Making It Up As We Go Along - By Umberto Tosi

Back in the 80s, when Madonna was like a virgin, Michael Jackson thrilled, Milli Vanilli lip-synced and Ronald Reagan practiced plausible deniablity, I tested the murky bottom of clinical depression. Everything seemed blacker than black. The view from my San Francisco apartment only cued me to its exorbitant rent and guilt about feeling sorry for myself in such splendid surroundings. My shrink advised me do at least one positive thing each day, even if it were only to write one sentence. Frequently I couldn't even manage that. Oddly enough, however, I kept dragging myself to improv workshops twice a week, sometimes three.
Madonna, 1987

I had signed up, paid my money. The classes, usually with eight or ten attendees – non-actors like myself – and a coach, took place at Fort Mason – a cluster of San Francisco Bay-side, concrete-block, World War II loading docks converted to a cultural center, with classrooms, small theaters and galleries. I would arrive at 7 pm., numbly immersed in my glumness, and force myself through the usual warm up exercises, wondering why I had bothered to come. Then the games would begin. No matter how stubbornly bummed out I had been, the fog would lift. For three hours, I'd be engrossed – in the moment, imagination engaged, like a plane climbing out of a cloud bank. The euphoria of forgetfulness would last the rest of the evening.

That's the way improv games work. “It's body-mind induction,” explained one of my coaches, perhaps sensing my need for intellectual embroidery. “You have a problem. You play a game. Get it off the hamster wheel of your mind and into the body. You step over memory into intuition.” The object of the game engrosses you so that, in the moment, you find yourself being spontaneous in spite of yourself, which then leads you into worlds of weird and wonderful possibilities, or sometimes just blank space, which is okay, because that's when one of your fellow players takes the ball and goes on with the show.

I'm not saying that playing improv lifted me completely out of my depressive funk. That took a lot of other work, most of it having to do with re-framing what had gotten me there in the first place. I'll spare you the details. 

We weren't exactly in show biz anyway. “Loose Association,” the group I performed with the longest, off-and-on – led by my ex-wife, Cynthia Chapa, a clinical social worker – did volunteer community performances for county mental health agencies. We would play job fairs, professional conferences, hospitals, fund-raisers of all kinds, schools, even jails. We had to win over some tough audiences, shy, sometimes hostile, not eager to give us suggestions on which to build scenes – unless you count catcalls.

But the show – even in such circumstances – must go on. Personality, looks, wit and even one's native talent made poor shields, but diving into spontaneous improv games with fellow players always loosened people up. No matter the crowd or venue, they would soon start giving us suggestions and warming to the show.

It was also a great deal of fun – if terrifying at times on stage. Over the next ten years, in face, it became my avocation.I took workshops and eventually, performed on stage regularly with three successive groups. I don't rate my theatrics as particularly memorable. Neither I, nor my fellow performers – with a few exceptions – could match the lightening agility of those TV wits on “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” I didn't win any prizes and never got the most laughs, but going for laughs can be a trap in improv. It turns to showboating contests that bore everyone.

It all sounds San Francisco airy-fairy new age, but the principles actually were developed on the gritty streets of Chicago, and have deep political, social and artistic roots, as I was to find out.

In retrospect, I had great training, even though I remained rough at the edges. I was lucky enough to have stumbled onto a couple of extraordinary instructors who ran the workshops I attended back then. An always perky, ever witty ex-teacher, Sue Walden, ran the workshops. She was leader of a the long-running San Francisco improv group, Flash Family, along with her then chief assistant trainer, Doug Kassel, a jazz drummer – nephew of the late, beloved piano artist Marian McPartland. Doug had been a protégé of Chicago's legendary Viola Spolin, the godmother of American improv theater herself.
Flash Family, c. 1988.
Sue Walden, center,
Doug Kassel at far right.

My fascination with improv had started several years earlier with reading Something Wonderful Right AwayAn oral history of the Second City and the Compass Players by Chicago playwright Jeffrey Sweet, published in 1978. This lead to my writing a magazine story about The Committee, a 1960s-70s San Francisco improv group (later on Broadway, with an incarnation in L.A.) known for its political bite, founded by alums of Chicago's famed Second City. Sue Walden had played with The Committee as well, before founding her own group. 

Maybe, without my realizing it, my interest went back even further to the brilliantly improvised social satire of Mike Nichols and Elaine May whose still-hilarious LP albums I found so refreshingly inspiring as a kid in the 1950s. I was just a dumb Hollywood High School senior then. I didn't know that the comedy duo – each to become celebrated film writer-directors – emerged from the Chicago's early improv scene – namely the Compass Players – along with Barbara Harris and Shelley Berman – steeped in Spolin techniques and coached by Paul Sills, Spolin's son.

Sills, in turn, founded and directed Second City in 1959, which, in turn, matriculated, as they say, a galaxy of American film and comedy stars, including Alan Alda, Paul Mazursky, Valarie Harper, Stiller and Meara, Alan Arkin, Robert Klein, David Steinberg, Gilda Radner, Joan Rivers, and along with offshoots in Toronto, New York and the West Coast, practically every Saturday Night Live cast member since the 1970s, and more recently, through its various venues, Steve Carell, Halle Berry, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Jimmy Fallon, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Tim Meadows, Bonnie Hunt, Stephen Colbert, Amy Sedaris and Jon Favreau – the list goes on. Spolin-Sills-improv had greater
Elaine May and Mike Nichols, c1958
influence in modern American theater and films than Actors' Studio, though less appreciated.

Reading up on the Spolin process took me beyond that magazine story into something far more compelling than TV and movie stars, however. Spolin's theater game process, in fact, wasn't aimed at producing actors per se. It discourages stardom and turns out not about performance at all. It is about play – in most creative sense – involvement, collaboration and spontaneity. Trust cooperation and support are the bywords for improv players, even if we players sometimes stumble and forget them.

Sue Walden kicked off the first workshop I ever took with a simple exercise that demonstrated much of what was to follow. About a dozen of us showed up. Sue told us to line up in a semicircle and, one-by-one, walk around the perimeter of the room to the back of the line, then one-by-one move to the front, repeat, and walk around the room again. This went on for about ten minutes. The only rule was that, with each turn, you had to walk differently than the last, without forethought. At first it seemed a little awkward, then it got very funny while people surprised each other with unique movements – some slapstick, odd, or simply walking in ways that displayed intriguing attitudes. Soon we were all engaged, and laughing. It dawned on all of us that there was virtually no limit to the ways each of us could circumnavigate the room. Lesson: your imagination is limitless and doesn't need preparation, calculation or a script.

Viola Spolin's Improvisation for the Theater (1963) is the movement's bible. Yet there is nothing esoteric about it. Spolin's book spells out two hundred and twenty accessible games and exercises, in which magical things happen – characters and scenes emerge spontaneously, discoveries are made. They don't result in “great” moments every time, but something wonderful does invariably happe as long as the players focus on the object of each game. You can sample dozens of these theater games on videos at Spolin Games Online, by the way, along with discussions and videos of workshop sessions, some by Spolin herself.
Sue Walden master class after-show party, c.1988.
I'm in the white cap, back row.
Sue and Cynthia Chapa, center, 

Doug Kassel, far left, bottom row.

Eventually, I moved on from improv and San Francisco. Did my improv experience help me to be a better – or at least a more productive writer, as it apparently inspired so many creative artists?

I'll give that a yes, but it's difficult to say exactly how. Writing remains a solitary undertaking. It's never going to be as much fun as playing “story-story-die” on stage with a bunch of other jolly misfits. (In case, you're wondering, “story-story-die” is a game in which several players make up a story, bit-by-bit, passed on one to another. The audience – or coach – shouts “die” when a player hesitates. Then he or she must “die” spectacularly on stage, leaving finally one winner to finish the tale. The rule that makes it work is you always “yes-and” to the content that other players pass to you, no matter how bizarre. The moment you get in your head and wonder about it, you “die.”)

Playing Viola Spolin's games with all those wonderful motley players did teach me– in a very basic way – to trust my imagination much more than before I walked into my first Sue Walden class. Also so, to let go of the process and trust others more. I still play those games in my head – and use them as writing exercises.

I never thought I'd end up living in Chicago, where it all started, but I enjoy the serendipity. I leave the improv workshops to those considerably my junior these days. Sue Walden heads Improvworks, an international creative training and consulting firm based in San Francisco. Doug Kassel is on the faculty of  Leela improvisional theater and training company, also in San Francisco, and performs with a jazz band. As for me, I have plenty to occupy my creative imagination writing every day (at least in theory)  - including a sequel to Ophelia Rising - and as a consulting editor with Chicago Quarterly Review. I have, however, found ways to practice the art of improv - albeit obliquely -  right here at home.

When we're on a drive, my partner, narrative symbolist painter Eleanor Spiess-Ferris, like to riff off people and situations we see on the street. It's always a trip how this little games weaves engaging stories so swiftly out of the air. Back when we were long-distance lovers – I in California and she in Chicago – we used to email story fragments back and forth to each other, adding on each time – using “yes-and” Spolin rules.

We started off with a randomly selected theme – just as improv players field an audience suggestion (in this case, “storms.”) To our surprise, the game went on for months and the story riff turned into a complex narrative – a novel-in-progress we entitled “Storm Cycle” – with complex characters, themes, plot and subplots, scenes, poetry and descriptive passages.

The sweetest layer of this cake, however, is experiential, not based on performance, goals, ends, analytics, evaluations and such. I have to say that I enjoyed every minute of it, including the stage fright. I recall fondly how reticent strangers would come together, become an ensemble and light up. A few remain among my dearest friends.
Viola Spolin

Viola Spolin, who died in 1994, at age 88, said she created her book full of transformational games by trial and error, in the midst trying to help people communicate and work together during her Depression Era community work. Maybe that's how all great inventions happen.

In a 1972 speech, Viola Spolin referred to her games “an oracle, that we can evoke to answer our questions.” She foresaw a day when “people can meet to play the games” not necessarily for show, but to find answers to the essential human questions: “Who am I? Where am I and what am I doing?”

I'm still trying to figure those out. 
Okay, folks, suggestions, please. What's a common object you find around the house? And, what's a life-changing event?


Susan Price said…
Wonderful, Umberto.
Common object? - Teaspoon.
Life-changing event? - Getting your driving licence.
Sandra Horn said…
Wow, Umberto! Terrific post! Coomon object: mouse (as in computer doodah). Life-changing event: retirement!
Dennis Hamley said…
Terrific, absorbing post, Umberto. What a marvellous account of something truly magical. My common object? My senior bus pass. Life changing event? Frankly, I'm spoilt for choice. Coming away from my heart bypass and being given a metaphorical parcel labelled 'Life Part 2'? The day a publisher accepted my first book? The two times I got married (one, I have to say, much better than the other)? The day (I'm serious about this) I joined Authors Electric and found the most sustaining group of writing colleagues I could ever have dreamed of? I bet I could find a few more if I stopped to think about it.
Mari Biella said…
What a great post, Umberto - makes me wish I'd been part of it! And ... common object: socks, often unpaired. Life changing event? Hard to choose, but I'd opt for the first time I managed to actually finish a novel. It wasn't a good novel, and it's never been published, but it was at that point that I realised I'd actually done it - and that, having done it once, I could do it again.
Umberto Tosi said…
Many thanks, Susan, Sandra, Dennis and Mari, for the kind words - and spontaneous suggestions. I'll give them a try!
Jeff said…
Delighted SOMETHING WONDERFUL played a part.
Lydia Bennet said…
What an interesting post Umberto! Drama can indeed do wonderful things for the mind. Things, pens, except when you are looking for them. Life changing event, divorce (a wonderful institution!).
Doug Kassel said…
Thanks for the kind words, Bert. I really loved the article, but feel a need to correct one biographical detail. I am not Marian McPartland's nephew. I am Jimmy McPartland's grandson. Marian was his second wife, but since they were married before I was even born, she has always been a "grandmother" to me. I was very lucky to have both her and Viola Spolin in my life. They both taught me different ways to look at and use improvisation.

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