Wednesday, October 23, 2013

David Shepherd's State of Improvisation

Thirty years ago, David Shepherd wrote an essay on the current state of improvisation.  Unfortunately, he didn't work on it further beyond the first draft and it's been nestling in my files since then. I recently took a look at it, and believe that many of the ideas and concepts David brings up are relevant to the current improv scene.  Would love to hear how the improv community feels about this. 

The Improvisational Scene: 1954 – 1984

By David Shepherd

In the 1950s, improvisation was widely successful for the same reasons I was originally attracted to it:

  •   Scenarios were fashioned without the meticulous work of the playwright.

  •   Players responded relevantly to the taste, mood, or concerns revealed by the audience’s suggestions.

  •  Plays were mounted with a minimum of memorization and rehearsal, sustaining freshness and  spontaneity.
(Omar Shapli & David Shepherd at Compass, 1955.)

But by the sixties, because of the success of Nichols and May, Mort Sahl, and others in taming hostile nightclub audiences, improvisation had become a tool for different purposes. 

  • The audience challenged performers to improvise the obscene, the outrageous, the unimaginable.

  •  Performers began to enjoy “laundering” audience suggestions to make them presentable.

  •  Improvisation became tied exclusively to comedy rather than content.

In the seventies, the focus of improvisation shifted from the nightclubs to television.  Rather than offer suggestions, the audience began to consider itself situation comedy writers for the stand-up “comics” improvisational players had become. Rather than take their cues from their own understanding of life, performers improvised what they remembered from soap operas and talk shows. 

(Mike Nichols & Elaine May.)
Now, in the eighties, improvisation seems to be headed down a disastrous path.  Last year, I saw the same “deep political insight” being developed by several improvisation companies, namely, that Ronald Reagan was really dead.  Now that their “corpse” has become president of the United States, I wonder what new insights we can expect from any of the hundreds of improvisational companies though-out the country.

Of course, if you believe in the basics defined by Viola Spolin (as I do), you know the bottom line of improvisation is intuitive, not intellectual.  What we are getting, however, is performers who operate almost exclusively from the head and audiences who hunger for “guts” – the more obscene, absurd, or bizarre the better.

The very success of improvisation on late-night TV has shifted the ideal away from the celebratory cabaret of a Paul Sills to the put-down skills of a Chevy Chase.  Creating the “where” has been replaced by choosing a “what,” from a stock of social pathologies’ promoted by the media.

So, improvisers of the eighties: when you go off to play with your public, keep in mind that the audience has been well-trained thru comedy writing and casting to expect a laugh every eight seconds. (That’s about a thousand gags in a row for two hours)

Audiences of the eighties: understand that many improvisers are not interested in revealing their identities or values, but only in twisting the situation you suggest to work up a routine for their “Saturday Night Live” audition.

We’ve reached a point where improvisation is successful to the extent that it has no similarity to real feelings or real life.  The stage is used to evade rather than explore the details of living in the decade whose fourth year has been so well publicized.

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. His screenplay credits include "Celebrity Pet" for the Disney Channel and the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre" (available 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. Would you mind if I forwarded this to David and see if he had any followup almost thirty years later?

    1. Not at all. Hopefully, other improvisers will do the same. There's not many of the icons left, and his insights are still potent.

  2. I am wondering if you have any other photos of Omar Shapli? He was my father-in-law. I know my husband would cherish any of his improv photos. Omar died three years ago (Dec. 29, 2010) and we miss him so.

  3. I don't want to enter my email address in the comments so I realize you have no way of reaching me. I am commenting again and turning on notifications so if you comment I will receive it.

    1. Unfortunately, that's the only photo I have of Omar. Possible that someone from the Compass/Playwrights days might. If you want to email me at I can give you some leads. .

  4. Boy is David right. When talking to modern improvisers, many have never heard of Viola Spolin. And if they've had, the comments range from "I don't understand it." to "We're way beyond Spolin. That's just the basics." I shake my head.
    I continue to follow the path Viola set for me. See my new site to have a look at what the games really look like.
    Michael, it looks like we are the torch bearers. Good luck!

  5. Gary, I was fortunate that, as a high school student in Canada in 1972, I had a teacher from England who used Spolin as the core for 4 years of theatre classes. It was like getting a Ph.D. in Spolin. Then I had the good fortune to work closely with David Shepherd for many years.

    38 years ago I co-founded the Canadian Improv Games (based originally on David Shepherd's Improv Olympics). The Games have grown dramatically and are now played by thousands of students in every Province in Canada. The National Championships of the Games are sponsored by and held each year at Canada's National Arts Centre.

    Spolin is number 1 on our recommended reading list. Unfortunately, less and less high school teachers are aware of her work and they have less time to use it because of the requirement to teach specific curriculum.

    For all I know, I may have been in the only high school in North America that taught 40 minutes of Spolin, every day, for 4 years!

    Just today I sent my l senior leadership team a picture from one of Michael's blogs and a short note to show them how the picture denoted Viola's training in practice. Glad to know that others continue to promote and advance her work.

  6. Not only was David right, but a predictor of the future when improvisation is now thought of as either a 'stream of consciouness' riff (ala Robin Williams) or the gag generated material on "Whose Line Is it Anyway."

  7. Not only was David right, but a predictor of the future when improvisation is now thought of as either a 'stream of consciouness' riff (ala Robin Williams) or the gag generated material on "Whose Line Is it Anyway."