How a trailblazing woman made Chicago the home of improv


Chicago’s greatest cultural export just might be improv theater, which was born at Jane Addams’ Hull House during the Great Depression and carried out into the world by the likes of Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Stephen Colbert.

While to most people improv might seem synonymous with comedy, the art form was devised by a woman who wasn’t out for laughs. On Friday, October 22 at 8:00 pm WTTW brings you a new CHICAGO STORIES special, INVENTING IMPROV, that explores the life and legacy of Viola Spolin, the social-worker-turned-theater guru known as The Mother of Improv.

This one-hour documentary special tells the story of a daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants who, while teaching immigrant children on Chicago’s West Side, developed the techniques later used by The Second City and Saturday Night Live.

Spolin came up with a novel set of “theater games” to help these new Americans shine onstage and acclimate to life in Chicago. By giving them the skills to work together on a stage as an ensemble – even if they didn’t share a common language or culture – she gave them a platform to share their own stories. Spolin’s theater games will be familiar to anyone who’s taken in a show at The Second City. But at the time, they were simply revolutionary.

The companion website extends the experience with an exploration of Spolin’s legacy; a Q&A with local improvisers revealing how improv has changed over the years; a story about the healing power of improv; game demonstration videos; and a map of improv theaters across Chicago.

“The CHICAGO STORIES series is a cornerstone of our mission to produce and present trusted, best-in-class content fueled by a distinctly Chicago sensibility,” said WTTW President & CEO Sandra Cordova Micek. “The story of Viola Spolin and her contributions – not just to our city’s culture but to the rest of the world – is a quintessential Chicago story of creativity and innovation, and we are proud to be the ones to tell it.” 

INVENTING IMPROV takes the audience into the classroom and onstage to show Spolin’s games in action. Her granddaughter Aretha Sills, Second City director of comedy studies Anne Libera, and familiar faces Alan Alda, George Wendt, Tim Kazurinsky, Frances Callier, Bob Balaban, and Paul Sand share their memories of Chicago improv and how Spolin’s work influenced them.

The film also explores the vital role that Spolin’s son Paul Sills played in co-founding the Compass Players and The Second City, and viewers get a glimpse of the early days of improv with rare footage of formative sketches along with clips of Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Tina Fey, and Rachel Dratch in action during their time in Chicago. And the special comes full circle to show Alan Alda using improv for its original therapeutic purpose as he teaches doctors how to employ it to connect with their patients.

“We hope the audience comes away with an appreciation for improv, as Paul Sills described it, as the most democratic form of theater, because it values everyone equally as a player,” said producer-writer Jude Leak. “The essence of improv is community…performers using their gifts to make a better place for everybody. And it all started in Chicago.”

On October 21, WTTW will host an INVENTING IMPROV preview and discussion with Aretha Sills, granddaughter of Viola Spolin and daughter of Paul Sills; actor Alan Alda; Academy Award nominee Bob Balaban; actress, producer, writer, and comedian Frances Callier; comedian and actress Angela V. Shelton; and historian Mark Larson.

VISIT HERE to RSVP for this free virtual event.

CHICAGO STORIES is an original documentary series from WTTW uncovering Chicago’s fascinating history. Each story presents an entertaining and intriguing tale about a person or event that shaped Chicago. The series reflects the rich diversity and breadth of human experience that shaped this great American city.

INVENTING IMPROV: A CHICAGO STORIES SPECIAL is produced and written by Jude Leak. The Executive Producer is Dan Protess. Associate Producer: (515) 336-6997. Directors of Photography: Sam Rong and Tim Boyd. Narrator: Anthony Fleming III. Original score: Allie n Steve Mullen. Website Content Producer: Meredith Francis. Digital Video Editor: Wayne Kumingo. Website Design/Development: Justin Henderson. SVP Marketing and Digital: Anne Gleason.

Jude Leak is the writer and producer of INVENTING IMPROV: A CHICAGO STORIES SPECIAL. She is an award-winning editor with over a decade of documentary experience. She works with Kurtis Productions and Towers Productions in Chicago to create programs such as the Emmy nominated Cold Case Files, Investigative Reports, and New Explorers for A&E Television Networks and PBS; Investigating History for The History Channel; Outdoor Investigations for The Outdoor Life Network; and numerous independent documentaries and films. For WTTW, Leak served as an editor for the 10 that Changed America series and two seasons of the multi-platform initiative FIRSTHAND. She has a BA in Film from Columbia College.

Dan Protess is the Executive Producer of CHICAGO STORIES, and most recently oversaw the production of Ida B. Wells and The Great Chicago Fire. He also serves as Executive Producer of FIRSTHAND, a yearly initiative exploring social issues including gun violence and poverty. Dan served as Executive Producer, Producer, and Writer of the PBS primetime history series 10 that Changed America.

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