The Art of Improvisation

Guest Article by Julie Marchiano

All of us are, essentially, almost professional improvisers. Every time we have an unrehearsed conversation with another person, we are improvising: we listen, we respond, we keep dialogue going, and sometimes we are pretty funny while we’re doing it. There are a few things, though, that keep us separated from folks like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert, Amy Sedaris, and many other famous comedians, and that includes a knowledge of the rich history of the art form, training at some of the top theatres in the world that specialize in this microcosm of acting, and an incredible grasp of the concept “yes, and”. But first, what exactly is improvisational comedy, or “improv” as it is more commonly known?

Improvisational theatre is a type of performance where every character, action, and line of dialogue is created on the spot, off the tops of the actors’ heads. It is typically comedic in nature, but can be dramatic as well. There are no scripts, but sometimes improvisation is heavily stylized, performed under the lay-on of a theatre “game”, or is used as a tool to develop written material for the stage and screen. Improv can also be used as a form of therapy for those with Alzheimer’s, ADD and ADHD, Autism, and Asperger’s; or in the office as a corporate training tool.

Improv comedy can trace its roots back to Ancient Rome, where it developed from the Atellan Farce in 391 BC (a collection of vulgar stories and rude jokes) into commedia dell’arte, which was performed on the streets of 16th, 17th, and 18th-century Italy. Commedia dell’arte introduced the idea of archetypes, or “stock characters”, to theatre at the time. These social types, like the devious servant, pious woman, or foolish old man, were played by masked and unmasked actors who would improvise as these well-known characters in different situations or “scenarios” where comedy would ensue. In the late 1800’s, renowned acting teachers such as Stanislavski in Russia used the techniques of improvisation as training tools for his actors in class and rehearsals.

Improvisation made its way into mainstream American culture in the 1940’s through the vessel of Viola Spolin. Spolin worked for FDR’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) as a drama supervisor, and needed a way to teach theatre to children of diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds in Chicago. She developed “theatre games” to help unleash creativity in these children, some new immigrants to the United States, and her work became the basis of modern-day improv. It was one of, if not the influence, behind the creation of The Compass Players by her son, Paul Sills, a group that included such visionaries as Mike Nichols and Elaine May (of Nichols & May), Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller, and Del Close (creator of the Harold). The Compass Players disbanded and eventually led to the creation of The Second City by Sills and others in 1959.

Along with The Second City, which uses improv for the creation of written social and political satire, there are a number of other theatres in Chicago that have been the training grounds for many famous comedians, writers, and directors. The iO Theater, founded by Del Close & Charna Halpern, teaches long-form improvisation through the Harold (longer scenes without gimmicks or games). Conversely, the ComedySportz Theater, which has locations all over the world, teaches short-form improvisation with the lay on of competitive games, similar to the style of games seen on Whose Line Is It, Anyway? Speaking of television, many Chicagoans who trained in improv comedy have gone on to Saturday Night Live (John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray), 30 Rock (Tina Fey, Scott Adsit, Jack McBrayer), Parks & Rec (Amy Poehler), and major motion pictures, from Ghostbusters (Harold Ramis) all the way to Anchorman (Adam McKay, David Koechner, Steve Carell), with hundreds more movies and notable performers in between. The Chicago schools of thought on improv have expanded and evolved and even moved to the coasts, where you’ll see the next generation of these aforementioned legends training at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater (New York and Los Angeles), The Groundlings (LA), The Magnet Theater (NYC), and the PIT (NYC), not to mention the many offshoots in cities across the country. It is an ever-expanding and increasingly accessible art form to watch, learn, and be a part of, and is all built on the foundation of listening and responding, also known as “yes, and”.

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Chicago Photo Credit: Michael Bennett

“Yes, and” basically requires the delivery of information on the part of one person, and the agreement, response, and addition of information to verbally confirm agreement on the part of another. It sounds complicated, but it is really quite simple. If you are listening and agreeing to the reality handed to you, it is easy to say yes and add on to the information, to build something with someone else. It’s easy to see how this, over conflict or invention, creates comedy. It is also easy to see how this principle can be applied to someone’s everyday life. Not everyone can be Viola Spolin, or Tina Fey, or Will Ferrell. Not everyone should perform comedy for a living. But, we could all stand to try ditching our script once in a while, being in agreement with one another, and switching up our vocabulary to include more “yes”. It is, as mentioned before, what gives us all the potential to be great improvisers.


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