By Hugh Iglarsh
Two great experiments mark the mid-century history of the University of Chicago. The one everybody knows about was the first sustained nuclear reaction, which occurred in a crude little ziggurat of graphite and uranium under Stagg Field and produced, among other things, the apocalyptic paranoia of the Cold War. The second, which occurred sixty years ago this July in a tavern (long since razed) on East 55th Street, was David Shepherd’s and Paul Sills’ Compass, the first modern improvisational theater. This path-breaking cabaret act was, among other things, an attack on the Cold War cultural atmosphere, attempting to break through the paralyzing conformity via a new-old art form that was spontaneous, playful, self-reflexive, participatory … and very, very funny, to boot.
Pregnant with its own contradictions, the Chicago Compass experienced only middling commercial success and lasted but eighteen months, despite developing and launching an array of talent that included Elaine May, Mike Nichols, Shelley Berman, Severn Darden and Barbara Harris. It is now best known as the precursor of Second City, which offers a commercialized brand of the original Compass vision.
But what Second City popularized, the Compass actually invented. And now the story of that period of intense creative ferment is told in Mark Siska’s recently released documentary, “Compass Cabaret 55.” Created in the Compass spirit of low budgets and DIY ingenuity, Siska’s film is a fascinating backward look at what might almost be described as an alternative cultural history, one focused not on stars, spectacles and marketing, but rather intellect, community and imagination.
“You combine specificity with wit, you’ve really got something,” says David Shepherd’s ex-wife, Honey, herself a player in the early 1960s Hyannisport Compass. She’s interviewed at length, along with David Shepherd, the recently deceased Sheldon Patinkin (Paul Sills’ factotum and eventual head of the Columbia College theater department), and many members of the cast of Compass and its predecessors, including Mark Gordon, Andrew Duncan, Ed Asner and the still very cranky and very funny Berman, who notes that he was given a medical discharge during World War II because the people in charge “were anxious to win the war.”
The documentary has its issues and omissions. There’s more talking heads than actual improv on display here, but these heads, it must be said, talk unusually well. And missing from the lineup is Paul Sills, who died two weeks before Siska was scheduled to interview him. Finally, the darker side of the Compass—the chaos and personality conflicts, as well as the flashes of cruelty and arrogance that were part of Sills’ character—is not ignored, but is somewhat glossed over. It is no surprise that this labor of love funded by credit cards lacks a corporate, Ken Burns gloss. The amazing thing is that Siska’s nine years of work, spread out over other projects and the annoying need to make a living, jelled into a cogent, cohesive and entertaining piece of documentary filmmaking. It presents as complete a record as we are likely to get of the Compass context and people—especially David Shepherd, the blueblood Bohemian whose meeting with Paul Sills in a Hyde Park drugstore in 1952 catalyzed everything.
“David Shepherd was a nerd, an intellectual nerd,” says Ed Asner, the then-recent University of Chicago graduate who had many memorable roles in the Sills-directed, Shepherd-produced-and-funded productions of the pre-Compass Playwrights Theatre Club. “Shepherd was the sociocultural point man—Paul was the communicator. When they create a pantheon of theatrical gods, Paul Sills should be Zeus. He freed the actor.”
But it was David Shepherd, along with the $10,000 inheritance he carried with him when he hitchhiked to Chicago, that freed Sills to begin creating professional theater in his hometown, selecting among the many young, brilliant and quirky students and ex-students who flourished in Hyde Park during the Robert Hutchins era, when intelligence and desire, not age or high school diploma, were the only entrance criteria. It was Sills and Shepherd together who brought to the fore Viola Spolin, Sills’ mother, and for the first time used the array of team-building, imagination-stimulating theater games she had developed at Hull House in the 1930s not simply as training exercises, but as the structure of improvised scenes performed in front of an audience.
According to David Shepherd, now eighty-nine and still going strong, the impetus for the Compass was his growing distaste for conventional drama, combined with a conviction that his destiny was to produce popular theater, theater for the masses.
“I was a student of literature,” says the Harvard-educated Shepherd, interviewed by telephone together with his wife Nancy Fletcher at their home in Belchertown, Massachusetts. “I thought the three-act play had turned theater to shit, and I wanted to get rid of it. It’s an unnatural trap for talent. Improvisation puts the burden on the player, takes it off the writer and becomes a whole exploratory method.”
Rather than returning to his native New York, which he considered “effete,” Shepherd headed to the heartland, first stopping in Gary, Indiana with the intention of starting a Brecht-inspired workers’ cabaret. He hung out with local Communists there, but (as noted in Richard Christiansen’s “A Theater of Our Own”) was told that “the people there wouldn’t be interested in what I do. They just wanted to go home, screw their wives and watch TV.”
This rather nasty anecdote points to the paradox of the Compass and its myriad descendants. For all its populist origins and its goal of bringing theater to the people rather than people to the theater, improv is still showbiz, and must both find and keep its audience in order to remain viable. It can choose to go high, risking intellectual snobbery, or go low, becoming just another expression of pop-culture values. Real satire (as opposed to “Saturday Night Live”-style mockery of the uncool) remains a tough sell in a society grounded in protective conformity and the pursuit of individual success.
Shepherd decided to aim high and, together with Sills, Spolin and an almost freakishly talented corps of performers, produced in Hyde Park and the North Side moments of spontaneity and inspiration that reverberate to the present day.
The Sills-Shepherd collaboration began with Playwrights Theatre, a professional, text-based ensemble spun off from Sills’ well-received university-sponsored productions in Mandel Hall. The ensemble, which performed on the Near North Side, swiftly earned critical acclaim, two-thousand subscribers and a reputation as a hip, lively rebuttal to the stodgy, star-centered fare then clogging the city’s downtown commercial theaters.
“Playwrights Theatre Club was entirely new and took Chicago by storm,” says Joyce Piven, an original ensemble member who for the past forty-some years has run Piven Theatre Workshop, an Evanston-based performance space and training center dedicated to preserving and passing on the principles of the Spolin games and Sills theater forms. “Paul was visionary—he thought of everything. Chicago theater really started with Paul and David—and that’s all being forgotten. I’m trying to keep this history alive, as Sheldon [Patinkin] did before me. I’m like the last man standing.”
Piven met Sills, who attended the University of Chicago on the GI bill, while employed as a temp at a downtown advertising firm, where Sills was also working. The encounter changed her life, as the aspiring dancer turned her attention toward theater, which she realized was about to undergo a renaissance.
“We did ‘Henry IV,’ Chekhov—I played Nina in ‘The Seagull,’” says Piven. “Viola Spolin came on Saturdays and taught us theater games to make us more present and creative. Those games changed everything. And it all came from Chicago—all the seeds for future forms.”
The then-Joyce Hiller and her future husband Byrne Piven were not part of the Compass troupe, but reconnected with Sills in the late 1960s, when he developed his Story Theatre form, which combined traditional acting with narration and focused on capturing the ageless and magical essence contained in myths, fables and fairy tales.
“Both Paul and David were a little —well, David was very eccentric, he marched to a different drummer,” says Piven. “With the Compass, David wanted to create a theater for the proletariat in a saloon—something very political. The irony is that by the end, it had become the perfect middle-class salon. Still, they were both giants, visionaries creating new forms. It was about community, not exploitation, about give and take. Money and fame and all that—it wasn’t what we wanted. It was to be part of a creative community.”
It was after the Playwrights Theatre Club (which had staged the second-ever performance of Brecht’s “Caucasian Chalk Circle” and was viewed as “pink” if not scarlet by authorities in those blacklist days) was shut down by the city, ostensibly for building-code violations, that the idea came to jettison the scripted play altogether and launch a cabaret venture. It would be called the Compass, pointing the audience “in the direction they were already facing,” according to Janet Coleman’s authoritative history, “The Compass.” It would be nothing less than a highbrow, politicized rebirth of the old commedia dell’arte, featuring gifted actors who would level their prodigious wit at the banalities and absurdities of life in Eisenhower-era America. It would include skits, games and the improvised actualities of the “Living Newspaper,” borrowed from the Federal Theater, as well as scenes created from audience suggestion. This latter concept, the Compass’ most durable contribution to comedy, began as an afterthought designed to encourage patrons to buy more drinks for bar owner Fred Wranovics, the right-wing former paratrooper and philosopher manqué who is himself one of the more intriguing characters in the Compass saga.
But the central innovation was the scenario play, a barely scripted storyline based on everyday life upon which the actors could riff. To Shepherd, the scenario would be the key means of retaining a political perspective and preventing the show from drifting into sentimentality or gag-focused irrelevance. Some of these early scenarios—such as “Enterprise” by Roger Bowen (who would go on to play Colonel Henry Blake in the movie “M*A*S*H”) about the dog-eat-dog used-car business, or Elaine May’s startlingly raw depiction of sexual initiation, “Georgina’s First Date”—are minor masterpieces of social commentary, loosing a lacerating irony on behalf of a humanist agenda.
The scenarios were Shepherd’s obsession throughout his Chicago Compass period. Sixty years later, he tells me he is still writing them, seeking to find the perfect stories to convey his vision of reality—a vision, one senses, that has never fully crystallized. But sadly it was the scenarios—longer than sketches, focused on action rather than character or punchline, often downbeat in tone—that have dropped from memory, while the purely formal side of what is now known universally as “improv” has flourished. The struggle continues between those who see improv as an art form in itself and those—especially Second City and its offspring and imitators—who view it as a means to a comedic end. While the entertainment marketplace invariably favors the latter view, Shepherd remains firmly on the other side, a prophet in the theater wilderness who sees improv as the key to everything from self-expression to community building to international relations.
And yet Shepherd himself was enmeshed in the knotted paradox of Compass, trying to produce an urbane, high-reference-level theater-cum-nightclub act that somehow would manage to pay the bills while vanquishing false consciousness and advancing the revolution. An advertisement written by Shepherd in late 1955 has a touch of bait and switch, offering viewers “real offbeat excitement … lusty intimate theatre in the style of the strolling minstrel, Shakespeare—an invitation to drama and drinks.”
As patrician condescension and utopian idealism serve as the poles of Shepherd’s personality, so did opposing populist and elitist forces characterize and give shape to the Compass. Severn Darden’s professorial monologues are razor-sharp parodies of ivory tower narcissism and inanity, but who would find them funny besides embattled graduate students? And sure enough, it was the very professors lampooned by the cast who began hanging out at the Compass, hoping to see comic versions of themselves on stage and sometimes even commissioning sketches. Similarly, the scintillating interplay between Nichols and May would eventually be marketed and perceived as high-level standup, not critique. Darden would later say that “it was never a political theater. We did social satire with a few political remarks for the benefit of the masses.”
The very real commercial imperatives softened the message over time, shifting the balance away from the confrontational and provocative toward the more jokey and sentimental. The trend was most fully embodied in the funny but spotlight-hogging schtick of Shelley Berman, which was the over-verbal and egotistical antithesis of Spolin’s responsiveness, physicality and playfulness. As the chemistry between performers broke down, the weed of competitiveness grew and the ethical roots withered, to the discomfiture of both Shepherd and Sills.
“In American theater, it’s always the political that gets sifted out,” sighs Coleman, who is now at work on a biography of Viola Spolin. With their left-wing orientation and deep grasp of both theater and culture, Sills and Shepherd managed to hit a nerve in a repressed and skittish culture—“but it exploded in humor, not anger,” says Coleman. “That’s just the way the cookie crumbled. Getting laughs is irresistible.”
It certainly proved alluring to the luminaries who emerged from Compass and the early, Sills-directed Second City casts—Nichols and May, who were on magazine covers within months of escaping from Chicago; Shelley Berman, whose insecurity-fueled aggression filled seats at the North Side Compass, but also subverted the delicate connectedness of the ensemble; plus Del Close, Paul Sand, Barbara Harris, Alan Arkin, et alia ad infinitum.
“The success of Second City traumatized all of them,” says Coleman, referring to the trinity of Shepherd, Sills and Spolin. “Sills acted like an aesthete, but he was very ethical. And what dropped out of Second City was any analytical, political or satirical point.” As Shepherd had always feared, the improvisation soon downshifted from commentary to commodity. And there it mostly remains today, with a few exceptions, such as the Piven Theatre Workshop and the Door County, Wisconsin-based Sills/Spolin Theater Works, run by Carol Sills, widow of Paul, who died in 2008.
If one word could sum up the Compass experience and its aftermath, it would be ambivalence. Shepherd’s deep ambivalence toward the bitch goddess success plays out in his role of the ceaseless, rootless innovator, ever creating more Compasses and more performance formats (such as Improv Olympics, video improv and even telephone-based improv for shut-ins and people in different countries), then moving on the next challenge. “A lot of the things that David has spun off are viable, and just need champions,” says his wife Nancy.
For a long while, Sills was his champion. But Sills’ own ambivalence led to his gradual retreat from the stage toward the part of guru, offering enlightenment to the theatrical pilgrims who journeyed to his remote Wisconsin outpost. There he kept up what he and his mother referred to as the “family business,” using the Spolin theater games to bring childlike freshness and vitality to a craft and industry that too often tends toward the predictable, manipulative and mechanical.
But for all its mixed legacy, there’s no doubt that the 1950s Compass was something special, enthralling both spectators and participants. Quoted in Coleman’s book, Geraldine Page, a skilled actress herself as well as a Compass fan, observed that “It sure was magnificent,” and that Nichols and May were a “juggernaut.” Despite bickering and some lingering bad feeling, the performers themselves universally described the 1955-56 period as unique and unequaled. “The early Compass was the best,” says Andy Duncan, “an ideal that became realized. You rarely see that in life.”
Moving forward fifty-some years, what struck filmmaker Siska was how “anti-celebrity” the interviewees were. “I was allowed in to the actors’ personal space. They were all approachable with no pretense. I didn’t have a single bad interview. It’s not as it is today.”
Siska describes “Compass Cabaret 55” as a “serious film about comedy.” It centers on an equally serious tribe of theatrically trained actors who attained not just a high level of skill, but a degree of freedom and sheer pleasure available only to those who perform without a script and without a net. At its best, improvisation goes beyond art or craft. It is a risk-filled spiritual exploration, requiring practitioners to go both deeply into and beyond themselves, supported only by an almost foxhole-like trust in their fellow performers. The first-generation improvisers who most fully explored this dimension are aging, and Mark Siska has performed a public service by getting their stories down.
It is the enigmatic David Gwynne Shepherd—the man who sought to liberate the actor, yet censored their language on occasion and tried to copywrite the material they generated—is both the central figure in the story, and the most eclipsed by time.
“He was sometimes my most difficult interview,” says Siska. “He would overthink things, and I would spend a lot of time trying to get him comfortable.” There’s something about Compass that makes Shepherd uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s the failure to attain his literally unattainable vision, or the fame and fortune that accrued to others working the territory pioneered by him.
“My sense was that he was always yearning for a living theater, one that involves the audience fully,” says Siska. “He wanted a rebirth of the commedia. He wanted to drop the seriousness of theater, and he realized that the best place to do that was in a bar.”
Asked about that long-ago period in 1950s Chicago, as he and Sills and the others struggled to bring forth something new amid the ocean of gray, Shepherd recalls it as a precarious sort of paradise. “We were always on the edge, always doing something wrong. My money helped us persist. And I never left, exactly—finally, the format was successful, so I took it elsewhere.” As for what he’s most proud of now: “We were the first. It doesn’t make me rich, but we were the first. It’s a privilege to be first.”