Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Improv Archives by Michael Golding

Somehow, I’ve become the improv archivist.   Always had a healthy stash of vintage memorabilia, as a result of my friendship with David Shepherd.  The basement of his country house in Armonk, New York, was a shrine to Compass; posters, flyers, scenario plays, press articles and pictures, neatly preserved in albums and file folders.  Unfortunately, a flood in the early 1980s took out nearly a third of his collection, including some reel-to-reel recordings of Compass.

Shortly after the 2009 Canadian Improv Games National Festival (inspired by David’s Improv Olympics), Willie Wyllie, co-founder of the format, recruited me and Mike Fly, an improviser and filmmaker from Toronto (Sexy Nerd Girl, Versus Valerie and Space Janitors) to shoot a series of interviews with David on his fifty-plus year career in improv.  Originally intended as a web series, Mike Fly had a vision that resulted in us making a full-length documentary, much to the chagrin of Willie, who was financing the project.  I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a director who was more confident, versatile and innovative than Mike, which is why I was surprised when he confessed one night that this was his first feature-length project.

Mike Fly and I spent four days filming David at his home in Belchertown, Massachusetts.  When it came time to get digital shots of his pictures, I was shocked when David came out of his office with a box, and dumped the contents onto the floor.   Gone were the days of his meticulous file keeping system. Mike set up the borders for the pictures, and one by one I handed him a photo to be digitized.  This process took us close to two hours - six, if Mike didn’t stop me from commenting on every shot (“Holy shit! Do you know what this is? It’s the holy grail of improv pictures!”).

Compass cast: Severn Darden, Larry Arrick, Elaine May, Shelley Berman, Mike Nichols, Rose Arrick & Barbara Harris - 1955.
Back home in Los Angeles, I plowed through the pictures on my laptop that Mike emailed me from Toronto.  We categorized them into files (Playwrights Theatre Club, Compass, Second City, Improv Olympics, etc.).  The largest was our miscellaneous file - great shots, but not relevant for the documentary. 

Little known Shepherd format.  Unfortunately, not enough material to cover in documentary. 

Despite the vast collection David gave us, there were still gaps in the timeline.  We managed to fill some of those in with pictures from the archive department at the University of Chicago.  David had donated a great deal of his memorabilia to the university.  I procured several discs from the department, which included a healthy selection of shots from the early days of Second City.  Again, many were not relevant for the documentary, but still spectacular in terms of improv history.  Those found a special home in my laptop.

Robert Klein & Fred Willard, Second City 1965
I started scouring the internet for pictures I knew existed, but weren’t in David’s or the University of Chicago’s collection.  Image search from Google and Bing were helpful, but the biggest finds came from magazine and newspaper articles from the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Maybe one or two found their way into the documentary.  Others, yep, express lane into my laptop.

Paul Sand, Severn Darden & Melinda Dillon in an ad selling advertising to liquor companies.

Shortly after we made the documentary available on YouTube, I realized that the hundreds of pictures nestling in my laptop weren’t doing anyone any good by remaining there.  So, I decided to share them with the improv community, mostly through various Facebook improv pages.  The response was immediate, unexpected and gratifying.

Alan Arkin, Paul Sills and Anthony Holland at Second City, 1961
First person I heard from was Aretha Sills, who told me that her father Paul was not great at holding onto things from the early days.  So, it was a pleasure to send her shots from Playwrights Theatre Club and Compass.  Sheldon Patinkin, with his incredible memory, was able to recall touching, personal anecdotes that provided a wonderful background to the pictures I was posting on a Chicago Theatre site.  A group picture from Jo Forsberg’s Player’s Workshop evoked a warm memory from George Wendt about an improviser he was enamored with. 

George Wendt in Jo Forsberg's Player's workshop - 1973
When Bernie Sahlins passed away earlier in the year, I realized that I had a picture of him from my miscellaneous file in front of Second City on their opening night in 1959.  That became the most re-posted photo from my collection on Facebook.
Bernie Sahlins

Soon, people were coming to me with requests.  Charna Halpern was moving i.O. to a different location in Chicago. Did I have any unique shots of Del Close? Yes, I do. 
Joan Rivers & Del Close at Second City, 1961.

The curator of the Viola Spolin library exhibit at Northwestern University inquired if I was willing to clarify some photos and documents?  More than happy to.  A director from Second City in Chicago contacts me about submitting pictures for their upcoming celebration of the Playwrights Theatre Club. Done.  There is a Compass Improv Festival in St. Louis, Missouri.  Do I have shots from the original St. Louis Compass?  Sure do.

Playwrights Theatre Club brochure - 1953.

Jerry Stiller, Nancy Ponder & Alan Arkin at the St. Louis Compass, 1959.

These days, I’m trying to convince David Shepherd that a book of his vintage shots would be of enormous interest to the improv community.  Aside from the documentary, many have appeared in Jeffery Sweet’s Something Wonderful Right Away and Janet Coleman’s The Compass.  But believe me my improv brothers and sisters, there are scores of other pictures that have not been viewed by the public for many decades.  It’s time they found their way back into the light.

Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at migaluch@yahoo.com. Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games. Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in New York & 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. His screenplay credits include "Celebrity Pet" for the Disney Channel and 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, 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.

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