Sunday, January 26, 2014

David Shepherd's Anthology of Improv Formats

Years ago, a publisher suggested to David Shepherd that he put together an anthology of improv formats that were developed, tested and produced over the decades through his organization, Group Creativity Projects.  David felt that non-professionals should be the target audience.

Shortly after the publication of his book, “That Movie in Your Head” a guide to improvising movies, David recruited me to work with him on the anthology.  Unfortunately, after some initial work, conflicting projects put the anthology on the back burner.

In addition to outlines, interviews, notes and one full chapter, I have David's forward to the anthology in my archive files, which I'm sharing here.  As always, it’s filled with unique Shepherd improv insights.

David Shepherd’s Forward to Format Book - 9/2002

Improvisation has rushed like a tide across the cultural landscape of the United States.  This has happened since I produced the first store front cabaret in Hyde Park, Chicago – 1955.  It was called COMPASS because I wanted to explore how social values evolve generation by generation.  It was improvised because no one we knew could write the material we needed.

100 years ago improv would have attracted serious detractors – those who demanded conformity, who refused to let the point of a scene or the moral of a story be discovered.  After all, they felt, if you want your appendix out, you don’t ask the surgeon to improvise.  Paying customers back then felt that whatever they paid to see on stage or screen, in novel or poetry, should be set.  Some writer should put out some energy to justify charging for a ticket! The pauses and contradictions of real life should not be tolerated on the professional stage.

I believe that everyone can improvise, that people follow improv procedures in their daily lives:
  • They relate strongly to their environment.
  • They express a feeling of the moment.
  • They respond to those around them.
  • They choose a goal subconsciously when joining a group of people.
  • They work on accommodation, skillfully molding many relationships.
But in fact, a very small percentage of the population conspicuously takes the opportunity to improvise – whether with a comedy troupe, an experimental theatre, a dance group or a musical ensemble. Many feel that improvisation is too silly for them or too forbidding. They like being spectators; they don’t want to be seen because they haven’t put themselves in the hands of a Coach.  And they haven’t explored other jobs – from Sound to Costume, that need to be filled to make an improv performance complete.

Historically the first step in the development of the improv company was to design and manage it well enough so the audience would pay for it, which happened in 1955.  The next step is being taken now: getting the customer onto the stage and making his or her experience good. The third step will be to develop so many improv formats the audience has many choices: night by night they can see a different form of improv – and get involved, if they wish, as story teller, director, tech or player.

Sampling of Shepherd formats.

Imagine having a nearby facility where on Monday nights you can join a musical ensemble and on Tuesday a group that shoots video movies. On Wednesday night you’re free to join a team playing a theatre sport, and Thursday you can guide players performing in front of a video project. Depending on which format is the most popular, Friday is reserved for improvised poetry while Saturday is political satire – all achieved through guidelines and games.

That’s what this book is about: formats you can use in your town to create in the mode that suits you best. They are laid out here in a way that, we hope, makes them accessible to you and your group, be they friends, co-workers or family.  We give you an overview of the format, and then offer you activities that prepare you to master the format.  Since 1974, Group Creativity Projects has been making it possible for non-professional groups to create their own novel, newspaper, cabaret, movie, theme party, performance sport, radio program and interactive TV show.  When couch potatoes want to get off their couches, Group Creativity Projects is there.

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. 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 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this Michael.

    It is David at his best - justifiably critical, honest, and insightful. However, David never criticized someone or something without trying to provide a process for improvement. As sure as his heart beat was the belief that people of all ages and backgrounds want to (or at least need to) communicate the real truth about themselves and their worlds. His "formats" created methodologies to enable them to do so. It is a shame that his book will probably never be finished, but then why should it be? At age 89 he is still creating new formats - who has time to look back at one's work when there is still so much work left to do? David is an improv research scientist - he has conceptualized and provided the field trials for so much of what modern improv has become.

    Like you, but to a much lesser extent, I was mentored in theatre and in improv by David, and later had the opportunity to co-found (with Howard Jerome, a Shepherd disciple and collaborator) the Canadian Improv Games (CIG). Since 1977, CIG and its predecessor the High School Improv Olympics, have built upon David's conceptual work by offering improv training and performance opportunities for tens of thousands of teens from all along the 4,500 miles between Canada's coasts. CIG's work has such importance and impact on Canadian theatre that it is co-produced by Canada's National Arts Centre. And its genesis is only one implementation of only one of David's many formats.

    To see more about some of David's other "formats" and their implementations, view the full-length documentary about his work created by Mike Fly and Michael Golding (who wrote the original post that I am commenting on. Their documentary, "David Shepherd, A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre", as seen in numerous festivals, can be viewed on YouTube at

    Willie Wyllie
    Co-founder, Canadian Improv Games