Friday, May 28, 2021

THE MIRROR - an improvisation format for two professionals and up to 100 amateurs. Designed by David Shepherd.



 an improvisation format for two professionals and up to 100 amateurs

Designed by David Shepherd (Compass/Improv Olympic) 1974

The Mirror is advertised as a place where you create a show simply by sitting in front of a mirror.  To do this we use no written material, no satirical distortion, no symbolic magnification. The experiences we explore each night are shared experiences - common to most of those present.

When people arrive at the theatre, the first thing they see is their names and themes on a program, that's been printed only minutes before.  Next they see their reflections - in glass or Mylar.  In the improvisations that follow they see their own life - mirrored first by professional players and then by their peers in the audience.

If management can afford a videotape recorder and projector, the spectator can even have the experience of seeing a full-size mirror-image of himself.

David Shepherd - Armonk, N.Y. 1974

Gathering a relevant body of themes and an audience:

A performance of The Mirror starts hours before curtain time - when apprentices pick up suggestions for the show from restaurants, hotels and offices around the theatre. These suggestions have been written on place mats and table tents designed to involve people in choosing the content of the show.

Door prizes or cash awards are offered to those willing to play out a suggestion.  Consequently we get fewer challenges and spoofs, and more thoughtful themes.  On the back of the place mat are printed creative games that can be played over supper to isolate a theme. (Naturally these place mats can be taken home to remind potential customers of our address, and to stimulate word-of-mouth.)

The apprentices who pick up suggestions do not do it routinely.  They find out if the person who's made the suggestion plans to come to the show.  If so, they sit for a minute at his table to see if he's willing or able to direct the action - or play into it.  They prepare the customer for what will happen so that The Mirror can reflect the maximum creativity of the group that will come together at show time.

The apprentice is in face a talent scout searching for people who can illuminate roles, and roles that can illuminate people.

Preparing scenario card decks:

Information gathered by apprentices is woven by the professional staff of The Mirror into scenarios.  The flood of themes is channeled under recurrent stories.  These stories can be expressed in the same "master" scenarios, for instance: "Boy meets girl," "Boy loses girl," "Boy gets girl back again."

The professional players also choose a few sound and lighting effects that can enrich the scenario.  They know that the oldest scenario is bound to come out differently every time it's done because critical details will shift.  The lovers will have different jobs, different ages, different origins.  Their story will be played out by different players against different activities or backgrounds.

Each event in the scenario is stated on a card large enough so everyone in the audience can read it under a spotlight during the blackout.  A complete scenario might include a dozen cards, arranged in a time sequence.  It's the audience that chooses where to start in the sequence and how fast to go through it.

Each improvised scene is kept short and is framed by blackouts.  Each theme can be explored in about fifteen minutes.  A show consists of about three themes - plus the warmups that prepare audience members to direct and play into improvisations.

The role of the professional:

Professional players are limited to one man and one woman - in order to assure the audience of opportunities to intervene in many ways.  The professionals promise the amateurs in advance that no one will be forced to play,  but everyone will be asked to vote on which theme to explore first, and on whom to cast.

First: a few minutes of warmups.  Next: two pools of volunteers emerge - one of directors and one of players.  The second pool is spotlighted so that the audience can at all times see its cast options.  At any moment it can vote to replace a player, and some scenes may be done several times with several casts - until the audience is satisfied.

Naturally, if no one volunteers to play, the two professionals will play out the whole scenario by themselves - snatching hand props and costume pieces to double as the various characters called for.  But this never happens.

The audience soon finds itself adding sound effects and off-stage voices to enrich the action.  Directors in the directing pool stop action and change a factor - such as the emotion or activity of a character.  And from the acting pool real people provide real alternative to the strict limitation of one professional actor and one professional actress.

By the end of the evening these pro's have usually left the stage to direct, or have limited their roles to "one-liners" or silent "cross overs."  The Mirror has happened: by simply sitting in front of the stage, the audience has created its own show.


Part of each night's income is retained to reward volunteer players.  These prizes are not intended to make for a TV game show competition.  They are offered to promote audiences, to validate audience talent, to enlarge the pool of volunteers and to decrease the gap between the amateur and the professional.

From David Shepherd's IBM electric typewriter, 1974.

Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher. He is a founding member of the Improv Olympics and the Canadian Improv Games.  Michael created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa and the Comic Strip Improv Group in New York.  He co-produced and wrote the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre" (available on YouTube) and his book, "Listen Harder," is available on Amazon.  Michael is a faculty member at Compton College in Los Angeles, where he works with traditional and at-risk students. He holds a BFA degree in drama from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and an MA degree in education theatre from NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. He can be contacted at

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

COMPASS: The Living Newspaper by David Shepherd

 A constant in David Shepherd's improv career was periodically revisiting his groundbreaking format, COMPASS (a "people's theatre," co-created with Paul Sills in 1955) and attempting to update it with the collaboration of improvisers who were in his orbit at that time.

David continued conducting COMPASS workshops in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Ottawa, Boston, St. Louis and Chicago, well into his late eighties. These workshops focused on creating scenarios and rehearsing the Living Newspaper, the curtain raiser for COMPASS where newspaper and magazine articles were brought to life as players segued back and forth between narration, character dialogue, pantomime and tableau.

In 2002, David wrote this description of the Living Newspaper for Stephen Sim, the Artistic Director of the Winnipeg If....Improv Festival and co-founder of The Improv Company.


The 1955 Chicago COMPASS was supposedly a sociopolitical statement in the environment of Senator Joe McCarthy. At that time, the University of Chicago had just passed through the leadership of a radical humanist - John Maynard Hutchins. And people were ready to drive great distances to hear what could be heard no place else. Nowadays expletives and derision (of this president or that premier) are not going to draw radicals and rebels to your theatre. So what do you do?

At COMPASS we set out to SHOW THE AUDIENCE WHAT IT WAS READING. "This is the Chicago Defender," we said. "This is its ethnic self image and this is its pretension to be unprejudiced." This is the Daily News, Chicago Tribune, Argosy, the New Yorker, The Ring, Sports Illustrated, Journal of Lifetime Living.

The Compass Players (1955), Severn Darden, Larry Arrick, Elaine May, Shelley Berman, Mike Nichols, Rose Arrick, Barbara Harris.

Our Living Newspaper came before our scenario play, which came before audience suggestions. The Living Newspaper was short, pithy, conceptual, sarcastic, surprising.

What were some components?

    Shelley Berman did an advertisement for treasure diving. He pantomimed swimming underwater while reciting the ad in a froggy voice. The pretense of discovering doubloons under one's local pond was ridiculous. 

    Mike Nichols flopped his bony arm over a louvre and read New Yorker copy for a million dollar Tiffany bracelet.

    Two commentators (Mike Nichols and Andrew Duncan) describe each round of a boxing match in the style of Sports Illustrated and then the Ring. The fighters appeared alternately as brutes and carefully trained strategists.

    Andrew Duncan measured Barbara Harris' dress in the salon of Christian Dior - miming a photo from the Daily News. I played Dior and read the article in the style of story theatre, speaking of myself in the third person.

In all these scenes we pretended to know exactly what the point was and why we were making it. We assumed that the audience knew what we were saying, and most of the time they did. The university produced thousands of smart, curious people who didn't happen to want to get up on stage. Some frequent flyers did get back stage to join the company and take short roles.

As for a political tinge, Second City was more overt than we were. In fact several people in COMPASS objected to political slants, and when I got them to do a scenario about the Black List in radio, it lacked COMPASS joy.

However, LIVING NEWSPAPER COULD NOT BE ACCUSED OF DISTORTION because the very words of the periodicals were there in print in our hands as we played.

TODAY 2002, most news is on TV. Players satirize weathermen. A good visual is the TV spot - shot at home or in the office. War scenes and home disasters can be adapted for stage performance. A few sound effects on audio tape will make these locations seem more real.

Michael Golding is an improv teacher, writer and director who participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics, the Canadian Improv Games, and created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa. He is currently a faculty member at Compton College working with at-risk teens and traditional students. Michael was the artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in New York City and co-produced and wrote the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre." His book, "Listen Harder," a collection of essays, curriculum and memorabilia on improvisation and educational theatre is available on Amazon.   



Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The First Improvisation Olympics Match by David Shepherd

The following is a description by David Shepherd (co-founder of Compass with Paul Sills) of the first Improvisation Olympics match at the Space for Innovative Development in New York City. David and Howard Jerome created the Improvisation Olympics in 1972. Howard later formed the Canadian Improv Games, the high school version of the Olympics, with Jamie "Willie" Wyllie in 1977. 


Friday, December 8, 1972: videotape recorded a new sport as Jerome's Bombers met Shepherd's Soul All Stars.  Each team consisted of four pro players with two amateurs chosen from fans attending the "Improvisation Olympics."

In the pre-game warmups fans joined pros to play out where they'd like to be and who they'd like to be there.  Fans also suggested themes on Story Starter Cards, which were posted on the cork wall by referee Arthur Field.

At 7:30, Field explained the rules and introduced the teams. The coin flip was won by Jerome, who opted to play second. Shepherd's SOULS then picked their first theme from the cork wall. Teacher Accused by his Students of Turning them in for Drugs.  Shepherd directed briskly.

The BOMBERS now chose Pregnant 15-year old Returning Home.  In the director's slot, Jerome switched the identity of the man the pregnant girl finally marries. His players followed through to a sardonic blackout, and the BOMBERS surged into a comfortable lead: 5-1.

In the second quarter, SOULS took to the video-camera with Neurotic Mother telling Her Son the Facts of Life.  It was now the BOMBERS turn to direct: "Mother come on stronger with your son!" Susan Williams' response to this hot potato provoked the deepest laughter of the night. SOULS then directed BOMBERS in When Men Get Liberated Enough to Let Women Go to Work.

At the half, the SOULS trailed by 4 points. However, their morale was high enough to do a TV commercial set in a hospital, where a man wisely buys life insurance before entering surgery.  Shepherd played the patient as a deaf 90 - to Glen Allen's fast talking salesman.

For the third quarter, fans chose one theme for both teams to play:  Mother Tells Daughter why Daddy Isn't Coming Home.  The BOMBERS led off with fans directing Claire Michaels to be 7 years old, then 2 and finally a triumphant 15.  For the SOULS, Sydney Johnson scored heavily as a "mother," a swinging mother," a "grandmother," and a "swinging grandmother."  Even so, the BOMBERS picked up so many points that Shepherd conceded for the SOULS. "We're going back into training," he announced before settling down to a video playback of the game.

Jerome, captain of the BOMBERS, said in a victory interview, "A lot of things that were not clear in play became clear in replay - - a lot of content.  The SOULS were strong in the closeup."

When asked to analyze the game, Referee Field remarked: "The BOMBERS had better dialog. Claire Michaels played strongly -- for comedy -- and with the backing of Jon Tanner, the BOMBERS had heavier skills.  The SOULS limited the time-on-camera of their strongest player, Shepherd, who was not playing to win!  Themes suggested by the fans were all lousy -- even mine!  I'm surprised the teams made so much of them."

Michael Golding is an improv teacher, writer and director who participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics, the Canadian Improv Games and created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa. He is currently a faculty member at Compton College working with at-risk teens and traditional students. Michael was the artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in New York City and co-produced and wrote the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre."  His book, "Listen Harder," a collection of essays, curriculum and memorabilia on improvisation and educational theatre is available on Amazon.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Evolution of an Online Course by Michael Golding

"Some of my students are wearing masks in class, because trying to remember names when you're in your sixties isn't challenging enough."  March 6, 2020 journal entry.

I am a faculty member at Compton College in Los Angeles where I teach Theatre Appreciation to college and high school students. Taught primarily through theatre games, the students become an ensemble, created by their values and interests. For over twenty years, this approach has been enormously successful, particularly with at-risk populations. In the age of texting and social media, which diminishes interpersonal skills, a learning-by-doing approach trumps lecturing and coerces students to be in the moment.

On March 19, 2020, an executive order directed all Californians to stay home, except to go to an essential job or to shop for essential needs. A week later, Compton College announced that all college and high school courses were moving to alternative methods of instruction. Initially, I felt that my courses would not survive the transition. I was assigned three for the current semester, two high school, one college. Certainly I could provide online assignments, but so much of what I do is based on face-to-face interaction, connecting students with each other.

Alternative method of instruction.

My concern was short lived, when it occurred to me that Life-Play, the last format I worked on with my late friend and mentor David Shepherd (co-creator of Compass and Improv Olympics) involved a collection of  theatre games played on the phone or online with video turned off. A player, guided by another player, explores aspects of his/her life - a made up dream, a recent event, a strong feeling, an ideal meal. Stories and poems are co-created and beliefs are examined. The results were often surprising and revelatory.

Ironically, the first format I worked on with David, Responsive Scene Radio Show, was also a verbal one. The listening audience for the show called in with scene suggestions for the studio actors to improvise. Callers could also play, direct, or just listen in. Perfect for Zoom conferences where participants might be intimidated being on camera. An audio only session is also more intimate. I felt a little more confident having two strong resources to draw from and looked forward to interacting with my students again after a two week break.

The Responsive Scene Radio Show - Lynne Bernfield, David Shepherd, Howard Jerome, Penny Kurtz

April 1, 2020.
First week of teaching my courses online via Zoom and so far the results have been surprisingly positive. In addition to David's games, I'm using a few of my own design. Essentially, I'm now the host of a call-in radio show. On a therapeutic level, the sessions have been a release for the students in exploring the weeks leading up to the quarantine and how they're now coping with the isolation. That just happened organically. It's hard to ignore the pandemic elephant in the room. After being incarcerated for two weeks, the students are grateful that they can reconnect with each other online and continue working towards my objective of transforming them into an ensemble. The audio only sessions are encouraging the more self-conscious students to participate.

April 13, 2020
I'm on Spring break this week, which sucks, because teaching online via Zoom provided needed structure in my isolation. It also brought me back to my roots with David's approach in utilizing improvisation as a people's theatre to correct ailing communities.

During the warm-up portion of the workshops, students share how their lives have changed since self-quarantining, which I use as a springboard for scenes, monologues and games. The quality of play has become more realistic, as we explore siblings slowly getting on each other's nerve's over a month's time, a single mother suddenly having to home-school her kids, parents who work in grocery stores and hospitals distancing themselves from their families at home, and of course, the paucity of toilet paper.

We have also been using the workshops to explore the future once the quarantine has ended; first party, date, trip, meal in a restaurant. One scene was set sixty years in the future, where grandparents described to their grandchildren what life was like in 2020. What I originally thought was going to be a disastrous situation switching over to online instruction, has turned into one of the more exciting periods of my teaching career.

I do miss the face-to-face interaction. I don't miss the commute.

April 22, 2020
Today in my high school online theatre workshop, a student had an idea on how to play "Zip, Zap, Zop" a physical pass the energy game as a verbal warm-up. Focusing on an aural impulse rather than a visual one, a player starts with calling out "Zip!" followed by the name of the player he/she is passing the impulse to. That player responds with "Zap!" and name of a player who is next. Then, "Zop" and the name of a player to start from the beginning. It went like this;

Alex:       Zip! Evelyn!
Evelyn:   Zap! Carlos!
Carlos:    Zop! Maribel!
Maribel:  Zip! Angel!
Angel:     What? Wait! What are we doing again?

Okay, the first round wasn't perfect, as is often the case in the physical workshops. So, we started slowly, increasing the pace once they got the hang of it. It ended up working quite well. Inspired by my student's innovation, I am encouraging the class to come up with ideas on how to transform some of their favorite physical games into verbal ones.

The revolution has begun. Young minds, fresh ideas.

May 4, 2020
Never Say (a Life-Play game) - express an emotion to someone from your world, that you would never express in real life. During today's online theatre appreciation workshop, Brisa, a shy, soft-spoken high school student, volunteered to play this game. she took a breath, and what emanated from my speakers sounded like a feral growl; "You cheap, bald, four-eyed, cheating bastard!" Unexpectedly, Brisa transformed into Susie Essman from Curb Your Enthusiasm. Several dogs in my neighborhood start barking.

May 11, 2020
After yesterday's Zoom session with one of my high school groups (actually middle schoolers) five students wanted to stay online to hang with each other for awhile.  Not realizing that as the host I could leave without ending the meeting I said "sure," took myself off video, muted mic, then went into the kitchen to do dishes, Hearing their voices from another room was comforting.  The apartment didn't feel empty.

An hour later, they were still at it. I couldn't resist eavesdropping a little. Other than some commiseration about missing friends and not being able to go out, the conversation covered typical teenage topics: favorite tv shows, movies, mutual friends, music, video games, other classes. Two of the students had a separate nonverbal conversation going with a sign language they created.  One shared her artwork onscreen. It was a reassuring sense of normalcy for me. I was moved by how they were adapting and their resilience. I wanted to hug them, and was instantly saddened by the reality that I couldn't.

While my workshops are conducted without video, we do check in with each other on camera at the beginning and end of session. I'm going to start making it a regular thing that they can stay online after the workshop if they wish. I'll assign a host and take my leave. It's good to know they're out there maintaining a semblance of community.

May 20, 2020
I'm in the final two weeks of the semester. As was the case with the physical workshops, students are bringing in their final projects; conducting games I have not covered and a scene with a partner that was developed away from class. We're continuing to experiment. Illustrations are created during story games. Chat window is used for directions and scene ideas. The quarantine is affecting the energy level of  students. Many are up late binge watching. Some have admitted that they're attending the workshops from their beds.

It has been a semester of trial and error. I've been offered an online summer course, which is an opportunity to further perfect my online curriculum. It's possible that the college will return to physical classes in the Fall and a mountain of concerns has been raised by instructors and students. Class sizes, availability of masks, gloves and sanitizers. How effectively will the space be cleaned? It's already overwhelming.

New obstacles will present themselves. Social distancing will exclude many theatre games, Viola Spolin's Contact and Kitty Wants A Corner are two that come to mind. I think I'm up to the challenge. My students certainly are. They're an innovative bunch.

Michael Golding is a writer, director, performer and teacher. He participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics, the Canadian Improv Games and directed the Comic Strip Improv Group and  Planned Parenthood's Insight Theatre Company. Michael is the author of  "Listen Harder" a collection of essays, curriculum and memorabilia on improvisation and educational theatre, and co-produced and wrote the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre."  Michael can be contacted at



Friday, February 14, 2020


David Shepherd, the visionary behind Compass (forerunner of Second City), Improv Olympics and Canadian Improv Games, celebrated Valentine's Day in 2004 by improvising a scenario with an invited group in Hadley, MA,  based on the real story of St. Valentine; the struggle for individuality against the interests of the Empire. David explored other "holy days" through his nonprofit organization Group Creativity Projects, which enabled groups to create their own movies, plays, novels, poetry and radio shows through improvisation. The following is from his invitation.


For thirty years, Group Creativity Projects has celebrated Interactivity with actors, comedians and filmmakers. This weekend we enter the 21st century by visiting Valentine's Day to discover the questions, and our talents, answer to an important question: Who was Valentine? 

David Shepherd's invitation for 2004 shoot

Over the years, Valentine's Day has become a day to express your affection for people by giving them gifts, cards and candlelit dinners. As a result, card companies, gift factories and restaurants make a lot of money on Valentine's Day. To ensure that the money keeps rolling in, manufacturers have produced a veritable Valentine's Day assembly-kit: roses, chocolate, red hearts, white lace and a card saying "I love you." Doesn't it seem strange that a unique love, between unique people, is celebrated formulaically? 

As it turns out, the original Valentine was not a romantic message, and it was not flurried with lace and hearts. It comes at the end of an old story with a surprisingly contemporary theme: the struggle for Individuality against the interests of Empire. 

Like all ancient history, the story of Valentine grew from an amalgam of whispers, facts, theories and crosshatchings. In this sense, St. Valentine was and is a product of group improvisation.

2004 invitation
Legends abound about a mysteriously romantic St. Valentine who wed lovelorn couples during the reign of Claudius II in the third century A.D. The emperor had outlawed marriages to increase numbers in his army, and the sympathetic priest married couples in secrecy.

In reality, there are three St. Valentines on record. The first was  priest in Rome who assisted martyrs who were persecuted under Claudius II. He was beheaded in 270 because he wouldn't renounce his faith. The second St. Valentine was a bishop of Interamna (now Terni, located about 60 miles from Rome) who was also martyred under the reign of Claudius II. The third bearer of the name suffered martyrdom in Africa along with some companions - but nothing further is known of this saint.   

Cast and crew for 2004 shoot.

David Shepherd - Feb. 14, 2018

Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games. Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. He wrote and co-produced the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre" (available for free on YouTube).  His book, Listen Harder, a collection of essays, curriculum and memorabilia on improvisation and educational theatre, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and CreateSpace. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development.   

Thursday, August 1, 2019


In 2007, David Shepherd's cousin suggested he write up the three most important programs of his life. First one David tackled, was the Improv Olympix (originally called the Improv Olympics, before the Olympic Committee threatened a lawsuit), which David co-created with Howard Jerome. David never got around to writing up the other two programs, having been sidetracked by the creation of a new format in 2008; Life-Play, improv games designed to be played over the phone. I recently found David's chapter on the Improv Olympix and it's a fascinating piece of history from his perspective.


Beginning in the 1970’s theatre saw a raft of innovations.  In Chicago, Del Close introduced his “Harold” format, for instance, by which a small group creates a coherent piece of 30-40 minutes from one audience suggestion; themes, characters and locations are positioned in improvs for two players or the whole group.  In Calgary, Keith Johnstone introduced Theatre Sports, a collection for two teams of over 50 games, which is now franchised across the world.   The first of these new structures was invented in New York City—the Improv Olympix; family and friends have asked me to describe its origins from memory.

In 1969 my ten-year marriage to Honey Stern unraveled abruptly in NYC.  I moved to 13 W. 89 St: a big second-story room, which I believed would pass for an office.  It was purposefully close to my kids, who visited and played under a wooden door that I fitted flat against one corner and draped with curtains to hide the fact that it was full of blocks, crayons, trucks and other toys.  

Here I committed myself to what  my father would call a “do good” role: to identify root causes of group friction, malfunction and conflict.  I would summon communication and productivity.  I would be a community “maker.” Such ideals had considerable currency in the 60’s and had already won me two jobs at NJ Community Action and at Scientific Resources Institute.  Community was graced by billions from Kennedy.  Under his handsome umbrella I would locate clients and supply training and public relations—delivered by a powerful phalanx of Community Makers.  Thousands of consultants were similarly busy.

“Commerce Business Daily”--plump with listings like “deliver 1000 rats to Lab X by Mar. 1--” provided me with  my first example of what  a Community Maker will do: for instance, he or she will travel to a high-rise in St. Louis.  Find out why  elevators that stop every other floor to serve small, decaying apartments,  somehow  attract violence and social despair  (have done so for years.)  You will then design ways to cure the malaise, staff your proposal, get it approved, tool up and go to work.  In actuality, after years of tinkering, the city declined all bids, moved all tenants out to smaller buildings in other areas, and simply blew the buildings up.  By “imploded” demolition.

One of the first to enroll in my tiny army was Howard Jerome Gomberg—ex football player, wrestler and tab-musical performer, who called himself Jerome.  (I insisted on calling him Gomberg, showing my prejudice for reality and contempt for self-regard.)  Howard quickly ingested my ambitions.

Howard Jerome
Encouraged by other idealists, we decided that a more likely target for our reforms was theatre, which we saw, long after the advent of improv, as mired still in egotism--stardom. Each actor acted in his or her own shell, while the dynamic of each performance was limited to the verbal  pyrotechnics of the playwright.  A play was more a chess game than an occasion to celebrate human emotions and interactions.  Most scripts bored us.

In our plan the playwright would be replaced by the audience, which knows exactly what it wants  and supplies ample ideas for content.  Tonight’s audience knows better than any playwright exactly what  will satisfy it tonight.  Treat the stage like a sports arena. Actors become  players.  Action becomes team play.  Who wins (and how) becomes more absorbing than the often abstruse point of a play written  at another time far away from the audience in these seats.

For a base structure use games, of which there are hundreds floating around.  But for our sport use only games that give players exposure to the basics of theatre.  Give actors a keener experience in acting than most scripts can.  Immerse them in skills, for instance:

            character  observed  clearly--on the spot
            deep, transforming emotion
            relationship dependent in no way on words
            creation of objects by pantomime only
            close relationship through gibberish
            improvising a song
            improvising a story
            improvising through slices of time
            improvising in different locations at the same time
            treating a subject with maximum negative or positive

We called our sport the “Improvisational Olympic" and later (since the Olympic Committee objected) the “Improv Olympix,” when we began video coverage.

With Howard on board, I changed our name from Community Makers to the less ambitious Group Creativity.  After all, group creativity had inspired COMPASS--with its strolling audience, improvising cast, creative spectators and a network of neighbors writing scenarios.  We moved from our remote Upper West Side location to a large building near Madison Square Garden—the Space for Innovative Development.  Here we were within reach of national dance companies and adventurous groups like ourselves.  Here we could rent space in which to perform.  It was 1973.

The Space for Innovative Development
The first teams were composed of staff and old friends.  “Jerome’s Bombers” played “Running Bare,” which included Janet Coleman,  author of “The Compass,” and David Dozer. The match was reviewed  in the press.  The college aged sons of a consultant for whom I shot video offered to play.  We discovered that, depending on life experience and willingness to risk, a new team could be launched in hours.  A correctional facility in Westchester sent a half dozen men plus guards, who were received  at the door by Sydney Johnson.  She asked, “Do you want to play, boys?” and took them through training enough to perform a scene I will never forget: inmates in a cell where a vial of heroin has just be spilled by mistake on the floor. They invested it with humor but also, surprisingly, with pain.

Jerome's Bombers
I formed a Soul team, whose intention was to play big and hard as possible--but lose. Soul’s job was  to model the games and show  how accessible they were.  We drew strangers to take a chance,  do the training, enter the league and win.

One afternoon we were visited by a thin, nervous  teenager from Queens—Michael Golding. He was participating weekly in Responsive Scene, our improv radio show over WRVR, where 35,000 listeners could phone in suggestions, stay on line, direct action and even improvise with the cast.  Michael had had the nerve to record his own improv bits with his own friends and squeeze his tape onto the air via phone calls he made to the station.

We saw Michael was a candidate for the Olympix.  I immediately offered to play whatever group he came up with.  Soul met his team in somebody’s home (so we wouldn’t have to pay rent for space). The location was frumpy: sofa, stuffed chairs, carpets.  No matter.  Soul warmed up casually until we noticed Michael’s group was intense.  An anomaly:  I was developing a new sport that might one day contribute to my income, but I was  laid back.  Michael was one of a vast, to me colorless, lax population that many adults write off as disinterested in culture.  But he was up tight!

Michael Golding (LR) and his team Fool's Paradise
Every “event” his teens attempted was a see-saw challenge for them.  Every time they lost their confidence crumpled.  If they won, their triumph galvanized them for the next event.  Essentially the match was  Fun for us but Life for them. I saw that Soul could no longer play to lose, but as our concentration and energy picked up, so did Michael’s.

We lost!  I was flabbergasted, limp, crawling with uncomfortable surprise.  Michael’s team leapt directly into a sports cliché. They crowed, they spurted energy, they slapped five and clapped each other on the back, they ran around the room.  Some jumped on the couch, then mocked our adult superiority and summoned a phony sympathy for us losers.  Still there was more to come: they went over details from their training, their minute-to-minute expectations, the match itself—event by event.  Where they had lagged, where they’d surged ahead.  At that embarrassing moment I realized: we had made converts.  We had in fact invented  a sport.

1974: we were invited to Toronto by Howard’s friends at HomeMade Theater.  A half dozen Canadian directors were invited to sit in on a trial match.  These men and women quarreled for two hours, questioning the names we’d  assigned each event,  rules of play, standards for judging, number of players.  For instance, could two or more players from one team play two or more from another?  What emerged was tighter, more competitive—with  a Canadian sparkle and practicality.

HomeMade Theatre
Home Made Theater  promptly combed Ontario for teams and found about 8 groups willing to play into a tournament.  I was astonished at their diversity.  On one hand was the national theatre school, composed of affluent giants who treated the Olympix as they would life after graduation: it was  something to overcome,  to win--from finding lodging to locating auditions, from making friends of agents to winning jobs in all media. Their play was boisterous. 

On the other hand was a team of Mummers, who circle Lake Huron by whatever  transportation they can find, inquiring as they go if some family would like a show mounted in their living room or barn.  They adapt what they carry in their back packs to the tastes of the family—much like the players that Hamlet uses to “catch the conscience of a king.” Where do they eat and sleep?  with the family for which they play, so their material better not disappoint.

That summer Howard  and I were hired to behave like Mummers in the northern ski area—with  amateur ski workers  willing to face rough competition,  at a Lions Club gala, from dentist teams we trained.  The event I remember best was a match between 16 year olds who welcomed  interruptions during training at their posh club and 13 year olds who met in a meager barn and paid attention--for days.  Much to the surprise of the swank team the younger set won  easily.  The match revealed social status—upset.

Next came the search—city by city-- for funds to pay for the sustenance of a program whose participants  could claim it produced value: it generated skills, brought isolated people together,  fostered teamwork.  It was also cheap, fun, easy to mount, psychologically rewarding and attractive to many ages.

First came New York City,  where we had already identified and pursued a dozen foundations--without success.  Now we broached the school system and were invited to the Bronx.  On my first visit I arrived  8am at a school where the teacher had not yet arrived.
I approached  a group of students, told them what I had for them and got them playing. By the time the teacher  started looking for me, she found her kids in full swing.  Eventually 11 schools joined the Bronx league, which was run by a student of Paul Sills—Paul Lazar. Every  year there was intense competition; every year the same school won.

I remember a match  at which  not enough students showed to form one team:  our bottom line was 5, but only two boys were present.  I broke my rule and allowed them to play.  One of our judges, Daren Daly, had traveled miles on his red motor bike to attend; he was dubious.  But surprisingly the team of two managed to pull off all ten events , adapting suggestions to avoid the void of mothers, for instance, or sisters.  Daren and I were amazed.  Their handicap had given the two  double zest, imagination and confidence.  In comparison the big team they played looked limp.

Dealing with the Bronx Board was tough.  It didn’t want to pay Group Creativity the small salaries allotted for coaching.  Eleven coaches got paid, but I got almost nothing of their checks.  I couldn’t invest more of my own  money in phone, mail, transportation, props, xerox, photos.  I gave up N.Y.C.

Next: Chicago, where I visited for several months in 1981.  Jo Forsberg let me teach at her theater school, where a new student, Charna Halpern, implored me to give her a scholarship. Charna had been teaching  disadvantaged  girls and felt improv offered no terrors more difficult to cope with.  In the first weeks of our association, I sensed she was going to take over any Chicago program that came to life.  The first teams played on a spectacular all-metal floor in a local bar.  “The Reader” gave us great press, and soon we had six volunteer coaches to train all the teams that wanted to enter a Chicago league.

David Shepherd and Charna Halpern
Training was often done in six hours—on six packs, in basements.  We started to get what we called “affinity” teams--professional actors, seniors, cops, rabbis, psychiatrists, musicians, lawyers, an all women’s team.  It seemed word of mouth was by lightning.  When I visited New York, I heard at parties that this great game was embracing the Mid-West.  When in Chicago, the thing to do was Improv Olympix.

We played Cook County jail, where men were dumbfounded to discover that there was something they could excel at: an improv match  against a middle-class team with white women on it. This is where Charna first tried out her way of announcing scores.  She announces the loser and point number first, giving that team the hope that they won, and then the winner with a greater point number. However the jail had no money for a permanent program giving inmates the experience of winning.

Next I took on the Chicago school system, but I didn’t have the right connections.  I ran into the same attitude that I found in most NYC boros: the schools know what you have and don’t want  it.  The schools know that your program will not succeed.  The schools are sure that your design is wrong for their classes and your curriculum is inadequate, so please don’t send it.  I didn’t have the razzle-dazzle video that Canada was about to produce.

One night on Amtrak, passing the jail with a match in progress, on my way home to my wife Connie and my kids in NYC, I was gripped by sadness.  I was slowly realizing that my best designs for improv formats were never going to earn me much cash, and that I was going to have to support my family on money earned in sales, copy writing, PR, children’s books, personnel, administration—not to mention a few other gigs too demeaning to mention.

Of course, if Lazar and Halpern and Howard and Willie were willing to write proposals not for the Olympix but for autistic children or unemployed girls at risk or psychiatric patients,  if we could afford to turn out a dozen grant applications a year, one of us might have scored.  Once at least.  We might have proved that the Olympix just happened to be the ideal way to benefit this or that population.  If I had to do it again?

The end of the Chicago story is revealing.  We’d played Second City, where Joyce Sloane allowed our annual tournament to take place Monday nights at her main stage.  We’d played a downtown  bank auditorium during a festival in the Loop.  We’d acquired great press--due often to our photographer, Virgil Shrock, who captured  any match we sent him to any time of day or night.

Thousands had enjoyed watching our format or playing into it.  National tournaments had brought teams to Chicago or NYC.  But Charna was not making a living.  Unlike the Canadians she complained our games demanded too much  competition, which made them less commercial.  She and the late Del Close closed shop and went up the street to Wrigley Park,  There they founded a training program for comedians.  Not satisfied with this, they opened a branch in L.A.  Both pack customers in much of the week.

Del Close and Charna Halpern
 In 1984 the International Olympic was held in LA. I decided to attend.  I’d present our new format at a public location.  The timing was perfect.  Competition in performance would meld with competition in sports. My trip began with a triumph: I got permission to use Santa Monica pier, which was thick with  strollers and customers every weekend. Ads and flyers were picked up smartly by the press, and I was welcomed by a large improv community that knew who I was. What did I imagine would happen if I appealed to the city for as many teams as I could imagine—each speaking its own tongue? I suspected we could reveal  a rich cultural mix that was not possible on track,  high board or wrestling mat.

I arranged to meet  a real Russian restaurant owner and get him to allow my brand new Russian assistant to train Russians to improvise.  Carefully I prepared him by speaking of the magic of improv, the discoveries it made possible, its delightful evanescence,  the comic undercurrents in any dramatic situation, the characters uncovered by improv,  its commercial acceptance on TV.  I promised to bring matches onto his stage.

He smiled.  He understood?  He paused. He considered what to say. Then he started to sing.  His his eyes shone but his voice was lead.
I didn’t get his meaning.  Could he be making ponderous love to a style, a carefully crafted anthem,  a musical masterpiece that had exemplified Russian art for centuries?  Was he saying, "Improvisation cannot equal this solidity.  Improvisation is for performers who can’t feel this surge of belief.  Improvisation cannot exist in the Russian heartland.”

But suppose he had said “yes.”  Suppose a dozen cultural groups
asked to be trained.  Where were the Chicago coaches that would
appear magically in basements bearing the six-packs that
guarantee a team is formed in six hours?  

Would the team perform in English?  If not, where would I find
judges who understood the languages used by both teams playing? Who would have trained the Mexican team, the French team, the Indian, Iraqi, Tibetan, Ethiopian, Brazilian, Serbian....teams? What criteria would I use to judge when  a team was  ready to compete?   All such considerations were swept aside by my mania.  And mania is a welcome state of being in the tinsel and celluloid corridors of LA.  

I remember--in  a bout of loneliness--phoning the Coach of the Chicago police team  “Magnum Farce” to get phone numbers of his cast, then inviting them all to fly to LA and appear on the Santa Monica stage.  Leave their jobs for lodgings I would be paying for at a salary unknown.  I wanted them because they had come in second twice at annual tournaments.  They had improvised my favorite Time Dash to the theme of “filing:”  in the first frame a group of officers belittle an unpleasant know-it-all.  In the second this same incompetent is handing out orders that irritate them.  In the last frame the nebbish has graduated to Head of the Department,  and (still filing) his former critics are all in fear of him.

Magnum Farce stayed in Chicago; policemen are seldom manic.
I did run workshops, train teams, set up performance schedules.
Sensing overload,  I did ask Howard to come assist.  He arrived
promptly after my phone call.  I did find video coverage.  More and more local people became involved, until I was overwhelmed  by detail: presentation, sales, training, PR, organization.  My program appeared to be successful, and success was killing me.  The best thing that could happen to me would be the end, toward which I improvised as I went  along.

My best memory: two German tourists were given Silent Wrestling to play.  They improvised a vast silence between “Der auto ist kaput” and “Ach, mein Gott.” Effortless.  Effortlessly Canada won the competition. Something else happened in LA.  Howard discovered an electronic link between  3 widely separated stages, where it was possible for three teams to improvise simultaneously in what I remember was called a “slow scan;”  the listener heard only a portion of what was broadcast.  Ingenious.  Futuristic.  Suggestive of future technologies.  But a reason to visit LA?

The Canadian Olympic Games (CIG) started in New York.  Chicago City Limits, located far west on 42nd St, invited us to hold international matches on their stage.  Only Canada and the USA were involved.  Ottawa  high school students were guided by Willie Wyllie, who later ran the Stage Fright team.  The Canadian kids spent the night of the match at the home of Barbara Caporale’s parents,  where  there was just enough rug and sofa room to accommodate 20 boys and girls. We all discovered that their experience of travel,  comradeship and performance was intoxicating.  These elements propel CIG to this day.  

Michael Golding, referee of teenage match at Chicago City Limits, with Willie Wyllie

Canadian teenagers with Chicago City Limits cast
Stage Fright, producers of the Canadian Improv Games, Willie Wyllie, center.
Willie asked me to give him rights to the games.  I demanded a percentage of his gross as royalties, which he said would be nil (he was right).  We dickered and eventually I avoided  a nasty falling out by my giving in.  Since then he’s been immoderately generous, inviting me, Golding and Jerome to many Ottawa  anniversaries. 

On my 80th birthday, as I peered out of the window of my office near Amherst, I spied what appeared to be Willie.  “Must be someone who looks like him,” I rationalized, “since the real Willie is in Ottawa.  I came to the same conclusion with Golding: “he’s in L.A.”  But Willie, Golding and Howard were all three really in my backyard.  They played into an impromptu show for my guests, and we spent half the night catching up.

Michael Golding, Willie Wyllie, Howard Jerome, David Shepherd
David Shepherd's 80th birthday party
Today in Canada 300 high school teams start matches by chanting an oath originally inspired by Howard:

            We have come together
            in the spirit of loving competition
            to celebrate the (CIG or Improv Olympix).
            We promise to uphold the ideals of improvisation:
            to cooperate with one another, 
            to learn from each other,
            to commit ourselves to the moment
            and above all....
            to have a good time.

The CIG does not celebrate and exercise 10 theatrical skills.  But it gives thousands of kids an alternative to the dreary monotony and isolation they may experience in high school. Self-esteem (and often lives) have been saved by the CIG, which has endured only because thousands of young Canadians have learned over decades how to manage.  For instance, they  have  cut the games down to 5.  In their words:

            Character Event portrays characteristics such as flamboyant or bashful,
            Life Event shows an event perceived to be pivotal--with sincere and realistic emotion,
            Story conveys  a story with beginning, middle and end,
            Style projects a style of film, literature, etc.,  such as children’s book or film noire,
            Theme explores an aspect of a given topic such as “communication” or “choices.”

There are a dozen regional tournaments,  with  winners traveling to Ottawa  for annual finals.  Improvisation has truly demanded to be treated as a sport.  Teams are now allowed  to enter CIG by shooting video of their play and sending it to be judged.

What I enjoy most about CIG are,  first, their warmups,  which are held in one room.  Open the door and you are assaulted by many energies in boisterous tumult.  You may predict the approach of each team to the games.  Later when  they play you notice how their warmup  prepared each for competition.  It’s a miracle to see teams suddenly achieve  the seamless interaction of its players. 

Second I enjoy the dead eye concentration  of the coaches who serve as judges.  They take themselves very seriously because they may have coached  one of the teams on stage.  Some coach dozens of teams in one region, such as Toronto—often with  no compensation:  a national program based solidly on love and commitment!

In the future we’ll see CIG branch into other countries—including the USA.  We can expect more matches on TV  and maybe more participation by younger children and adults. After all, there is nothing about the Olympix that restricts it to a teen activity.

Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games. Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. He wrote and co-produced the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre" (available for free on YouTube).  His book, Listen Harder, a collection of essays, curriculum and memorabilia on improvisation and educational theatre, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and CreateSpace. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development.