Wednesday, May 10, 2017

From the Archives: David Shepherd’s Improvisational Theatre Notes

I was in Ottawa recently for the 40th anniversary of the Canadian Improv Games (CIG), a nation wide program for high school students who perform improvised scenes in teams based on suggestions from the audience. During the school year, teams participate in regional tournaments. The winning team from each region then goes on to the National Festival and Tournament held in Ottawa in April at the National Arts Centre. CIG was created by Willie Wyllie and Howard Jerome, inspired by the Improv Olympics, created by David Shepherd and Howard Jerome. Along with Paul Sills, David Shepherd was the producer of North America's first professional improvisational theatre The Compass, which was the forerunner of the Second City.

A week before the National Festival this year, I spent a few days at the home of Howard Jerome in Hamilton, so that we could attend a CIG fundraiser together in Toronto. While I was at Howard’s home, I dug through his improv archives to see if there was any material I could add to David Shepherd’s collection, which is now housed at Northwestern University. Most of the material I came upon was from the Improv Olympics, including the Spring 1976 issue of Nous Journal, a local Ottawa newspaper. Howard Jerome and David Shepherd were in town at the time to conduct Improv Olympic workshops at various high schools and Howard convinced the editors to devote their Spring issue to improvisation.

The issue includes descriptions of the Improv Olympic events (Time Dash, Emotional Hurdles, Character Relay, Space Jump, Silent Wrestling, Sound Swim), warm-up games and educational tips. What I found particularly fascinating about the issue, which I am sharing, is an essay written by David Shepherd which serves as both a history lesson and the foundation of his philosophy about why we should all be improvising every day – (which we do whether we’re aware of it or not). Enjoy.

Improvisational Theatre Notes
By David Shepherd

Improvisation is one of the oldest kinds of theatre. Five hundred years ago families of Italian Players made their living going from town to town doing “Commedia.”  This was a live soap opera – all improvised in parks, streets and festivals. If the players managed to keep their characters interesting, then the public would come back day after day. When people stopped paying, the troupe moved on.

Each players studied a couple of handbooks about his character – one full of speeches he could use, the other full of “bits” he could do. These books were handed on from mother to daughter (or father to son) as young people in the family got old enough to play the standard parts of Doctor, Captain, Servant, etc.  In his youth, Moliere played in a similar group.

As soon as the troupe arrived in a town its members would collect as much local gossip as possible about the people they’d be playing for. Each show was based on a situation invented for that audience. If after a few minutes this idea led nowhere, the players simply stopped. With no embarrassment they said to the audience: “Sorry. Our improvisations didn’t work. Let’s try again.” They huddled, invented a new situation, and stared all over.

When a player got in trouble he fell back on what he’s learned from one of the two books. The Captain, for instance, might start telling the audience how he was about to die! …. For the love of a farm girl. Arlechino the servant might mime a fly buzzing around his head. He’d track down that imaginary fly until he caught it in his cupped hand and then – ate it!

Improvisational theatre exists today in Toronto, where the Second City Troupe knows how to take a suggestion from the audience for an improvisation about our Canadian life. They also do a show based entirely on scenes that were first improvised, then memorized and set.  

Improvisation works best among people who know and can trust each other. It does not work on conflict. We have to cooperate in many ways in order to play:

We must agree on where we are (for instance, if I decide that a giant safe is against this wall, then you can’t walk through that space).

We must agree on who we are (for instance, if you say you’re my mother, then I have to accept you as my mother).

We must agree on what we’re doing together.

In improvisational theatre there is no need for a painted set.  Nor do you need a script. You don’t have to have thousands of watts of stage lighting. You don’t even need a stage. And in fact, improvisational theatre works better if you don’t have stage, lights, set and curtain. Because without these limitations, you have the freedom to explore.

In this issue of NOUS JOURNAL, you’ll see how to do three things:

1.     experience the freedom and fun of improvisation (this takes only a few minutes.)
2.     use improvisation to write a group scene that’s half prepared, half improvised (this takes an hour)
3.     use improvisation to put on a show for yourselves or for the class next door (this takes two hours)

Remember: there’s nothing new or strange about improvisation. You’ve been doing it all your life:

For instance, if you’ve ever pretended you were angrier than you really were – or sadder, or happier – just for the fun of it…..

If you ever pretended you were a hockey star or a finicky grandmother or a down-and-out bum (with no script to tell you what to say)……

If you ever imagined (with a friend) that you were in some jungle hideaway or rocket ship or fancy party….

If so, you were improvising. It’s natural to play a feeling, character or place that you don’t usually experience. It’s healthy to relax once in a while, let your hair down and your feelings out. Live without concentrating on being yourself. Enjoy stepping into another’s shoes, onto another planet, under another feeling. 


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. 

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