50th anniversary celebration of Chicago improv comedy dates back to Compass Players roots

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Chicago improv that had its genesis in the legendary Compass Players, which in turn spawned The Second City.

Paying homage to that revolution in comedy, Chicago Improv Festival’s subtitle is “From the ?Compass’ to the World, Celebrating 50 years of Improvisational Theater.”

In 1955, University of Chicago alums Paul Sills and David Shepherd founded the pioneering comedy of the Compass Players in a converted storefront cabaret theatre near the U of C.

The first Second City revue show premiered in 1959. The troupe chose the name “Second City” from the title of a disdainful article about Chicago by A. J. Leibling that appeared in The New Yorker magazine a decade earlier.

Mother Comedy Viola Spolin

If Chicago is Lady Comedy, Viola Spolin is Mother Comedy, the acknowledged progenitor of improv.

Spolin (1904-1994) grew up on the Northwest Side with a passion for street games. She trained initially to be a settlement worker, studying with NU-based sociologist Neva Boyd at Boyd’s Group Work School.

Boyd’s school operated out of Hull-House where Spolin’s games were born when she taught and supervised creative dramatics for children.

It produced America’s first little theatre, housed the company that began the flowering of Chicago theatre in the 1950s and provided upstart suburban troupe Steppenwolf with their entree into the big city.

Spolin’s son, Paul Sills, went into what he called “the family business,” and introduced that business into the professional theatre. He was the first director of the Compass Players and Second City.

Using his mother’s improvisational games, the technique evolved into what we know now as improvisational comedy.

Chicago’s enduring role as comedy central has been assured. Corporation, Inc’s Cynthia Whitworth, who calls Chicago the Mecca of comedy, believes “Chicago has the tightest grasp of what improv and comedic writing should be and can be.”

GayCo’s Andy Eninger notes Chicago’s huge improv community “can’t help but be a fertile ground for new forms of improvisation” as it attracts some of the best improv talent and trains them better than any other city.

“Because of this wealth of talent, resources and training, Chicago tends to be both on the cutting edge of improvisation,” Eninger comments, “and also offers the finest examples of many of the more ‘traditional forms’ of improv.”

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