“I’d been through all the usual jobs of waiter, busboy, night clerk in a hotel, janitor in a nursery, and so forth, and I was running out of those jobs when Paul Sills again offered me a job in Chicago at what was then called Compass, which was an improvisational cabaret. And that’s where I began to work with Elaine May, who I had known before. I was very bad at it for months, and then I became better, and then I became pretty good. Elaine was very good at it.”
Film Comment interview with Gavin Smith
According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, improv as a structured theatrical art form began in 1955 when David Shepherd and Paul Stills started the ensemble group the Compass Players in Chicago. Many of the alumni later went on to be part of Second City.
Along with Compass Players Ed Asner, Alan Alda, Valerie Harper and among the others was a German born, former pre-med major, and method trained actor named Mike Nichols—who would later go on to be one of the few people to win the rare combination of Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Awards.
When Nichols, who passed away this week, was asked in 2013 if there were any ground rules for improvisations with the Compass Players he replied:
“The greatest rule was [Elaine May’s], ‘when in doubt, seduce.’ That became the rule for the whole group. And looking back, because I did teach acting for a while, we figured out over a long time that there only were three kinds of scenes in the world—fights, seductions, and negotiations.”
Film and theater director Mike Nichols (1931-2014)
Vanity Fair article by Sam Kashner
It’s been a few years since I’ve seen Nichols’ first feature film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? but I seem to recall Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton fighting throughout the film so it wasn’t hard to find a fighting scene. (Lots of fighting and 13 Oscar nominations.)
P.S. The well respected acting teacher Del Close—who was once roommates with Gene Wilder at the University of Iowa— was part of the Compass Players before later influencing/teaching Bill Murray, Chris Farley, Gilda Radner, Mike Myers, John Candy, Tina Fey, and John Belushi. Close also co-authored Truth in Comedy, The Manual of Improvisation.
In the book The Funniest One in the Room:The Loves and Legends of Del Close, Kim Howard Johnson writes, “Many have called Del Close the most important comedy figure of the last fifty years whom you’ve never hear of.”