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Improv nation : how we made a great American art
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1 1940-1955 Imagine Viola Spolin (née Mills), the mother, the Jewish mother, Paul Sills's mother, Tina Fey's spiritual grandmother, the mother of theatrical improvisation. There was no radio in those days, in the early part of the century, and Viola's parents, Russian immigrants, didn't have a lot of money, so as kids Viola and her friends had to invent their own amusement. Instead of going to the theater, they played tag, jacks, marbles, hopscotch, changing the rules as it suited them, breaking the rules, inventing new ones, up and down the streets of Chicago and for as long as the day would let them. When it got dark, Viola joined her big, rollicking, Jewish socialist family ​-- ​father, mother, and five siblings ​-- ​for long and elaborate games of charades, dressing up together, falling down laughing, and singing impromptu, Yiddish-flavored operas. Let's jump ahead to 1924, when Viola, now a pretty and adventurous eighteen-year-old with an interest in social work, enrolled at Hull House, a community center offering educational and cultural enrichment programs to Chicago's poor, immigrant populations. There she trained under sociologist Neva Boyd, a progressive educator and leading play theorist. Boyd's Recreation Training School at Hull House instructed participants in group games and other communal activities including theater arts. Viola called Boyd, who envisioned play as essential to emotional and physical well-being, her "inspirator." "Play means happiness," Boyd wrote. "It is characterized by feelings of pleasure which tend to break out in laughter." Boyd took her students out of the classroom to engage in "play behavior," learn, and remember why, as children, playing felt so good. "When we find ourselves in situations in which we are free to act as our 'feelings' prompt," Boyd wrote in "Play ​-- ​A Unique Discipline," "there is no emotional conflict in the functioning of the organism. This is what happens in spontaneous play." When you play, you are free to be most you. Viola began to think about play as a way into the unconscious, a means of unearthing, as she wrote to herself, "qualities which cannot be talked about." Some years later, talk was a problem for the multiethnic, multilingual youth of the recreational theater Viola directed at Hull House. Participants were intensely inhibited onstage. As long as these children ​-- ​divided by culture and self-censored by fear ​-- ​were unable to communicate, they would stay locked in, isolated from one another and ultimately from themselves. Getting them to play together, Viola believed, would loosen them up onstage and maybe light a flame under the melting pot. To provide them "a non-authoritarian climate" necessary for freedom, she had them extemporize together. Imagine a world where adults did not exist, she prompted. What would you do? "The unfolding of the scene was quite a revelation," she wrote. "Never were boys and girls more charming, more courteous to one another. They were gentle and tender, they spoke in soft tones, they were concerned with each other's simplest problems ​-- ​they loved one another!" They were improvising. That's what happens when you improvise. Now let's go six hundred miles southwest, to Manhattan, Kansas, where, in 1942, nine-year-old Del Close ​-- ​chubby, with big glasses and crooked teeth ​-- ​was sitting in a movie theater. "To be or not to be?" This was the question Jack Benny was asking in a film of the same name, as Del sat watching, riveted to the movie screen. When it ended, he drifted from the theater high on the film's title: To Be or Not to Be, "the first intelligent question," he said, "I'd heard a human being ask himself." Who was this Shakespeare and what was he up to and why would anyone not want to be? What did that mean, not to be? He needed more. Had his father, Del Close senior, a depressive alcoholic jeweler, been at any way available to his son, instead of caught up in his work at Del Close Jewelers, or in his depression and his drinking, had Mr. Close been home the night Del discovered human beings had a choice, and therefore a very big problem, and therefore a lifelong pain no metaphoric tunnel of what-ifs could help them escape, Del would not have made the trip to his grandfather's bar in nearby Abilene. "My grandfather," Close would recall, "kind of caught on that I thought some kind of secret shit was going on." Stepping around the bar, the old man led Del ​-- ​the incipient mad scientist of improvisation ​-- ​to his first lesson in freedom. From inside glass-door bookcase, Grandpa removed a leather-bound copy of Hamlet, and put it in the boy's hands. Back now to Viola, the teacher, the social worker, the bringer-together. She met and married Ed Spolin in 1940, while they were at work for the Chicago WPA; he was a set designer, she a theater director at the WPA's Recreation Project, by that time divorced and with two teenage sons, Paul and William Sills (when they wed, her husband had taken her surname). Expanding on her earlier efforts at Hull House, Viola was formulating techniques to help disparate populations dramatize their shared problems. By then, she had developed a format. First she would split her players into two groups. The performing group would decide on a subject worthy of improvisation, play for two or three scenes for the second group, their audience, who in turn would respond to the scenes with feedback. Then they would improvise the scenes again. "Every few months, the cast would pick out the best scenes and perform them for an actual audience. There were about 150 people in [one] cast," Viola would say, "Italians, Greeks, Mexicans, Negroes, and I don't know of what other racial strains. They were of all ages and of both sexes." And they all played together. In 1940, in Chicago, Viola introduced the notion of audience suggestions. On a trip out West several years later, Viola and Ed fell in love with the brown and purple wilds of the Santa Monica Mountains, and bought a patch of raw hillside on the edge of Mulholland. Ed built them a cabin in the hills over the city, and Viola bought herself a lime-green convertible, in which she would curl down the mountain to a big red barn at 1745 North La Brea, just north of Hollywood Boulevard, that she named the Young Actors Company. From the bus stop on Hollywood and La Brea, her charges trekked up an old road that led them, just behind the Hollywood Women's Club, to the clapping of a fountain and Viola's big red barn, nestled in a ring of tall oaks. "It was like stepping into paradise," said actor Paul Sand, who began studying improvisation with Viola at age nine. Kneeling to child height, Viola would hike up her sarong-like dress and meet her young actors face-to-face, booming with warmth. She gave off the homey scents of roast chicken, herbs, and cigarettes, and her skin was tan from being outside all day playing with children. But although she was always gentle, "Viola was a powerful woman with a very strong voice," said her student Ronnie Austin. "You would have cast her as a labor organizer." Imagine them playing inside too, onstage, games Viola designed to release spontaneity. Games were for rehearsal, intended to help the players ​-- ​Viola became weary of the term "actor" ​-- ​apply their full selves to traditional scripted performances. "The games were really what the whole class was," said student Jackie Joseph, "although Viola didn't call them theater games at the time. She called them improvisations." Divesting herself of parental power and authority, Viola said it was the games, not the teacher, that instructed. That was important. Playing the role of "teacher" could introduce what she called approval/disapproval syndrome and inhibit spontaneity. Viola was careful then not to become a rule maker but rather a diagnostician, prescribing a specific game to each actor to address a specific interpersonal block. Was a player struggling to relate physically with the others? Have him play Contact! (in which the individual touches someone every time he says a line.) Was a player thinking too much? Play Mirror! (Mirroring someone else, you stop thinking about yourself.) "We were guinea pigs for the games," Paul Sand said. "She was creating them on us, with us." Sometimes Viola would give the players a Who, Where, and a What, and have them figure out the How, tossing out "some surprise little thing," as Joseph put it, from her folding chair in the back of the auditorium. "The submarine window broke!" "Your pants just fell off!" "Paul, you're a fish ​-- ​go!" Or, when their commitment to the improvised reality broke: "Focus!" Laughing focused them. Viola laughed all the time. Joseph said, "Viola gave me, by her laughter, the confidence I needed to keep my focus." Excerpted from Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art by Sam Wasson All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
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New York Times Review
WHEN I ATTENDED the University of Chicago in the mid-1990s, I never knew that I lived blocks away from the birthplace of improv comedy. That was partly because of my cluelessness, but also because no one 1 knew on campus really seemed to care. The school celebrated its connections to Milton Friedman, Saul Bellow and Frank Lloyd Wright much more than to Mike Nichols and Elaine May, who were part of the Compass, the first improv theater, founded by students in 1955. Times have changed. Not only did U. of C.'s business school recently partner with Second City, an outgrowth of the Compass, to research how improvisation can help in the workplace, but in 2015, a comedy theater, the Revival, opened steps away from the bar that presented the Compass, greeting audiences with a glamorous, blown-up black-and-white photo of the original improvisers. In the past two decades, a fertile artistic scene has transformed into a much-mythologized industry, with bustling theaters and training centers that serve as breeding grounds for the next Bill Murray, Chris Farley or Kate McKinnon. The ascent of improv, which has become arguably more influential than stand-up, is one of the most important stories in popular culture, and in "Improv Nation" Sam Wasson may be the first author to explain its entire history in comprehensive detail. For that reason alone, it's a valuable book, benefiting from dogged reporting and the kind of sweeping arguments that get your attention. By his second paragraph, Wasson, the author of five books including "Fosse," argues that improv has become "America's farthest-reaching indigenous art form," a bold, if defensible claim. On the next page, he writes that it "has replaced jazz as America's most popular art." That is harder to "yes, and." Wasson cinematically dashes from era to era, from the Broadway success of Nichols and May to the emergence of the original "Saturday Night Live" cast to the golden age of Chicago improvisation when Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey were all cutting their teeth. What mars this book, however, is not its overreaching claims or narrative ambition, but its fuzzy conceptual framework, ft's like a lively scene with great jokes but no direction. Improv comedy is not merely comics making things up on the spot, just as scripted theater is not just actors following directions. Over the decades, conventions and contrasting aesthetic strains have evolved and hardened. Some improv schools lean on character development. Others stick to a more constricted structure that limits the number of options. "This essential dispute between freedom and form would become the driving tension of improvisational comedy," Wasson writes. But he's less interested in illustrating this point than tracing the careers of stars with a connection to improvisation. He doesn't ignore the creation of the Harold, the most well-known form in improv, or the famous bible of long-form improvisation, "Truth in Comedy." But he treats these critical moments as detours, not landmarks. "Improv Nation" is atits more assured in the pre- and early-history of the form, when the number of improvisers was small enough that telling the story of the art through a collection of personalities is more manageable. Wasson presents a textured portrait of Viola Spolin, the idealistic teacher who developed improvisational games in the 1940 s that actors and comedians would study for generations. She saw her work as a rehearsal tool, one that her son Paul Sills brought to the Compass in the next decade, which drew an incredible collection of talent to topical sketch work and freewheeling improvisation. The early relationship of Nichols and May is laid out here like a romantic comedy. When Wasson reports that May slept with Spolin's son Paul, he adds: "Nichols pretended not to care." When the Compass moved to St. Louis, Wasson gravitates toward another triangle, this time involving the actor and teacher Del Close and Nichols, clashing not just over May but also over the future of improv. In a dispute that would replay itself over the decades, Nichols thought improvisation had limitations in how deeply it could explore psychology and character, while Close believed in its potential as an art form and as an end in itself. Nichols and May moved to New York, where they made a commercial hit out of their double act, performing still-funny sketches followed by an improvised scene. But it was Close who became the ultimate guru, teaching the future stars of comedy and anticipating where the form would go. Some of the best parts of the book are its explorations of overlooked pioneers, like Wasson's superb reporting on Vairi Bromfield, a brilliant and largely forgotten comic who started on a comedy team with Dan Aykroyd. She appeared on the first episode of "Saturday Night Live" and was a regular on David Letterman's short-lived morning show. As the narrative moves toward the last few decades, these more obscure stories get pushed aside to make room for the familiar ones. The focus on the film careers of "Saturday Night Live" stars raises a broader question: What is improvisation anyway? Or more to the point, what isn't? Early offspring of the Compass, like the first New York troupe The Premise, which opened in Greenwich Village in 1960, leaned on rehearsed material while billing itself as an "improvisational revue," which earned skepticism from the press, including a review from The Village Voice calling it a "ruse." Wasson casts a wide net, discussing "Ghostbusters" and "The Colbert Report" alongside the brilliant current long-form team T.J. and Dave, but at times, he becomes more exclusive, declaring, for instance, that commedia dell'arte is not part of the history. He rightly emphasizes that long-form improvisation is a distinctly American form, but overstates the case - you see this even in his title - ignoring major figures and traditions in other countries. What makes this more than a minor omission is that the globalization of improv would be powerful evidence to support the book's effusive arguments. After all, the late-night host Seth Meyers got his start in an improv theater in Amsterdam, and a new club in London, the Bill Murray, offers improv classes run by Second City. To do justice to the impact of improv comedy, you need a wider lens, one that explores the increasing importance of improv theaters in the comedy ecosystem, the various schools of pedagogy and how the principles of improvisation have infiltrated the business world, traditional acting and popular culture. The old debate about whether or not improv comedy is an art in itself or a means to create work now seems quaint, ft's bigger than art. What began on the South Side of Chicago more than six decades ago has become not just an art or job but, for some, a worldview. Tina Fey described it that way in her best-selling book "Bossypants." She promised that the rules of improvisation would "change your life and reduce belly fat," before admitting that the part about belly fat wasn't true. JASON ZINOMAN, the On Comedy columnist for The Times, is the author of "Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night."
Publishers Weekly Review
De Vries does a remarkable job of narrating Wasson's sweeping history of American improvisational comedy, which begins in a Chicago bar in the McCarthy era and covers the emergence of groups such as Second City, Upright Citizens Brigade, and the cast of Saturday Night Live. De Vries's whimsical tones capture the eccentric working relationship of the groundbreaking team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May as they move from stage to film. In rendering the heartbreaking passages related to comedic superstars John Belushi and Chris Farley-both of whom died from drug overdoses at the age of 33-De Vries provides a wistful tenor of regret in the reactions of their friends and colleagues. De Vries also ably handles the rapid transitions in the narrative with skill, pausing just enough to shift gears so that listeners can keep up. With the exception of providing vivid mimicry of Bill Murray's performance as the gopher-hunting groundskeeper in the movie Caddyshack, De Vries does not attempt to imitate celebrity voices. Rather, he devotes the bulk of his energy to the narrative at large and in doing so skillfully keeps listeners attuned. A HMH/Dolan hardcover. (Dec.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Eminently readable, entertaining, and informative, this volume traces the history of the Chicago improvisation movement from Viola Spolin, Paul Sills, the Compass Players, Nichols and May, and the founding of Second City through the subsequent generations' work, including Saturday Night Live, SCTV, 1980s film comedies, the mockumentaries of Christopher Guest, and the rise of The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and the Upright Citizens Brigade. Wasson's treatment is detailed and benefits from extensive interviews with the book's many subjects. This comprehensive study supplements (and perhaps even surpasses) Jeffrey Sweet's Something Wonderful Right Away (1978), heretofore the most thorough history of Chicago improv. Though Wasson gives brief attention to the contributions of other cities (Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco), The Groundlings, the Premise Players, and The Committee are mostly relegated to the sidelines along with more alternative groups. This volume can be paired with Amy Seham's Whose Improv Is It Anyway? (CH, Feb'02, 39-3289) for a truly comprehensive history of American improv. Wasson's argument that improv is as much a contribution to world theater as the musical is spot on and thoroughly proven. Summing Up: Essential. All readers. --Kevin J. Wetmore, Loyola Marymount University
Booklist Review
*Starred Review* Wasson, author of the stellar biography Fosse (2013), brings his spellbinding prose style to this history of improvisational comedy, which, to mention just one of the book's many surprises, has only been around for about 70 years (although some would say its inspirations go back centuries to the Italian commedia dell'arte). There's a natural flow to the author's writing a conversational tone and a way of capturing our interest that transforms what could have been a dry recitation of people, places, and facts into a compelling, absolutely unputdownable story. Wasson has interviewed a tremendous number of people for the book (early improv groundbreakers like Carol Sills and Paul Sand; notables like Mike Nichols, Alan Arkin, Buck Henry, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Tina Fey, and Dustin Hoffman), and he supplements those interviews with well-chosen material from numerous previously published sources. Not quite an oral history in the manner of, for example, Shales and Miller's Live from New York (2002), the book is nevertheless driven by the stories of the people who built improv from the ground up, the people of Second City, the Groundlings, and other groups the performers, creators, producers, and even the audiences. And, in case you're wondering, yes, the book is funny. In places, very funny. A remarkable story, magnificently told.--Pitt, David Copyright 2017 Booklist
A Finalist for the 2017 George Freedley Memorial Award

"With Saturday Night Live looming ever larger in the pop culture landscape, it's time for a history of improv comedy. Wasson delivers, moving nimbly from improv's origins in 1950s Chicago to movies like Caddyshack and TV shows like The Colbert Report." --Entertainment Weekly

"A compelling, absolutely unputdownable story . . . And, in case you're wondering, yes, the book is funny. In places, very funny. A remarkable story, magnificently told." --Booklist

From the best-selling author of Fosse, a sweeping yet intimate--and often hilarious--history of a uniquely American art form that has never been more popular.

At the height of the McCarthy era, an experimental theater troupe set up shop in a bar near the University of Chicago. Via word-of-mouth, astonished crowds packed the ad-hoc venue to see its unscripted, interactive, consciousness-raising style. From this unlikely seed grew the Second City, the massively influential comedy theater troupe, and its offshoots--the Groundlings, Upright Citizens Brigade, SNL, and a slew of others.

Sam Wasson charts the meteoric rise of improv in this richly reported, scene-driven narrative that, like its subject, moves fast and digs deep. He shows us the chance meeting at a train station between Mike Nichols and Elaine May. We hang out at the after-hours bar Dan Aykroyd opened so that friends like John Belushi, Bill Murray, and Gilda Radner would always have a home. We go behind the scenes of landmark entertainments from The Graduate to Caddyshack, The Forty-Year Old Virgin to The Colbert Report. Along the way, we commune with a host of pioneers--Mike Nichols and Harold Ramis, Dustin Hoffman, Chevy Chase, Steve Carell, Amy Poehler, Alan Arkin, Tina Fey, Judd Apatow, and many more. With signature verve and nuance, Wasson shows why improv deserves to be considered the great American art form of the last half-century--and the most influential one today.

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