Improvisation, Chicago Style

A dictionary might define improvisation as the extemporaneous creation of music, writing, speech, or movement. By that definition, most of us improvise our way through life just by thinking, conversing, moving from one place to another, and gesturing. But improvisation for the theater is a very specific kind of extemporaneous performance. Commonly referred to as "improv," it was born right here in Chicago.

In the mid-1950s, David Shepherd and Paul Sills founded an innovative theater company they dubbed the Compass Players. Operating in a makeshift performance space in a bar on the campus of the University of Chicago, they began experimenting with a series of improvisational games that had been codified in the work of Sills’s mother, Viola Spolin. The games helped performers to tap their own creativity and build both their performance skills and their onstage rapport. Basing their rehearsal and performance style in part on commedia dell’arte traditions, the Compass performers worked not from scripts but from a series of general plot points. This allowed them the freedom to create their own dialogue, much of it comedic, on the spot in front of a live audience. From these early sketches evolved a form of theatrical expression that has fueled American comedy, film, television, theater, and advertising ever since.

One extremely powerful offshoot from the early days of improv was Second City, a now legendary improvisational comedy theater founded in 1959 by alumni from the Compass Players including Paul Sills. Second City’s brand of fast-paced, political, often irreverent comedy won much acclaim and widespread popularity in the early 1960s. Over the years it became a proving ground for young improvisers from all over the country. Today Second City has facilities in Los Angeles and Toronto. It offers a multi-tiered training program steeped in the improv traditions of the Compass Players, as well as curriculum-based workshops for K–12 students in Chicago. While the main stage shows now rely mostly on scripted material that has been honed through rehearsal, many performances offer a free post-show improv set based on audience suggestions. These sessions provide Second City with fodder for future shows.

Although Second City is an iconic presence in the improv scene, it is by no means the only game in town. Chicago boasts a number of highly regarded companies including iO (formerly known as Improv-Olympic) and ComedySportz.

Founded more than 25 years ago by Charna Halpern and the late, great Chicago improviser Del Close, iO is not only a popular destination and proving ground for young improvisers, but also a vital recruitment center for popular TV shows such as Saturday Night Live, MADtv, and The Colbert Report. Its training center features five levels of improv classes, a comedy writing program, and specialty classes such as musical improv comedy, as well as corporate-level training that teaches business people how improv techniques can help them perform creatively (and competitively).ComedySportz is quick to clarify the meaning of its name: it’s not stand-up comedy about sports—it’s improv comedy played as a sport. At each ComedySportz performance two improv teams battle for laughs from the audience. The show is fueled by ideas and suggestions from the assembled crowd. At the end of the show, the audience votes on which team they found the funniest. Like its competitors at Second City and iO, ComedySportz features a respected training program with a full roster of improv and specialized comedy classes.

The Long and the Short of Improv

There are two main categories of improv: short-form (often called sketch comedy) and long-form (also known as The Harold). In short-form, players create brief, punchy scenes based around an improv game and taking off from audience suggestions. Long-form is more narrative, much of it depending on the audience’s familiarity with a set of well-defined characters. In Chicago both forms have staunch advocates, but short-form is probably the more popular.

Improv’s Influence on the Entertainment World

Since its beginnings, improv has become a huge force in the entertainment world. In fact, when it comes to theater training, many actors as well as teachers believe that improvisation is an essential skill for all types of theater. Improv requires practitioners to be fully present in the moment and to commit totally to their fellow performers. Good acting, writing, and directing require the same thing, as do many other collaborative and creative activities. Training in improv builds a foundation for all kinds of careers—in the arts and elsewhere.