Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Off The Cuff With David Shepherd by Michael Golding

David Shepherd is one of my oldest friends.  I’m not referring to his age, although he is approaching Jurassic status. Our friendship passed the forty year mark last year and I’m grateful to still have him in my life.

During production of David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with David, he created Compass, the first improv theatre company in the United States with Paul Sills.  Compass was the predecessor of Second City.  David also created, with Howard Jerome, the Improv Olympics, which influenced the birth of the Canadian Improv Games and i.O.  That’s just two of the dozens of formats he has created over the past sixty years.

Several years ago, David broke his hip and spent a couple of months in a convalescent center undergoing physical therapy.  At the time, we were working on his new format Life-Play, a series of games designed to be played over the phone.  His misfortune became an opportunity for us to play more frequently, testing and re-designing the games, while creating new ones.  Most of our sessions were scheduled in advance.  Other times I simply picked up the phone whenever I had the urge to play.  David was always game, even once when he was on the toilet waiting for a nurse to retrieve him.

With Howard Jerome at the Canadian Improv Games National Festival, 2002.

One time I suggested we forgo the games and simply play a scene about two characters having a conversation on the phone.  David decided that gay marriage should be the theme.  Together we conjured up a scenario where we were a couple, and I was out of town tending to my mother’s funeral in Florida.

The scenario began with us amicably checking in on each other.  Just the usual small-talk long-term couples have.  As our conversation progressed, delving into more personal issues, David became increasingly hesitant and evasive, especially when I mentioned how much I missed him and couldn’t wait to get home.  “There’s no reason to rush back, Michael.” he said coldly.

My heart began to beat faster.  “What’s going on, David?”  The silence on the other end of the line felt interminable.  “Michael, I’ve had a lot of time to think while you’ve been away.  I feel our relationship has come to an end.”

Improvising with David in Belchertown, Mass - 2010.

My fury was real.  I couldn’t believe he was breaking up with me over the phone!  I accused him of being a coward, waiting for me to be safely out of town before being clobbered by the bad news.

David admitted that one of the main factors in breaking up was that he wanted to have children, something I could not give him.  I pleaded that was nonsense, we could adopt.  That was not sufficient for David.  He wanted a child that came from his own loins and he had found a woman who was willing to provide him with one.  That was too much for me to handle and the scene ended after I yelled out “I’m hanging up on you!” Scene!

Silence followed for about thirty seconds.  Then, with a sense of relief in his voice, David confessed “That was weird.”  I agreed and we started evaluating the scene.  From my perspective, I approached the scene as someone who missed his companion, and was sincerely waylaid when it became a break-up scene.  Didn’t see that coming.

Defending himself, David reasoned that he was afraid because of my “volatility” and felt distance was the safest way for him to be honest with me.  That hurt.  “When have I EVER given you cause to be afraid of me?  And incidentally, you decided it was a good idea to tell me you wanted to have kids for the FIRST TIME EVER in our relationship as I’m cleaning out my dead mother’s condo?”

We fell right back into the scene.  For another ten minutes.  After that round, I was emotionally exhausted.  David was ecstatic.  “That felt more real!  It was juicy! What did you think?”

I exhaled my opinion through clenched teeth.  “I think you’re an asshole and I can’t believe I wasted the best years of my life with you.”

David bellowed a bombastic “HA!  Beautiful!”

After we hung up, I looked at the phone and said “Yeah, laugh it up Guru-boy.  Wait until my lawyer gets his hands on you.”

Occasionally, I’ll participate in the weekly Life-Play conference call, so I can play with David.  Since our experiment, whenever someone pitches “gay couple” as our relationship, one of us will invariably ask for another suggestion, adding “That scene has been played.”

At the 2011 Boston Improv Festival with David, Howard Jerome and Nancy Fletcher.

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. 



  1. If you'd like to know more about David Shepherd,here is a documentary about his career:

  2. again ... a pleasure to read your writing/feeling/thinking ...
    stay in touch ...