Thursday, August 1, 2019

IMPROV OLYMPIX HISTORY BY DAVID SHEPHERD

 
In 2007, David Shepherd's cousin suggested he write up the three most important programs of his life. First one David tackled, was the Improv Olympix (originally called the Improv Olympics, before the Olympic Committee threatened a lawsuit), which David co-created with Howard Jerome. David never got around to writing up the other two programs, having been sidetracked by the creation of a new format in 2008; Life-Play, improv games designed to be played over the phone. I recently found David's chapter on the Improv Olympix and it's a fascinating piece of history from his perspective.
 
IMPROV OLYMPIX HISTORY BY DAVID SHEPHERD
 
Beginning in the 1970’s theatre  saw a raft of innovations.  In Chicago, Del Close introduced his “Harold” format, for instance, by which  a small group creates a coherent  piece of 30-40 minutes from one audience suggestion; themes, characters and locations are positioned in improvs for two players or the whole group.  In Calgary Keith Johnstone introduced Theatre Sports, a collection for two teams of over 50 games, which is now franchised across the world.   The first of these new structures was invented  in New York City—the Improv Olympix; family and friends have asked me to describe its origins from memory.
 
 
 
In 1969 my ten-year marriage to Honey Stern unraveled abruptly in NYC.  I moved to 13 W. 89 St: a big second-story room, which I believed would pass for an office.  It was purposefully close to my kids, who visited and played under a wooden door that I fitted flat against one corner and draped with curtains to hide the fact that it was full of blocks, crayons, trucks and other toys. 
 
Here I committed myself to what  my father would call a “do good” role: to identify root causes of group friction, malfunction and conflict.  I would summon communication and productivity.  I would be a community “maker.” Such ideals had considerable currency in the 60’s and had already won me two jobs at NJ Community Action and at Scientific Resources Institute.  Community was graced by billions from Kennedy.  Under his handsome umbrella I would locate clients and supply training and public relations—delivered by a powerful phalanx of Community Makers.  Thousands of consultants were similarly busy.
 
“Commerce Business Daily”--plump with listings like “deliver 1000 rats to Lab X by Mar. 1--” provided me with  my first example of what  a Community Maker will do: for instance, he or she will travel to a high-rise in St. Louis.  Find out why  elevators that stop every other floor to serve small, decaying apartments,  somehow  attract violence and social despair  (have done so for years.)  You will then design ways to cure the malaise, staff your proposal, get it approved, tool up and go to work.  In actuality, after years of tinkering, the city declined all bids, moved all tenants out to smaller buildings in other areas, and simply blew the buildings up.  By “imploded” demolition.
 
One of the first to enroll in my tiny army was Howard Jerome Gomberg—ex football player, wrestler and tab-musical performer, who called himself Jerome.  (I insisted on calling him Gomberg, showing my prejudice for reality and contempt for self-regard.)  Howard quickly ingested my ambitions.
 
Howard Jerome
 
Encouraged by other idealists, we decided that a more likely target for our reforms was theatre, which we saw, long after the advent of improv, as mired still in egotism--stardom. Each actor acted in his or her own shell, while the dynamic of each performance was limited to the verbal  pyrotechnics of the playwright.  A play was more a chess game than an occasion to celebrate human emotions and interactions.  Most scripts bored us.
 
In our plan the playwright would be replaced by the audience, which knows exactly what it wants  and supplies ample ideas for content.  Tonight’s audience knows better than any playwright exactly what  will satisfy it tonight.  Treat the stage like a sports arena. Actors become  players.  Action becomes team play.  Who wins (and how) becomes more absorbing than the often abstruse point of a play written  at another time far away from the audience in these seats.
 
For a base structure use games, of which there are hundreds floating around.  But for our sport use only games that give players exposure to the basics of theatre.  Give actors a keener experience in acting than most scripts can.  Immerse them in skills, for instance:
 
            character  observed  clearly--on the spot
            deep, transforming emotion
            relationship dependent in no way on words
            creation of objects by pantomime only
            close relationship through gibberish
            improvising a song
            improvising a story
            improvising through slices of time
            improvising in different locations at the same time
            treating a subject with maximum negative or positive feeling.
 
We called our sport the “Improvisational Olympic and later (since the Olympic Committee objected)  the “Improv Olympix,” when we began video coverage.
 
With Howard on board I changed our name from Community Makers to the less ambitious Group Creativity.  After all, group creativity had inspired COMPASS--with its strolling audience,  improvising cast, creative spectators  and a network of neighbors writing scenarios.  We moved  from our remote Upper West Side location to a large building near Madison Square Garden—the Space for Innovative Development.  Here we were within reach of national dance companies and adventurous groups like ourselves.  Here we could rent space in which to perform.  It was 1973.
 
The Space for Innovative Development
 
The first teams were composed of staff and old friends.  “Jerome’s Bombers” played “Running Bare,” which included Janet Coleman,  author of “The Compass,” and David Dozer. The match was reviewed  in the press.  The college aged sons of a consultant for whom I shot video offered to play.  We discovered that, depending on life experience and willingness to risk, a new team could be launched in hours.  A correctional facility in Westchester sent a half dozen men plus guards, who were received  at the door by Sydney Johnson.  She asked, “Do you want to play, boys?” and took them through training enough to perform a scene I will never forget: inmates in a cell where a vial of heroin has just be spilled by mistake on the floor. They invested it with humor but also, surprisingly, with pain.
 
Jerome's Bombers
 
I formed a Soul team, whose intention was to play big and hard as possible--but lose. Soul’s job was  to model the games and show  how accessible they were.  We drew strangers to take a chance,  do the training, enter the league and win.
 
 
 
One afternoon we were visited by a thin, nervous  teenager from Queens—Michael Golding. He was participating weekly in Responsive Scene, our improv radio show over WRVR, where 35,000 listeners could phone in suggestions, stay on line, direct action and even improvise with the cast.  Michael had had the nerve to record his own improv bits with his own friends and squeeze his tape onto the air via phone calls he made to the station.
 
We saw Michael was a candidate for the Olympix.  I immediately offered to play whatever group he came up with.  Soul met his team in somebody’s home (so we wouldn’t have to pay rent for space). The location was frumpy: sofa, stuffed chairs, carpets.  No matter.  Soul warmed up casually until we noticed Michael’s group was intense.  An anomaly:  I was developing a new sport that might one day contribute to my income, but I was  laid back.  Michael was one of a vast, to me colorless, lax population that many adults write off as disinterested in culture.  But he was up tight!
 
Michael Golding (LR) and his team Fool's Paradise
 
Every “event” his teens attempted was a see-saw challenge for them.  Every time they lost their confidence crumpled.  If they won, their triumph galvanized them for the next event.  Essentially the match was  Fun for us but Life for them. I saw that Soul could no longer play to lose, but as our concentration and energy picked up, so did Michael’s.
 
We lost!  I was flabbergasted, limp, crawling with uncomfortable surprise.  Michael’s team leapt directly into a sports cliche. They crowed, they spurted energy, they slapped five and clapped each other on the back, they ran around the room.  Some jumped on the couch, then mocked our adult superiority and summoned a phony sympathy for us losers.  Still there was more to come: they went over details from their training, their minute-to-minute expectations, the match itself—event by event.  Where they had lagged, where they’d surged ahead.  At that embarrassing moment I realized: we had made converts.  We had in fact invented  a sport.
 
1974: we were invited to Toronto by Howard’s friends at HomeMade Theater.  A half dozen Canadian directors were invited to sit in on a trial match.  These men and women quarreled for two hours, questioning the names we’d  assigned each event,  rules of play, standards for judging, number of players.  For instance, could two or more players from one team play two or more from another?  What emerged was tighter, more competitive—with  a Canadian sparkle and practicality.
 
HomeMade Theatre
 
Home Made Theater  promptly combed Ontario for teams and found about 8 groups willing to play into a tournament.  I was astonished at their diversity.  On one hand was the national theatre school, composed of affluent giants who treated the Olympix as they would life after graduation: it was  something to overcome,  to win--from finding lodging to locating auditions, from making friends of agents to winning jobs in all media. Their play was boisterous.
 
On the other hand was a team of Mummers, who circle Lake Huron by whatever  transportation they can find, inquiring as they go if some family would like a show mounted in their living room or barn.  They adapt what they carry in their back packs to the tastes of the family—much like the players that Hamlet uses to “catch the conscience of a king.” Where do they eat and sleep?  with the family for which they play, so their material better not disappoint.
 
That summer Howard  and I were hired to behave like Mummers in the northern ski area—with  amateur ski workers  willing to face rough competition,  at a Lions Club gala, from dentist teams we trained.  The event I remember best was a match between 16 year olds who welcomed  interruptions during training at their posh club and 13 year olds who met in a meager barn and paid attention--for days.  Much to the surprise of the swank team the younger set won  easily.  The match revealed social status—upset.
 
Next came the search—city by city-- for funds to pay for the sustenance of a program whose participants  could claim it produced value: it generated skills, brought isolated people together,  fostered teamwork.  It was also cheap, fun, easy to mount, psychologically rewarding and attractive to many ages.
 
First came New York City,  where we had already identified and pursued a dozen foundations--without success.  Now we broached the school system and were invited to the Bronx.  On my first visit I arrived  8am at a school where the teacher had not yet arrived.  
 
I approached  a group of students, told them what I had for them and got them playing. By the time the teacher  started looking for me, she found her kids in full swing.  Eventually 11 schools joined the Bronx league, which was run by a student of Paul Sills—Paul Lazar. Every  year there was intense competition; every year the same school won.
 
 
 
I remember a match  at which  not enough students showed to form one team:  our bottom line was 5, but only two boys were present.  I broke my rule and allowed them to play.  One of our judges, Daren Daly, had traveled miles on his red motor bike to attend; he was dubious.  But surprisingly the team of two managed to pull off all ten events , adapting suggestions to avoid the void of mothers, for instance, or sisters.  Daren and I were amazed.  Their handicap had given the two  double zest, imagination and confidence.  In comparison the big team they played looked limp.
 
Dealing with the Bronx Board was tough.  It didn’t want to pay Group Creativity the small salaries allotted for coaching.  Eleven coaches got paid, but I got almost nothing of their checks.  I couldn’t invest more of my own  money in phone, mail, transportation, props,
xerox, photos.  I gave up N.Y.C.
 
Next: Chicago, where I visited for several months in 1981.  Jo Forsberg let me teach at her theater school, where a new student, Charna Halpern, implored me to give her a scholarship. Charna had been teaching  disadvantaged  girls and felt improv offered no terrors more difficult to cope with.  In the first weeks of our association, I sensed she was going to take over any Chicago program that came to life.  The first teams played on a spectacular all-metal floor in a local bar.  “The Reader” gave us great press, and soon we had six volunteer coaches to train all the teams that wanted to enter a Chicago league.
 
David Shepherd and Charna Halpern
 
Training was often done in six hours—on six packs, in basements.  We started to get what we called “affinity” teams--professional actors, seniors, cops, rabbis, psychiatrists, musicians, lawyers, an all women’s team.  It seemed word of mouth was by lightning.  When I visited New York, I heard at parties that this great game was embracing the Mid-West.  When in Chicago, the thing to do was Improv Olympix.
 
 
We played Cook County jail, where men were dumbfounded to discover that there was something they could excel at: an improv match  against a middle-class team with white women on it. This is where Charna first tried out her way of announcing scores.  She announces the loser and point number first, giving that team the hope that they won, and then the winner with a greater point number. However the jail had no money for a permanent program giving inmates the experience of winning.
 
 
 
Next I took on the Chicago school system, but I didn’t have the right connections.  I ran into the same attitude that I found in most NYC boros: the schools know what you have and don’t want  it.  The schools know that your program will not succeed.  The schools are sure that your design is wrong for their classes and your curriculum is inadequate, so please don’t send it.  I didn’t have the razzle-dazzle video that Canada was about to produce.
 
One night on Amtrak, passing the jail with a match in progress, on my way home to my wife Connie and my kids in NYC, I was gripped by sadness.  I was slowly realizing that my best designs for improv formats were never going to earn me much cash, and that I was going to have to support my family on money earned in sales, copy writing, PR, children’s books, personnel, administration—not to mention a few other gigs too demeaning to mention.
 
Of course, if Lazar and Halpern and Howard and Willie were willing to write proposals not for the Olympix but for autistic children or unemployed girls at risk or psychiatric patients,  if we could afford to turn out a dozen grant applications a year, one of us might have scored.  Once at least.  We might have proved that the Olympix just happened to be the ideal way to benefit this or that population.  If I had to do it again?
 
The end of the Chicago story is revealing.  We’d played Second City, where Joyce Sloane allowed our annual tournament to take place Monday nights at her main stage.  We’d played a downtown  bank auditorium during a festival in the Loop.  We’d acquired great press--due often to our photographer, Virgil Shrock, who captured  any match we sent him to any time of day or night.
 
Thousands had enjoyed watching our format or playing into it.  National tournaments had brought teams to Chicago or NYC.  But Charna was not making a living.  Unlike the Canadians she complained our games demanded too much  competition, which made them less commercial.  She and the late Del Close closed shop and went up the street to Wrigley Park,  There they founded a training program for comedians.  Not satisfied with this, they opened a branch in L.A.  Both pack customers in much of the week.
 
Del Close and Charna Halpern
 
 In 1984 the International Olympic was held in LA. I decided to attend.  I’d present our new format at a public location.  The timing was perfect.  Competition in performance would meld with competition in sports. My trip began with a triumph: I got permission to use Santa Monica pier, which was thick with  strollers and customers every weekend. Ads and flyers were picked up smartly by the press, and I was welcomed by a large improv community that knew who I was.
 
What did I imagine would happen if I appealed to the city for
as many teams as I could imagine—each speaking its own tongue?
I suspected we could reveal  a rich cultural mix that was not possible
on track,  high board or wrestling mat.
 
I arranged to meet  a real Russian restaurant owner and get him to allow my brand new Russian assistant to train Russians to improvise.  Carefully I prepared him by speaking of the magic of improv, the discoveries it made possible, its delightful evanescence,  the comic undercurrents in any dramatic situation, the characters uncovered by improv,  its commercial acceptance on TV.  I promised to bring matches onto his stage.
 
He smiled.  He understood?  He paused. He considered what to say. 
Then he started to sing.  His his eyes shone but his voice was lead.
I didn’t get his meaning.  Could he be making ponderous love to a style, a carefully crafted anthem,  a musical masterpiece that had exemplified Russian art for centuries?  Was he saying, “Improvisation cannot equal this solidity.  Improvisation is for performers who can’t feel this surge of belief.  Improvisation cannot exist in the Russian heartland.”
 
But suppose he had said “yes.”  Suppose a dozen cultural groups
asked to be trained.  Where were the Chicago coaches that would
appear magically in basements bearing the six-packs that
guarantee a team is formed in six hours? 
 
Would the team perform in English?  If not, where would I find
judges who understood the languages used by both teams playing? Who would have trained the Mexican team, the French team, the Indian, Iraqi, Tibetan, Ethiopian, Brazilian, Serbian....teams? What criteria would I use to judge when  a team was  ready to compete?   All such considerations were swept aside by my mania.  And mania is a welcome state of being in the tinsel and celluloid corridors of LA. 
 
I remember--in  a bout of loneliness--phoning the Coach of the Chicago police team  “Magnum Farce” to get phone numbers of his cast, then inviting them all to fly to LA and appear on the Santa Monica stage.  Leave their jobs for lodgings I would be paying for at a salary unknown.  I wanted them because they had come in second twice at annual tournaments.  They had improvised my favorite Time Dash to the theme of “filing:”  in the first frame a group of officers belittle an unpleasant know-it-all.  In the second this same incompetent is handing out orders that irritate them.  In the last frame the nebbish has graduated to Head of the Department,  and (still filing) his former critics are all in fear of him.
 
Magnum Farce stayed in Chicago; policemen are seldom manic.
I did run workshops, train teams, set up performance schedules.
Sensing overload,  I did ask Howard to come assist.  He arrived
promptly after my phone call.  I did find video coverage.  More and more local people became involved, until I was overwhelmed  by detail: presentation, sales, training, PR, organization.  My program appeared to be successful, and success was killing me.  The best thing that could happen to me would be the end, toward which I improvised as I went  along.
 
My best memory: two German tourists were given Silent Wrestling to
play.  They improvised a vast silence between “Der auto ist kaput” and
“Ach, mein Gott.” Effortless.  Effortlessly Canada won the competition.
 
Something else happened in LA.  Howard discovered an electronic link
between  3 widely separated stages, where it was possible for three teams to improvise simultaneously in what I remember was called a “slow scan;”  the listener heard only a portion of what was broadcast.  Ingenious.  Futuristic.  Suggestive of future technologies.  But a reason to visit LA?
 
The Canadian Olympic Games (CIG) started in New York.  Chicago City Limits, located far west on 42nd St, invited us to hold international matches on their stage.  Only Canada and the USA were involved.  Ottawa  high school students were guided by Willie Wyllie, who later ran the Stage Fright team.  The Canadian kids spent the night of the match at the home of Barbara Caporale’s parents,  where  there was just enough rug and sofa room to accommodate 20 boys and girls. We all discovered that their experience of travel,  comradeship and performance was intoxicating.  These elements propel CIG to this day.   
 
Michael Golding, referee of teenage match at Chicago City Limits, with Willie Wyllie


 
 
Canadian teenagers with Chicago City Limits cast
 
Stage Fright, producers of the Canadian Improv Games, Willie Wyllie, center.
 
Willie asked me to give him rights to the games.  I demanded a percentage of his gross as royalties, which he said would be nil (he was right).  We dickered and eventually I avoided  a nasty falling out by my giving in.  Since then he’s been immoderately generous, inviting me, Golding and Jerome to many Ottawa  anniversaries. 
 
On my 80th birthday, as I peered out of the window of my office near Amherst, I spied what appeared to be Willie.  “Must be someone who looks like him,” I rationalized, “since the real Willie is in Ottawa.  I came to the same conclusion with Golding: “he’s in L.A.”  But Willie, Golding and Howard were all three really in my backyard.  They played into an impromptu show for my guests, and we spent half the night catching up.
 
Michael Golding, Willie Wyllie, Howard Jerome, David Shepherd
 
 
David Shepherd's 80th birthday party
 
 
Today in Canada 300 high school teams start matches by chanting an oath originally inspired by Howard:
 
            We have come together
            in the spirit of loving competition
            to celebrate the (CIG or Improv Olympix).
            We promise to uphold the ideals of improvisation:
            to cooperate with one another, 
            to learn from each other,
            to commit ourselves to the moment
            and above all....
            to have a good time.
 
 
 
The CIG does not celebrate and exercise 10 theatrical skills.  But it gives thousands of kids an alternative to the dreary monotony and isolation they may experience in high school. Self-esteem (and often lives) have been saved by the CIG, which has endured only because thousands of young Canadians have learned over decades how to manage.  For instance, they  have  cut the games down to 5.  In their words:
 
            Character Event portrays characteristics such as flamboyant or bashful,
            Life Event shows an event perceived to be pivotal--with sincere and realistic emotion,
            Story conveys  a story with beginning, middle and end,
            Style projects a style of film, literature, etc.,  such as children’s book or film noire,
            Theme explores an aspect of a given topic such as “communication” or “choices.”
 
There are a dozen regional tournaments,  with  winners traveling to Ottawa  for annual finals.  Improvisation has truly demanded to be treated as a sport.  Teams are now allowed  to enter CIG by shooting video of their play and sending it to be judged.
 
 
           
What I enjoy most about CIG are,  first, their warmups,  which are held in one room.  Open the door and you are assaulted by many energies in boisterous tumult.  You may predict the approach of each team to the games.  Later when  they play you notice how their warmup  prepared each for competition.  It’s a miracle to see teams suddenly achieve  the seamless interaction of its players.
 
Second I enjoy the dead eye concentration  of the coaches who serve as judges.  They take themselves very seriously because they may have coached  one of the teams on stage.  Some coach dozens of teams in one region, such as Toronto—often with  no compensation:  a national program based solidly on love and commitment!
 
In the future we’ll see CIG branch into other countries—including the USA.  We can expect more matches on TV  and maybe more participation by younger children and adults. After all, there is nothing about the Olympix that restricts it to a teen activity.
 
 
 
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 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.   
 
 
 

Monday, April 8, 2019

Teen Improv Fight Club by Michael Golding

It is not unusual for the at-risk teens I work with in workshops to be reluctant to embrace the unknown and allow an improvised scene to flow organically within the structure of a game. They require advance information with dialogue and action before participating, so they don't appear foolish. Directing focus on the rules of a format, which grounds players in the moment, eventually
weans the students off their perceived safety net. The current group I'm working with has provided a new challenge, leading me to formulate a new approach.

In the middle of a throng of students

With several decades of working with at-risk populations, I've become more flexible with how the rules of a structure are perceived and played. Being an improv martinet can be counterproductive in allowing the identity of the group to emerge. It's a fine line to walk; are rules being ignored because the players found an innovative way to achieve the objective - or they simply didn't listen to the guidelines and decided to do whatever they want?

At a recent workshop two players were given a scenario to improvise by the class (brother tells his sister that her boyfriend is cheating on her). The players immediately started strategizing on how it should be performed. Normally I would chime in with "No, don't plan it. All you need to know is who you are, what you're doing and where you are. That's it." Instead, I allowed them to strategize, because they were on fire collaborating and connecting with each other.

The students watching started contributing their suggestions on how to play the scene.  I almost put a stop to that - determining that it was up to the two players, not the audience to decide what to do. But the class was enthusiastic, the players liked some of their suggestions, built on them, so I allowed the process to continue.

As the scene commenced, the class proceed to side-coach, which I have encouraged in previous workshops with the guideline "say freeze, first. Wait for the action to stop, then add your direction." That wasn't happening this time. The class was overlapping, yelling out suggestions, sometimes debating amongst themselves over choices. None of this was contentious. The players would pause to consider options, occasionally asking questions for clarification, then move on. While the atmosphere became raucous there was a positive energy between the student audience and players working together to navigate the intricacies of a scene that was presented by the group. There were shifts in time, locations, emotions, activities and additional characters were added and removed. When the scene was over everyone felt they contributed to its success, and left the session feeling joyous and congratulatory towards each other.

Thinking about the session on my commute home, I felt that I had just witnessed a new guerrilla theatre/cage match approach to improvisation. Perhaps the birth of a new format; Teen Improv Fight Club. The first rule of Teen Improv Fight Club is: You don't talk about Teen Improv Fight Club.

Considering this current group, I have a feeling they would find a way to circumvent that rule.


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 and Canadian Improv Games. He was the artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in New York and created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa. Michael is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles working with at-risk teens and traditional college students. he co-wrote and 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, Barned and Noble and CreateSpace. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, education and Human Development.






Wednesday, March 20, 2019

David Shepherd's Journals by Michael Golding



David Shepherd (October 10, 1924 – December 17, 2018) the co-founder of Playwrights Theatre Club, Compass (forerunner of Second City), the Improv Olympics and Canadian Improv Games, left behind a library of personal journals. David was diligent about making daily entries, a practice he started at thirteen, inspired by his father William Edgar Shepherd, an architect, and continued into his nineties. The journals are replete with designs for new forms of theatre and outlines for potential books. I am including two brief excerpts.  David’s journals, along with his archives, were donated to Northwestern University’s Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections in 2016 and are currently being processed. 

MANIFESTO
BLUEPRINT FOR THE NEW FREE THEATRE (NFT)
Paris 1949 

The NFT should be small at first. The connection between actor and audience has been lost in the coy hypocrisy of the realistic theatre but can be found again by testing effects at close range. To counteract the sloppy diffusion of the modern sensibility, the NFT will be, if nothing else, vigorous and disciplined. Discipline is necessary both for conciseness and for style. In modern acting efficiency is lost in movement and speech; both are diffuse and meaningless since both copy natural life, which is almost always diffuse and meaningless. 
A play cannot be a novel because a play has only an hour or two to make its mark. The single exception in this rule is Chekhov. Great craftsmen of today (Picasso, Rouault, Pound, Thomas, Stravinsky, Hindemith) either set out to work in any style or else limit themselves severely to one. Great drama is not written today because playwrights have cut themselves not only from the roots of drama but also from the understanding use of styles.  We need both eclectic genius and the craftsman with a single tool and single sheet of metal.
The vigorous roots of drama are song and dance, which must be brought back, if not outright, then in precise and suggestive speech and movement.
Since a play is the most clearly social of all art forms, the NFT must assure directness and simplicity in its productions. Whatever conventions it adopts must be quickly understandable.

Journal entry

MANIFESTO – SYNOPSIS OF INTRO TO BOOK
August 1952

The first purpose of this book is to advertise a theatre movement.
We are working to build a body of good American plays on the assumption that a great play has yet to come out of America, that the theatre of the future will be the “popular” theatre, and that we have discovered some of the ways of writing better plays than the current crop offers. We need partners to help us.

David Shepherd

We believe the easiest way to get the good plays we need is by attending to style; you will find exercises in this book which show what we mean by style. We believe that plays can be written on any subject, in any style and to any length: in this book you will find copies of the styles of some major dramatists today. In other words, we believe plays are logical statements, not bursts of inspiration.

Just as style is an exploitation of the word, so the choice of the action or subject matter of a play is an exploitation of the world of the dramatist. We deplore the fact that whereas the world of the dramatist today is so broad, his plays are so narrow. We give reasons in this book for such a paradox, and we explain what our second problem is after style: to broaden the frame and focus the thought of our plays. We suggest some dramatic forms by which that can be done, although we doubt that bourgeois writers will want to use them.

Journal entry


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 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.   






Sunday, February 3, 2019

David Shepherd and the ImprovBoston Festival by Michael Golding



My close friend and mentor for 46 years, David Shepherd, the father of improvisation, passed away on December 17, 2018. He was 94 years old. With Paul Sills, David created Compass (1955), the first professional improv cabaret in North America and forerunner of Second City (1959). With Howard Jerome, David created the Improv Olympics (1972) which inspired the Canadian Improv Games (1977, created by Howard Jerome and Willie Wyllie) and i.O. (1981, founded by Charna Halpern and Del Close). In 1998, David brought MOVIExperience, his improvising movies with nonprofessionals format to Pioneer Valley, Massachusetts. Nancy Fletcher, one of the MOVIExperience participants, believed the format could be used to build confidence and character in adolescent girls and founded Act Now! (2000). David's last format was Life-Play (2009), improv games designed to be played over the phone. 
David Shepherd & Michael Golding
David Shepherd suffered from manic depression most of his adult life. His wild mood swings were at times terrifying for me in my early teens. Paul Sills had a gift for being able to diffuse David’s temper and I’d like to think that I learned from the best. I felt the two were polar opposites when it came to temperament, which is why I was surprised to learn in Jeffrey Sweet’s “Something Wonderful Right Away” that Paul had a formidable temper of his own. I remember thinking “I know not this Paul Sills people are talking about.” Paul was always warm, funny and supportive in the workshops I took with him. He never threw a chair at me (not even an imaginary one), which was a recurring memory from the founding members of Playwrights Theatre Club, Compass and Second City.       

Through David’s association with ImprovBoston, we had arranged for his documentary “David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre” to be screened at their annual festival in 2011. It would include a Q & A session with me, David, Howard Jerome and Nancy Fletcher and a workshop demonstration of Life-Play, David’s latest format.  I agreed to fly to Belchertown from Los Angeles so that I could drive with David and Nancy to the event.

When I arrived in Belchertown, David surprised me with the news that he planned on showing an instructional Life-Play video after the screening, aiming towards selling copies to the audience. I told him that was not the agreement with the festival and Life-Play was already represented quite well in the documentary.  David was not pleased with that answer and wanted me to approach the festival about changing the program.

By nightfall Howard arrived from Toronto. I had heard back from the festival. We were going to stick to the original plan. David was incensed, ranting about how hard he worked on the videos. Willie Wyllie, the executive producer of the documentary called David from Ottawa (responding to my S.O.S. text) hoping to reason with him. The work on the videos wasn’t wasted. He just couldn’t show or sell them at the screening. The focus was on the documentary and the fine work of our director, Mike Fly and writer, (me). David had an enormous amount of respect for Willie, who could always be counted on to give the final word he would accept. Willie was successful once again.

Howard and I agreed to look at the video so that David could get our feedback. It was dreadful. Poorly lit, bad editing and hard to follow. Not the best representation of David’s work and we told him that. His cork popped; “Fuck it! I’m getting too old for this shit! I can’t do this anymore, schlepping from place to place trying to get gigs and selling my formats!”  Of course, none of this was the case with the festival, where he was to be honored.  Maybe he couldn’t accept that even though the documentary was about him, it wasn’t his project and he needed to focus on something where he had some control. To David, the documentary represented the past, Life-Play, the present and future. So that evening the three of us in an instant went from a loving reunion to a lot of yelling and “fuck you!”

Next morning, I greeted David with my usual “Good morning, Mr. Shepherd. How are we today?” David somberly replied, “I can’t wait for this day to be over.” I laughed; “Atta boy. That’s the spirit.” My approach whenever David was in the dark zone was to treat his every response with optimism, love and humor.  Howard was already on his way to Boston to catch some shows before our screening.

Once we were in the car and on the road, (me at the wheel, David in the passenger seat and Nancy in the back), he relaxed considerably. Road trips were a big part of our relationship and we seamlessly eased into our travel banter – improv, expanding Life-Play, future projects, my work with at-risk populations. We picked up lunch from MacDonald’s on the way, and David slowly fed me French fries one at a time as I drove.  I loved that. When we arrived in Boston, David was wide-eyed. It had been a while since he’s been there and was fascinated by the architecture and people. By the time we arrived at the theatre, David was in a playful, joyful mood.

Well, that quickly ended as the audience entered for the screening. The event wasn’t well publicized and there were about 25 people in the audience. David glared at me and I could see that he was ready to determine that the screening was going to be a humiliating failure for him.  Just then, a young woman sitting behind David started talking about how excited she was to see the documentary. She had driven with friends from Rhode Island, was currently reading The Compass by Janet Coleman (who was also in the documentary) and was hoping that she could get to meet David Shepherd.  I turned around and said, “Are you aware that the father of improvisation is sitting right in front of you?” She exploded with excitement. A sly smile appeared on David’s face as she showered him with appreciation. After they talked a bit, David turned around and the house lights started to dim. I leaned over to David and whispered, “that didn’t suck, did it?”  “No. It did not.” He patted my knee affectionately.

This was the third time I had watched the documentary from start to finish with David and he’s always totally engrossed. I could only imagine what memories sparked inside him with every viewing.  The audience while small, was extremely responsive.  As the end credits rolled, David whispered, “that was excellent.” His standard response, always with a tinge of amazement in it.  I was happy to see Carman Dewees at the screening. He, along with Chris Britt, developed Life-Play with David. Carman and David had a falling out due to David’s unreasonable demands (a constant with partners David has collaborated with over the years) and had not spoken for some time.  David was sincerely pleased to see Carman and the two had a warm, brief reconciliation.  After they spoke, David confided in me that he accepted full responsibility for Carman leaving Life-Play. Carman was solely responsible for the launch and initial success of Life-Play, recruiting players, setting up conference calls and putting together a polished handbook of the format’s games with essays from me, David, Howard and himself. David realized he had let a gem slip through his fingers.

The Q & A portion went well, as did the Life-Play demonstration, which I conducted with volunteers from the audience. David and Howard side-coached some of the games. Originally scheduled for ten minutes, I ended up doing a half hour because it was going so well. Jeremiah Jordan, the artistic director of the festival who was watching from the side gave me the okay. When it was over, we had to quickly leave the theatre for the next event to set up. The audience followed us out into the lobby, enveloping David with attention, then outside the theatre, then joined us for dinner at a restaurant down the block.  David was energized, talking improv and meeting new people. 
Q&A moderated by Jeremiah Jordan with Michael Golding, Nancy Fletcher, David Shepherd and Howard Jerome.



Setting up Life-Play guidelines with two volunteers.

David Shepherd and Howard Jerome side-coach two volunteers playing a Life-Play game.

Driving home, I fielded calls from Mike Fly and Willie Wyllie.  It was a ninety-minute drive and I was pushing the speed a bit. With David holding the phone to my ear and Willie draining me for every detail, I tell my improv brother that “the life of the father of improvisation is in my hands right now so maybe I should focus on my driving.” For the rest of the drive, we talked about all the new people we met at the screening and how David was going to recruit them for future projects. He had given out all his business cards. He was happy.   

Back at the house, Nancy goes immediately to bed and David and I stay up for a while, sharing a joint. Yes, I was smoking with an 87-year old man. It was a long active day. Navigating David’s emotional minefields can be draining, but now I was getting stoned, playful, fun, David. It made the day worthwhile for me.

After we say our goodnights I walk towards my room. David sings out “Michael!”

“Yes, David?”

“You’re an excellent workshop director.”

“Thank you, David. I had a great teacher.”

“Thank you.”

For a moment I thought about screwing around with him by adding “Oh, you thought I meant you?” But it would have ruined a perfect moment. And it would have been a lie.

Next morning David wanted to know when we were going on our next road trip.

David Shepherd, Michael Golding, Howard Jerome and Nancy Fletcher at ImprovBoston, 2011.

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 and Canadian Improv Games. Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. and 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 and an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.