The Compass Players and the Roots of Improv

June 27th, 2011

“On July 5, 1955, in a long-gone tavern once located just off campus, improvisational comedy was born,” wrote Jennifer Carnig in 2005 from the news office of The University Chicago Chronicle. Paul Shepherd left NYC for the Midwest where he co-founded the Compass Players with Paul Sills who fostered many of the company’s most famous actors. The founders are said to have modeled their work after Sills’ mother, Viola Spolin, who introduced him and Shepherd to improv ‘games’ she employed as a drama teacher in the federal Works Progress Administration from 1939 to 1941. She later spun these pioneering techniques into a influential guide book, Improvisation for the Theater (1983).  Compass co-founder David Shepherd, returned to Chicago to direct a revival of the first Compass show in 2005 with University of Chicago Off-Off Campus company members, the second oldest continuously running student improvisational theater troupe in the country.

Diane Sawyer’s long-time husband, Mike Nichols, was one of the original Atomic Age members of the improvisational comedy troop, The Compass Players, predecessor of The Second City. ABC World News reporter, Sawyer mentioned Nichols and Compass on ABC7 Windy City LIVE! this morning. Nichols, with Tony Award-winning Barbara Harris and comedienne writer and film director, Elaine May (The Heartbreak Kid, 1972) were among the imitable bohemian Compass members. Joyce and Byrne Piven were along the early Compass Players.  May formed a prolific stage, radio, and screen duo with fellow Compass actor Nichols, the Oscar, Golden Globe, and Emmy award-winning director of The Graduate (1967) and Angels in America (2003). Together they produced The Birdcage (1996) starring Robin Williams, Gene Hackman, and Nathan Lane.

The “Weekend Update” segment on Saturday Night Live is a perfect example of the long-lasting influence of Compass.  ‘The Living News’ sketch was first established by the Compass players, inspired by Chicago Sun-Times news items and participation from intellectual U of C audience members. Historian Janet Coleman chronicles Compass in The Compass: the improvisational theatre that revolutionized American comedy. She delves into early years of U of C and the germination of Compass during the ‘Chicago Experiment’ (1931-1959), a plan by then school president Robert Maynard Hutchins’ to promote the high ideals of his liberal education model wherein scholars would share “divine revelations of knowledge.”

Whether that divine knowledge translates today in SNL’s perpetual talk show sketches, it’s hard to say, but it is  a privilege to witness brilliant scholars be equally brilliant comedians.

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