Improvisational theatre began in Viola Spolin’s workshops, beginning with theories that humans have the most authentic, open interactions during opportunities to play. Spolin moved to California, turned her theatre games into an actor training program, and produced several storied actors. But the real magic happened when Spolin’s son, Paul Sills, took her theatre games to the University of Chicago. There a strange maelstrom of talent created a new form of theatre.
Sam Wasson, a sometime performer himself, has written four previous books about American performing arts. Until now, he’s focused on single personalities, like Bob Fosse or Audrey Hepburn. Here, he turns his mixed artistic and journalistic background onto an artform, improv theatre, which would emerge, phoenix-like, from the moldering corpse of post-WWII theatre. American-made performance was dying, but improv breathed new life into it.
In Chicago, Paul Sills met several personalities longing for something new, something revolutionary. These included several still-famous performers, like Mike Nichols and Elaine May, or Severn Darden. Others included people mostly known only by other theatre professionals, including Del Close and David Shepherd. And that revolutionary zeal wasn’t metaphorical; many early improvisors believed they could overthrow the capitalist patriarchy and rebuild society by simply being authentic.
Sadly (or not), they discovered, as revolutionaries do, that capitalism is remarkably elastic. Several offspring of Sills’ original vision, including the Compass Players and Second City, became money-making enterprises when they discovered an untapped market for genuine, unplanned laughs. Soon, performers who paid their dues doing improv, became stars of the scripted circuit, like Alan Arkin and Barbara Harris. “Legitimate” theatre began adapting to improv timing.
But Wasson also notices patterns developing. Improv began as anti-capitalist theatre, but became so in-demand that prices skyrocketed. The satirical edge became so beloved that public figures relished getting skewered, rather than fearing it. Improv has long struggled to maintain a legitimate edge, and whenever it risks becoming safe, it requires innovators to blast the artform from its comfy confines. It appears to need this kind of rescuing a lot.
And the rescuers often aren’t stable people themselves. Improv innovators like Del Close, Bill Murray, and Chris Farley have repeatedly breathed new life into unscripted performance, sometimes through sheer force of personality. But these personalities are also frequently self-destructive, craving new experience at any cost. The qualities that make improvisors fascinating performers often make them dangerous human beings No wonder so many have a tendency to die young.
The reciprocal relationship between improv and “straight” performance apparently fascinates Wasson. In the 1960s, many famous improvisers became more conventional, scripted stars: Mike Nichols turned Second City alum Dustin Hoffman into a star with The Graduate. Since the 1970s, improv has funneled its best performers into TV shows like SCTV and Saturday Night Live. It’s almost like “straight” performance needs the vitality that only improv provides. And improvisers need “straight” paychecks.
Wasson doesn’t write a how-to for improv comedy. Such books already exist, in numbers too massive to sift. Instead, he writes a love song for an artform that strives to keep American theatrical performance from drifting into comfy passivity. In Wasson’s telling, improv prevents other performance forms drifting into safe, commercial ruts. But now, improv itself is a commercial enterprise. As so often in the past, the artform’s future is up for grabs.
Early on, describing the love-hate relationship that drove Nichols and May, Wasson writes one of the truest things I’ve ever read about performance and theatre: “Say you meet someone. You like something about them and they like something about you. Your mutual interest begets mutual play. Play begets cooperation and mutual understanding, which, trampolined by fun, becomes love. Love is the highest form of play.”
As a sometime actor myself, I appreciate this thought. We who perform spend tremendous efforts trying to help our audiences have genuine experiences. Maybe we don’t destroy ourselves like Del Close, or burn out like Elaine May, but we know the value of sacrifice. And we do it because we love our audiences, our fellow performers, our art. Improv gives performers the liberty to simply exist. And that is beauty indeed.