves imaginatively, physically, in voice, gesture, movement, improvisational activities. I’ve developed a number of new experiential exercises (a little ike theatre games) that foster the development of a broader repertoire of skills. Participants range in age from the 30s through the 80s, and it in some ways resonates with Blatner’s Art of Play.

I had a valve replacement and double by-pass, which limit my activity.

Reader, unlike my stiff self be willing to let the audience take  over. As at East Hampton, where I scheduled an improv movie shoot through my church and then despaired of getting the cast I wanted to improvise a preset story. I cancelled!—rather than letting my friends come together and stage a fun video party—with no fixed cast, sturdy story or hope of a product to offer to local video stores. I expected too much and ended up with the embarrassment of nothing.

A final point: be realistic. Don’t choose an ambitious format that will cost more in money or time than you can afford. Plan it out  with a small group before you commit yourself to space, equipment, publicity, a fixed schedule. What do your partners expect will happen? And what will you do if the best (or the worst) happens?Put possible outcomes out on the table where you can see how much you can rely on each other. Discover how you all will conceive and deal with problems that willcome up.

So much for the past. Today I hear experienced improvisers complain they don’t see their way into the future—except by repeating what they do now. They see as ways to go only a refinement of their craft or the growth of their audience.

David Shepherd, October, 2006

Some of the variables to consider when designing an interactive and improvisational drama program should include:

Further References on the World Wide Web:

Excerpts from History of Chicago Theatre:  http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1244.html 
 More on Improvisational Theatre: http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/631.html

A Short History of Improvisational Theatre http://www.improvcomedy.org/history.html

David Sheperd's work was honored at a recent Chicago Improv Festival: http://www.cif.com/2005/
and his more recent visit was also noted at: http://chronicle.uchicago.edu/050818/compass.shtml
More history (1988 article, "Improv: Where Did You Come From & What Are You Doing in My Living Room?" at: http://www.spolin.com/where_did_Hollywood-Rep.html

A broader history of improv and its development at: http://www.improvmiami.com/improv_history.htm 

The origins of CIG: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_Improv_Games

An excerpt from Shepherd’s book, That Movie in Your Head: http://www.yesand.com/articles/index.php?ArticleID=53

Further History of Improvisation:, including the Russian foundations of improvisation, Ouspenskaya, Stanislavsky, etc., then progressing to Spolin's work: http://www.spolin.com/ny-vs-chic.html

An essay on the history of improv: http://www.echeat.com/essay.php?t=28246

Bibliography of books on improv:: http://www.fuzzyco.com/improv/biblio-books.html