Monday, April 11, 2016

From David Shepherd’s Journals: Working with Non-Professional Improvisers

David Shepherd, who in 1955 with Paul Sills created Compass, the first professional improv company in North America, has always been drawn to working with non-professional improvisers. He sort out groups that had no theatre experience from schools, churches, synagogues, senior citizen and community centers. David encouraged some groups to play in foreign languages, reasoning the audience would follow along if the emotion was sincere.

The Improvisation Olympics, which David created in 1972 with Howard Jerome Gomberg, (and which spawned i.O. in Chicago and the Canadian Improv Games in Ottawa, Ontario) was designed to promote interest in theatre. According to David, “Improvisational theatre, which involves no scripts or sets or props, is an ideal way to get people interested in the theatre. Also, the Improvisation Olympics, which is associated with sports, is an ideal way to involve young men and women in the theatre.”

In late 1981, David brought the Improvisation Olympics to Chicago. With Charna Halpern as his co-producer, the two designed a series of tournaments that involved professional and non-professional leagues. Several years later, David wrote about his observations working with non-professionals in his journal.

Chicago Improv Olympic handbook


From David's Journal. April 1986


Non-professionals can be interesting to observers because of intimacy. Intimacy prevents big flaws of non-professional "acting": exaggerated feeling, self-consciousness, forgetting lines, phony gestures, unnatural responses, interactions too slow or too fast, unbelievable characterization, imposing an idea of the scene that's not organic to the scene.

A coach can lead a few players into an intimate transaction, for instance at a bar or beauty parlor, at least for a few minutes. To do this the coach must know the desired transaction (e.g. betting on a game or gathering information about a trip). The coach must also know how to lead players into the intimate: explain it clearly, prevent players from veering away from it.


What’s happening in an intimate scene, players are performing for each other. Because the scene is already textured improv with innuendo, mockery, conscious exaggeration, apology, stoned agreement, etc., we accept it--even though it's done by non-professionals.  EXAMPLES: Polish cook and waiter fight in Polish; Colonel and friend discuss red cars and women; Connie puts Mark down, I relate to Scott Vehill about cleanliness.

The main advantage non-professionals have is authenticity. Their tiffs and laughter ring true; if you can catch them at an unguarded moment, you get dialog and action as interesting, I believe, as that of the professional. Another advantage: they don't burden the budget and may even contribute money to it. Another: if you're doing a piece about a local theme, a local player is more likely to get the point, the emotions, and the accent, than a professional imported for the production.


In 1984 I was in Los Angeles recruiting for teams to play into an ImprovOlympix. We already had the "Free Radicals" and the Canadian team, among others. "Why not a Russian team?" I asked, driving across town to a well known Russian restaurant. The owner listened to my story about teams of Chicago cops, rabbis, comedians, techs, inmates, musicians. He asked how we worked. I described a process: training of the team, commitment to competition, warm ups, taking a suggestion from the audiences, running with it, being scared, winning or losing, exactly what we’d been doing in Chicago.

In response, he sang to me, very slowly and loudly, the oldest, most traditional Russian folk song he could pick. His eyes and hands spoke about what he was doing: a national rejection of improvisation in favor of something known that's been tested, that expresses the same sentiment century to century, and that demands interpretation--tremolo, change of rhythm or volume, attack, dynamics.

So what can improvisation offer in response?

First of all improvisation represents the energy, not of individuals taking turns to speak or sing, but of a group. The product is only as strong as the group. If the group is not together; if members are not relating to each other, then the result is disappointing. On the other hand, sometimes the group plays far above its abilities. Improvisation also represents the insights and feelings of a group. You get up a totally new statement of a theme, or a totally new story, within minutes of meeting. There's an excitement in this speed, this forced growth of a seed that blossoms within an hour or two.

David Shepherd, center, working with a group of non-professional improvisers

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. Viewing improvisation as a collaborative endeavor, I never really understood the rationale behind adopting the formula of a competitive sporting event.

  2. Viewing improvisation as a collaborative endeavor, I never really understood the rationale behind adopting the formula of a competitive sporting event.

    1. Spolin felt the same way when David first told her about the format. But when she saw that the competition wasn't to be taken seriously and that her games were used to train the teams, she supported the format.