Sunday, August 25, 2013

Diary of a Teen Improviser in the 70s by Michael Golding

December 2, 1977:  I am at the wheel of David Shepherd’s Chevy Nova, hurtling along upstate New York in the middle of the night.  David is beside me, asleep.  We’ve been invited to the premiere of the Canadian Improv Games (CIG) at a high school in Ottawa, Ontario.  The format is based on David’s Improv Olympics, and we’re both excited about how the Canadians will interpret his latest creation, which they’ve geared specifically for teenagers.

Suddenly, the car hits a patch of black ice and is sent spiraling out of control, spinning wildly until coming to an abrupt halt in a ditch.  I’m still gripping the steering wheel as a cloud of dirt envelops the car.  All I can hear is the sound of my rapid panting and pounding heart as I attempt to compose myself.  With his eyes still closed, David’s velvety voice breaks the silence: “You were driving too fast.”

It’s safe to say that some of my deepest, long lasting relationships are from the world of improv.  David Shepherd introduced me to this world at the age of fourteen, during the summer of 1972, when I was a regular caller on his improvised radio show, The Responsive Scene.  When the show ended, David invited me and my friends to participate in his new format, The Improv Olympics, which he created with Howard Jerome, one of the actors and host of the radio show.  Forming a team called “Fool’s Paradise,” we were the first teenage group to participate in the Improv Olympics at the Space for Innovative Development in Manhattan, December 1972.  Little did I realize that I was at the epicenter of something extraordinary, which would ripple out and influence future generations of professional and non-professional improvisers.

Fool's Paradise warming up for an Improv Olympics match.
David and I developed a mentor/protégé relationship, and he welcomed me into his home.  My formative years were spent around the founding members of Compass and Second City, (which included) Paul Sills, Del Close, Severn Darden, Barbara Harris, Mina Kolb, Marty Friedberg, Jerry Stiller, Ann Meara, Mark Gordon, Andrew Duncan and Omar Shapli.  At the time, I thought they were all cool adults who liked to play, not realizing their significance in the annals of improv history. 

Compass, with Andrew Duncan, Barbara Harris & David Shepherd, Chicago 1955.

By the time I was sixteen, I was a walking encyclopedia on everything Compass.  However, I regarded that knowledge akin to my father talking ad nauseam about growing up during the depression.  Did you know that during the seminal days of Compass, the shows were so bad that members of the cast would often jump into Lake Michigan after a performance to cleanse themselves of improv shame?  Cool piece of improv trivia, which tends to lose its luster after hearing about it for the two hundredth time.

Despite all the stories, Compass wasn’t real to me.  Aside from an audio recording, which was lost in a flood, some photos and posters, there was virtually no evidence of the existence of Compass.  Paul Sills often speculated that “one day some PhD candidate will write his thesis on Compass, which will get filed away and never read.”  Then, Jeffrey Sweet’s book, “Something Wonderful Right Away” came out.  Chapter after chapter, I discovered stories in print that I’d been hearing about for years.  Apparently, Compass really did happen and these eccentric adults in David’s living room weren’t making these tales up.

As I improvised my way through high school, the Improv Olympics was evolving at an exponential rate.  Howard and David had gone to Toronto with the format in 1974, where they participated in Homemade Theatre’s annual Improv Festival.  Before their eyes, Homemade Theatre overhauled the Olympics, making it more theatrical and sports-like, adding specific scoring guidelines and events, (such as Time Dash, Space Jump and Emotional Hurdles) with professional and non-professional leagues.

Homemade Theatre's Improv Olympics, Toronto 1974.

Howard returned to Toronto in 1975 for the festival, but without David Shepherd.  Instead, he brought Stage Fright, a high school team from Ottawa trained by Howard to participate in the non-professional league of the Improv Olympics.

Stage Fright takes the stage with Howard Jerome, 1975.

After graduating high school, Willie Wyllie and the other members of Stage Fright wanted to give something back to the community, and produced the first CIG in 1977. Created by Willie and Howard Jerome, the new format involved several Ottawa high schools. Approximately 450 miles away, I was a sophomore at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, blissfully unaware that improv was about to take an international hold on my life.

That year, David Shepherd and I traveled to Ottawa as guests of CIG, (despite my botched attempt to kill us on the road), where I met Stage Fright for the first time and developed an instant connection with Willie Wyllie.  As was the case with meeting David and Howard, this friendship changed the course of my life.  Aside from our common improv bond, Willie and I are also the same age, born days apart in the same month.  Willie is Howard Jerome’s protégé, and to this day, the two are still extremely close.  The improv quartet that is David, Howard, Michael and Willie was born.

Left to right; Michael Golding, Willie Wylllie, Howard Jerome & David Shepherd.

There were two differences I detected between Shepherd and Jerome’s Improv Olympics and Wyllie and Jerome’s CIG.  First, was in the amount of events.  Eleven in the Improv Olympics.  Six in CIG; Character Relay, Story Throw, Emotional Hurdles, Freestyle, Space Jump and Evolutionary Pentathlon, (which David called Time Dash in his format).

Secondly, while providing high quality training in the techniques of improv to high school students was the principal objective for CIG, providing an arena for them to develop their skills in problem solving, group creativity, and communication was just as important.  Those interpersonal skills had academic value as well as personal.  Grades increased and students, who had never considered university before, were now looking to continue their education beyond high school.  If all that wasn’t mind-blowing enough, the life-saving potential of the program became clear almost immediately.  Year after year, students would go up to Willie and Howard thanking them for CIG, followed by “I was in bad shape.  I was doing drugs.  I was cutting school.  I was irresponsible. I was making bad choices.  Then, I met my improv family……..”  Over the course of CIG’s history, thousands of young lives were saved by the healing power of improvisation.

A year after graduating New York University, 1981, I was working in Public Relations during the day and as the assistant technical director of an Off-Off-Broadway theatre at night.  Suddenly I was faced with two life changing choices from David Shepherd and Willie Wyllie:  Go with David Shepherd to Chicago, where he was going to simultaneously work on his play, the Jonah Complex and the Improv Olympics through his connection with Second City, or move to Ottawa and work on CIG and other projects for Stage Fright.

David Shepherd & The Jonah Complex.
Paul Sills was also encouraging me to accompany David, feeling that immersing myself in all Chicago had to offer would be beneficial to me as an improviser and workshop director.  How was I supposed to support myself?  “Sling hash,” was Paul’s response, “That’s where you’ll hear all the best stories.” 

Admittedly, I struggled with this decision.  Eventually, I decided it was time to forge an improv identity separate from David, so I choose Ottawa.  I don’t think David missed having me as his assistant in Chicago.  Shortly after I arrived in Ottawa, David met Charna Halpern through Jo Forsberg.  Charna and David worked on the Jonah Complex and the Improv Olympics together, which was very successful, with professional and community leagues and “identity teams” such as Freudian Slippers (a team of psychiatrists) and the God Squad (a team of Rabbis).

God Squad at the Chicago Improv Olympics, 1981.
Stage Fright smuggled me across the Canadian border, an operation that included no less than two attempted border crossings and an RCMP pursuit.  Apparently, when you show up with a thousand dollars in cash, a ton of luggage and no return date, people get suspicious.  Stage Fright put me immediately to work on CIG.  Getting up at the crack of dawn, Willie and I would grab breakfast at a McDonald’s drive-through, then spend the day hitting high school after high school where I conducted workshops, refereed matches, acted as a judge and participated in planning sessions in the evening with the high school drama teachers.

 Playbill from 3rd annual tournament.
After living in Ottawa for two years, I decided to return to New York in 1983, the same year Shepherd returned from Chicago, where the Improv Olympics, now helmed by Charna Halpern and Del Close, morphed into iO. 
Charna Halpern & Del Close @ iO Chicago

By this time, CIG was spreading to more high schools in Ottawa.  Through-out the eighties and early nineties, I returned to Ottawa several times a year to conduct workshops for CIG and occasionally guest as a judge.  As the expansion of the program included more high schools, the rules were modified to reduce the school vs. school competition.  This was done by requiring students to perform with peers from other schools.  The Great Canadian Theatre Company allowed Stage Fright to use their facilities for CIG’s matches, although one year the students had to perform on a stage with an Elizabethan set, and the National Arts Centre became a supporter as the program began to expand into neighboring cities.

National Arts Centre
In 1992, shortly after moving to Los Angeles, I sold a screenplay to Disney, which was never made, and for the next ten years had my spirit slowly obliterated by the Hollywood dream factory.  It’s everything you’ve read about, and more.  Ten years later, 2002, it was the 25th anniversary of the Canadian Improv Games.  Willie Wyllie got me there the way he knows best, through guilt.  “Michael, David and Howard are going to be there. You have to be there. You’ll regret it if you don’t.  It’s going to be historic.”  What made me finally book my flight was Willie’s assurance that this was probably going to be the last year for CIG.  It was time to give the program a decent Viking funeral.  Then again, I was told the same thing by Willie for the fifth, tenth and fifteenth anniversary as well.  By CIG's good fortune, something always came through at zero hour, providing the program with renewed life. 

Maxing out my VISA card, I made it to the anniversary.  It was the first time David Shepherd, Howard Jerome, Willie Wyllie and I were together in the same time zone in ten years.  It was wondrous and overwhelming.  CIG was now nation-wide, encompassing 300 high schools and over 3,000 students.  Gone was mixing students up from various schools into teams, each school had their own specific team.  The events were overhauled as well, simplifying the rules and making the structures less complex.  The events were cut down to five, emphasizing specific arts skills: Life, Theme, Style, Story and Character.  The National Arts Centre was now a full sponsor and the location for the annual national tournament.

But, what stood out to me the most was that CIG now had a specific style.  There were up to eight players on each team, and the scenes now took on a Harold-like mosaic.  The entire team performs in each event, and in four minutes, two person scenes, monologues, group song, dance and activity spring out in a burst of energy after a 15 second huddle to determine the plan of action from an audience suggestion.  It was thrilling to watch as an immediate problem was being solved on the spot.

Canadian Improv Games National Festival at the NationalArts Centre, Ottawa.
It wasn’t difficult to ascertain how this new style came about.  The sensibilities, humor and intelligence of the artistic director at the time, Alistair Cook, infected his staff like an improv virus, which in turn spread to the teenage players.  The man had a clear vision, and engendered a level of loyalty from his staff that I’ve rarely encountered in the theatre world.

The referee and lines-men, who gather suggestions from the audience, was now a vaudeville-like show unto itself during the tournament.  Dave Morris set the referee mold – affable, engaging, knowledgeable and able to switch seamlessly into disciplinarian mode and back without any pretense or guile when the audience occasionally became rowdy.  His legacy was immortalized in the film “In The Moment,” a documentary about CIG directed by alumni Sandra Chwialkowska.

The high point of the 25th anniversary was a midnight workshop for the trainers, conducted by me, Howard and David.  We each took a half hour portion.  A few hours later, we retreated to David’s room and improvised together until dawn.  This has since become our usual evening ritual at the national festival.  Whenever all three of us attend the games, we retreat to one of our rooms after the show, and play until we can barely stay awake.

Fast forward ten years, April 3rd – 8th, 2012 to be exact.  Once again I’m in Ottawa for the CIG Nationals with another milestone to commemorate – thirty five years!  There’s a distinctly different innovative vibe to the festival, which I attribute to Al Connors, the new artistic director and president of the games.  The week long workshop schedule is more diverse, covering story, character, script writing, long form, status, monologues, environment and the importance of silence, something novice improvisers traditionally shy away from.  I was proud to conduct the first coaches’ workshop, sharing my educational theatre experience with teachers from all across Canada and assisting Howard Jerome in presenting Life-Play, David Shepherd’s latest creation where people improvise together on the phone.

 Howard Jerome administers the CIG oath.

At the shows, teams were pushing themselves further, exploring diverse styles ranging from clowning to melodrama.  The emotional impact of issues relevant to teenagers resonated with the audience through the power of long pauses.  In his second year as head referee, Chris Ramelan is immensely likable on stage, projecting an aura of innocence that often belies his devilish sense of humor which hits the audience with very little warning.

Over the past decade CIG has brought me out to the national festival many times to conduct workshops and moderate forums.  In 2009, I was given the honorary title of “CIG Ambassador to the USA,” which came with a sash and personal request from Briana Rayner, the administrative director of CIG.  Wear the sash through customs.  I have yet to honor this request and I sense Briana’s patience is waning. 

The Ambassador receives his first CIG salute.

Later that year, Willie Wyllie and CIG financed a documentary about David Shepherd, directed by Mike Fly, an alumnus of CIG, and written by me.  Willie wanted there to be a concrete record of all of David’s formats and for everyone involved with CIG, past, present and future, to know that they are all part of David’s legacy.  As of 2011, Willie made "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre" available on YouTube for the entire improv community to enjoy, free of charge.

Canadian Improv Games takes over Parliament
It’s ironic that in a season where CIG lost a third of their budget due to a shift in philanthropic focus from one of their sponsors, everyone involved, be they staff, volunteers, students, coaches or teachers, were more optimistic about the continuation of the program than ever before.  You can’t stop the Canadian Improv Games.  In the words of Briana Rayner, “This year was simply magic.”  I couldn’t agree more, although I did forget to bring my sash for the 35th anniversary.  I need to take my role as CIG Ambassador to the USA a lot more seriously.

And scene!

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. The photo of "Stage Fright" running on stage in 1975 includes me (back centre, looking to the right) and Willie Wylie, my partner on the team, to my right, (the tall guy with the glasses). What a blast from the past!

  2. Then you will enjoy this - the video I took the still from. It's in two parts. Second one is also on my Vimeo site.