Chicago Boom, Histor-Improvisation

Chicago, no doubt, is known as the modern-day mecca of improvisation. Many notable schools, instructors and actors come from an improv comedy background; most with extremely close ties to Chicago, Illinois. The last blog highlighted the start of improv, dating back to the 1800s – read the article here – this blog will spotlight the windy city and its role in the boom of improv. Improvisation was studied by Stanislovksy, articulated for education by Viola Spolin, performance-based theater games by Keith Johnstone and that left a gap in Chicago. It didn’t take long before that gap was filled and the revolution of improv as a performing art began.

Many performers were responsible for pushing performing arts to another level in the Midwest. In the area, Paul Sills was a major player – a Compass Player, if you will. Paul Sills was the founder of the Compass Players alongside David Shepard. Sills and Shepard are said to be the creators of the first improv cabaret; also known as improvisational theater performance. The Compass Players were an integral piece to the Chicago improv puzzle in the 1950s into the 60s. Paul Sills was the son of Viola Spolin, the Mother of Improv. These names are vital in the history of not only Illinois’ scene, but improvisation as we know it.

Compass & company played a major role in notable stars as Alan Arkin, Elaine May, Mike Nichols & Jerry Stiller, among others.  One of the less mainstream protégé’s was Del Close. The Compass Players would later evolve into what many claim to be the most famous comedy school in the world, The Second City. The Second City premiered in 1959 with a show directed by Paul Sills. Then, the rest is history – shows, shows, shows. With more performance opportunity came the need for improvisational training. Viola Spolin was the primary educator of improv for Compass and passed on her teaching to many notable instructors. The Second City became number one in modern-day improv showcases and training.

The Second City has ties to countless celebrities. Thousands of famous names had ties to the famed Second City including Alan Alda, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, John Candy, Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert, Chris Farley, Tina Fey, Dave Foley, Jeff Garlin, Eugene Levy, Shelley Long, Tim Meadows, Colin Mochrie, Mike Myers, Bill Murray, Amy Poehler and Harold Ramis, Joan Rivers, Ryan Styles and Fred Willard. Major. This is truly the only the tip of the iceberg.

Above we mentioned a Compass Player named Del Close. Del Close may be singlehandedly responsible for what improv is today – the Attitude Era of Chicago improvisation occurred due to his relentless, raw realness. Close was the founder of the Improv Olympic and would soon partner with Charna Halpern – current owner of iO enterprise – to create Harold [the official form of the Voodoo Comedy Playhouse]. The only real competition to the mainstream [the] Second City. Then the Annoyance came and the world changed. The next blog will highlight the change the improv landscape saw after Del, Charna, Mick and others hit the scene.

Jon Jon Lannen chibi headshot
Jon Jon Lannen is the best-selling author of the Giraffe children’s book series. He is an instructor, performer and writer for the Voodoo Comedy Playhouse.
More on him here.