3/1/13 - playing a one-second chess game onstage

In today's selection -- the iconic comedy show "Saturday Night Live" had its roots in Chicago's Second City Theater, which had famous alumni from ranging from John Belushi to Bill Murray to Tina Fey and dozens in-between. But Second City had in turn emerged from the short-lived Compass Players, a theater company with a daring and often uncomfortable approach to comedy when it debuted in 1955. The star alumni from Compass were Mike Nichols and Elaine May, whose next step was to conquer Broadway with their improvisational comedy act, then build legendary careers in movie writing and directing. Their comedy intentionally distanced itself from the "Catskills" comedy of the day -- which relied on superficial, gag-based comedy instead of character -- and was part of the revolution brewing throughout 1950s American society that belied its quiet surfaces:

"To fully grasp the shift that was taking place in New York comedy [in the 1960s], one must understand the 1950s Chicago theater company the Compass Players, from which the art of improvisation and Nichols and May first developed. The Compass Players was a theater group primarily made up of University of Chicago alums. It was founded by David Shepherd, a Harvard-educated East Coast intellectual who dreamed of establishing a new kind of theater in Chicago, the middle of America. Unlike New York's theater scene, which he felt was overly influenced by European traditions and dependent on the works of dead English and French playwrights, this one would spring out of American culture and be geared toward the American working class. Ironically, though, Shepherd drew inspiration from the commedia dell'arte troupes who toured the towns of Renaissance Italy performing scriptless shows. Commedia troupes often injected their scenario plays with popular references, and they were often satirical. Shepherd's vision was to present loosely scripted, theme-based 'scenario' pieces in which key events were planned but the dialogue was spontaneous. The theater wasn't supposed to be funny, but it was supposed to be accessible to all audiences, blue- and white-collar alike. ...

The Compass made its debut on July 5, 1955. When the theater closed [for financial reasons] two years later, Nichols and May made their way to New York, while the handful of Compass members who stayed behind went on to create the famed Second City, an eventual launching pad for sketch comedy greats.

The Compass Players. Pictured in Jimmy's, where they often performed.

DAVID SHEPHERD, founder, the Compass Players: I went to Chicago because I thought that the Midwest had more vitality than the East Coast. I felt that the East Coast was dominated by European formats. Cabaret in New York City might have a German groove to it or be based on what was going on in the Catskills. I was not interested in the Catskills. ...

BARBARA HARRIS, member of the Compass Players and Second City: David Shepherd took a bunch of us aside and discussed what he called a 'working-class theater,' where his idea was to go into different neighborhoods where nobody was interested in theater or Shakespeare, and go into bars, set up a stage, and do improvisational-type performances with a scenario of what we felt people who frequented bars and such would catch on to. ...

DAVID SHEPHERD: It had nothing to do with comedy at all. We were not interested in comedy. We were interested in erasing the three-act play and the institution that goes with it, what we considered to be very stilted constructions and stilted characterizations. The scenarios had very funny twists in them because in all life there is both comedy and tragedy. So we were taking from life to improvise on the stage. ...

BARBARA HARRIS: Actors didn't have to act. They had to know what they were talking about. We had a very nervous lawyer there: we put him onstage -- he had never acted -- so he talked about how to catch a tax evader or how to evade your taxes. We had something called 'living chess' and then we had two of the best chess players from University of Chicago play a one-second chess game onstage. Then the lights would come on. And people were laughing.

DAVID SHEPHERD: [During the early days of the Compass Players] our format was based in stories, and Elaine May, who had come by way of California ... had dozens of stories. And they were not the normal funny stuff about a normal life. She wrote a very strong piece called 'Georgina's First Date.' That tracked the desire of a mother to get her chubby daughter into the social set, which she did. I think the daughter was raped in the process. It's not totally clear. But that was a strong scenario. So she did one after another. There was another scenario called 'The Real You,' which was about a new form of human potential training that she wanted to satirize. And she did it by showing several people answering a radio ad for it and going to the workshops, which were run by a guy name Bob Coughlan from the University of Chicago, and then going back home and practicing what they had learned and completely wrecking their lives -- one after another. It was a very cynical scenario but it was strong and it was successful."


Yael Kohen


We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy


Sarah Crichton Books


Copyright 2012 by Yael Kohen


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