Friday, 01 July 2011 20:21

The Roots of American Improvisation Featured

Written by  Meghan Duffy, Ph.D.

Doc ProvDoc Prov Sez...

On May 26th, 2011, I became a Ph.D.  My good friend, Jeff Michalski, likes to say that I'm improvisation's only Ph.D.  I don't know if that's true and chances are, I'll get a lot of comments on this blog from other improv scholars.  He also calls me Doc Prov, which is a title bestowed on me by another friend, Chris Booth.  Hence the title Doc Prov sez...

In my wildest dreams, I never envisioned myself getting a Ph.D.  In fact, I had thought that a BA was't even within my reach.  In 1971, when I was graduating from high school, the song, I AM WOMAN was the anthem of the women's movement, and Congress had designated August 26th as "Women's Equality Day."  Women in the United States were given the right to vote on August 26th, 1920, when the 19th Amendment was passed.  But I was a first-generation, south side Chicago Irish American girl. Sending me, a girl, to college was simply out of the question because it was, as my mother stated at the time, "a waste of money."

In 1973, I was working as a secretary at the Chicago Transit Authority. At that time, I had never heard of Second City and “improvisation” was not part of my lexicon. But I did know that I wanted to be an actor and performer. I had known this for as long as I can remember. So, when a co-worker told me that he was going to be taking “acting” classes at The Players Workshop of The Second City, I asked if I could go along. I could not know at the time that this choice would have a major impact on my life.

The Roots
So, off I went to my first class with Josephine Raciti Forsberg, one of the greatest improvisation and theatre arts teachers in the world and one of the women who were instrumental in the development of the art of America improvisation. During my two years with Forsberg, I performed in Land of the Stage II, one of her Second City children’s theatre productions. I was also a performer in many of the revues at the Players Oe, Forsberg’s small cabaret-style theatre housed in a Unitarian Church in Chicago’s Old Town.

The moment you became a Forsberg student, you were also given the opportunity to improvise every Saturday night at the Oe.  Forsberg also featured her students other talents, such as sketch writing, singing, and playing music.  We may have even had a few magicians in there.  No one ever had to wait to be ready to perform.  In fact, isn't that really anathem a to improvisation? Lastly, with four male players, two of whom would become Second City players, Jeff Michalski and Jim Fay, I became an improv-comedy performer in The St. Vitus Dancers comedy troupe. The St. Vitus Dancers was one of the first improv comedy groups to emerge in the 1970s.  Every weekend, we played the comedy clubs in the Chicagoland area. I stopped studying with Forsberg when I was hired to play Frenchy in the National Tour of Grease.

One of Forsberg's goals in teaching improvisation was to help her students find their creative voices.  Working with Forsberg and learning the art of improvisation did not help me find my creative voice – I already had that.  It did, however, teach me that I, like everyone else, have a right to use my voice – something for which I will always be indebted to Jo.  And something that I teach all my students.

When I had an opportunity to teach improvisation at City College and saw how my students were responding to the work, witnessing their explosions of creativity and observing not only the emergence of their creative voices but a stronger sense of self, I wanted to understand how improvisation actually worked. As a practitioner, it was wonderful to think:  "It's magical."  But as a teacher and scholar, I needed to understand it on a deeper level.  I didn't just want to reiterate the rules and enforce the models that have become de rigeur.  I wanted to know improvisation from inside and outside and to be able to use it to help my students become better performers, actors, writers, and human beings.

As I began researching theatrical improvisation, I noticed that Jo Forsberg was not really in the literature. A history of improvisation in America was emerging and Forsberg was being disappeared.  Her voice and her contributions simply were not there.   So, I thought, why not use her and her work as a basis for understanding what improvisation does.

In my dissertation, The Roots of American Improvisation: Play, Process, and Pedagogy, I trace the history of the art of improviation as it developed in the United States. This history began with Neva Boyd who taught Viola Spolin who taught Jo Forsberg who taught me, Meghan Duffy.  What I learned from researching the work of Boyd, Spolin, and Forsberg is that the art of improvisation as it developed in the United States in the twentieth century does not have its roots in theatre. The origins of improvisation lie in social group work, which developed out of the social settlement house movement in the early decades of the century.

Through this blog, I hope to create a forum where the art of American improvisation can be discussed; where new ideas about improvisation are voiced; and where we can debate all notions and conceptions of what improvisation actually is and how it works.  There is not a right way in improvisation.  There is only a way....the process of improvising.

So, let the blogging begin...

Last modified on Sunday, 03 July 2011 13:59

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  • Comment Link Meghan Duffy, Ph.D. Sunday, 31 July 2011 15:09 posted by Meghan Duffy, Ph.D.

    Beverly, I think you were a bit before me. I started with Jo in 1973.

    Improvisation is finally becoming visible as an important part of theatre history and is finally also being recognized as a valuable art form. When I first started my research, I didn't know that I was going to focus on the development of American improvisation - in fact, I didn't even really think of American or non-American improvisation. There was a dearth of scholarship on the type of improvisation to which we were introduced. And what was there did not include Jo's contribution to the development of the art form. I am thrilled to see that this is changing.

    I'm wondering, however, if I met you at an ATHE conference in Chicago in 2006. I was part of a panel on women, comedy, and performance. I mentioned Jo a lot in my paper and a woman introduced herself to me afterward, stating that she had studied with Jo and was happy to hear someone talking about her.

    What did you ultimately do your dissertation on?

  • Comment Link Beverle Bloch Thursday, 28 July 2011 23:46 posted by Beverle Bloch

    Meagan, I wonder if you and I worked together .... I also took classes with Jo and was in Land of the Stage .... in 1970 ... it might have been the first one ... I, too have a phd in Theatre ...... but could never convince anyone in grad school (u of Denver) ...that my improv experience in Chicago was part of important theatre history. I excited to see your blog and learn of your experiences. Beverle Bloch (was Swift when I was studying with Jo)....

  • Comment Link Meghan Duffy, Ph.D. Thursday, 14 July 2011 12:32 posted by Meghan Duffy, Ph.D.

    Everyone's contributions to this blog have been wonderful, inspiring, positive, and insightful. For the most part, I have tried to address each comment, but sometimes, as we all know, life gets in the way. But today, I have a few moments to respond to a couple of the comments.

    In his post, Johnny states that in his experience, the Spolin Games stand alone for actor training. I do not disagree. And Forsberg's training provides the actor/performer with everything he/she needs to become a creative artist. I have also taken classes at a lot of places. I gained a lot from some of the classes and from others, I thought, huh? This isn't what we (actors/improvisers) do in the real world when we're in rehearsal or in performance. Although I did learn a lot in more traditional Stanislavsky based training, I was always glad that my foundation was in improvisation and that I had worked with Jo Forsberg first. Jo provided the most comprehensive training for performers, actors, and I believe she had a few rabbis in her classes.

    I believe that the point of learning various techniques is to take what we need from the techniques and then to develop our own techniques - and to develop them to a point where they seem not to really exist for us.

    I also wanted to comment on John's post about us being the first improvisers. I thought that was very interesting. I think that we definitely are a cohort - all of us who studied with Jo and others in the last half of the twentieth - that was trained in theatre arts solely through improvisation. I think we learned about improvisation as its own unique art form - not a means to an end. I think we learned exactly how authentically engaging with another human being leads us to artistic expression. I think we learned that transformation is a powerful tool and the ability to allow transformations to occur can be learned but we have to be open to it. Or maybe, it's not just something to be learned but a gift that we need to learn to make ourselves available to receive.

    And I think, we learned that it is imperative to bring others, as John stated, into a world where anyone can play. That world does not solely belong to a public theatre/performance space.

    Using what we learned, and hopefully continue to learn, makes it, as Johnny Zito stated, "all good."

  • Comment Link Johnny Zito Thursday, 07 July 2011 07:50 posted by Johnny Zito

    Thanks for your response. As far as Viola's experience, simple enough to find out the truth, ask Aretha Sills. She's very approachable with questions. That should clear things up for you.

    From my experience with Spolin's Theater Games, it can stand alone for training actors.

    I studied at The New Actors Workshop which gave me a buffet of techniques to choose from, including Stanislavsky. I was exposed to a lot of different approaches. This was great because if one doesn't respond to something there is somethings else. Every technique, method, whatever you want to label these approaches get us to the same place through different avenues. It depends on what the individual responds to creatively. In other words it's all good. Thanks.

  • Comment Link Meghan Duffy, Ph.D. Wednesday, 06 July 2011 17:10 posted by Meghan Duffy, Ph.D.

    Jeffrey....thank you for entering the conversation and clarifying Viola's connection to The Group. I was not as specific as you are in your article. Here's the link to the article: I should have posted it in my earlier comment.

    Any insight on Spolin's connection to Stanislavky?

    One of the purposes of this blog is to open the door to different perspectives and to clear up myths and misunderstandings. Thank you for helping us do that.

  • Comment Link Jeffrey Sweet Wednesday, 06 July 2011 14:17 posted by Jeffrey Sweet

    I DIDN'T say that Viola was part of the Group. I said that the Group ran a summer program and Viola was part of THAT. Sort of the difference between taking a class at Second City and actually being a member of Second City. Viola spent a lot of time with the Group members and stayed friendly with them. (Family lore has it that she had a brief fling with John Garfield, but that was true of half of the actresses who met him, apparently.) When members of the Group passed through Chicago, they'd give her a yell, and she saw a fair amount of them when she was based in Los Angeles and they came out to work. But though she wasn't an official member of the Group, what I've heard from the family is that she was profoundly influenced by the Group politics and ideology, which was true of most idealistic theatre people at the time. (The Group was an influence on both Circle Rep and Steppenwolf, too. And, of course, today, Steppenwolf has a similar influence on other troupes.) I have never been a member of Second City (I've taught a few isolated classes for them), but I've been profoundly influenced by it. The same can be said about Viola and the Group.

    This is distinct from saying I claimed she was a member of the Group, yes?

  • Comment Link Meghan Duffy, Ph.D. Tuesday, 05 July 2011 21:39 posted by Meghan Duffy, Ph.D.

    Johnny, thanks for that bit of information about Viola. I recently read something that Jeffrey Sweet wrote about Viola being part of The Group. I have never found anything that supports that. And I have done a tremendous about of research on The Group and American theatre in the 20 century. Not saying it's not true. I do know that Viola's papers are now available at Northwestern and am planning on going through her archives, perhaps sometime in August. I particularly wanted to see if I could find any reference.

    In the video you reference, Viola states that she did not know anything about Stanislavsky. She points out that she was a group worker. I'm paraphrasing. Yet, in The Compass, Janet Coleman mentions that Viola took a class with someone in Chicago who was teaching a form of Stanislavsky. In her book, I believe she quotes Viola who considered Stanislavsky as working in the past and her own focus being on the present moment. As someone who has also taught the Stanislavsky approach, I would have to disagree with that. Strasberg was really more into going into one's personal past - which can be very dangerous. And that still isn't really getting to the heart of Strasberg. And The Group was Strasberg.

    There is a different life approach between acting and improvisation and a different set of skills that one uses that goes beyond whether or not you use improvisations as a tool in support of a script or as a player who learns to follow the rules. Improvisation is about developing one's sense of self and one's creative voice through group process. Improvisation is about taking off the mask. In the Method, the actor is supposed to become invisible. I'm probably not stating that very well.

    Anne Bogart also uses group process. But she is borrowing from everyone. She uses Michael Chekhov, Spolin, Yoga, dance, music, Meisner. The wonderful thing about Bogart is that it is physical, non-verbal (Spolin), non-psychological (Spolin), through gesture your imagination is sparked (Chekhov), repetition of movement and sound (I'm likening that to Meisner). And movement and sound is Joe Chaiken who I know studied with Nola Chilton and I think maybe Viola.

    However, Bogart is also using her improvisational approach to actor/performer training in service of a script or to create a theatrical piece or event.

    In my approach to teaching improvisation, I draw on every concept that will help an individual, through the group process, to find what works for him/her. In addition, we use those techniques in performance. One of the funniest scenes my students improvised only involved repetition. In one of The Edge Effect shows (my group in NYC), many of the scenes were just movement and this came out of using the Viewpoints. These scenes were the most successful.

    Jo Forsberg taught us theatre/performance techniques. But she was teaching us about and how to improvise. As someone trained by an actual member of the the MAT (David Itkin), Jo understood using improvisation as a tool that services a script and as its own art form. She wanted us to be knowledgeable and skilled theatre artists, creative artists, and to become self-actualized humans. This is not the goal of many teachers in any discipline.

    I am really enjoying his blog. It's my first and it took me a while to warm up to the idea. But now I'm loving it. I think everyone's comments and insight are brilliant and are adding value to the discourse on improvisation, acting, training, and group process.

    Thanks, everyone.

  • Comment Link Johnny Zito Tuesday, 05 July 2011 12:30 posted by Johnny Zito

    Very cool blog! Just a bit of info on what Don wrote and your reply...Viola studied with the Group Theater for a bit. As to the effects it had on The Games, if any, I'm not sure, but the Sills family should be able to answer. It was through them that I found out she was with the Group Theater. There's also a vid on Youtube where Viola speaks about Stanislavsky for a sec. Thanks again for writing this awesome blog! Keep us posted on the publishing of your thesis, would love to read it!

  • Comment Link Don Griffiths Tuesday, 05 July 2011 11:11 posted by Don Griffiths

    John, I think your distinction between actors who improvise and improvisers has really struck home. My training has been almost all as an actor. We have extensively used improvisation as a tool to recognize behavior and to stay in the moment, but I would say that might be the end of it. It is clear to me that there is a difference. It seems very interesting that here we have two art forms often borrowing from one another; and quite possibly look similar from the outside, that are not the same in so many other ways.
    I am also sure there are theatre teachers who blur the lines even more that perhaps are connecting the two more than seems apparent. ( i.e. Anne Bogart)
    I will stop now as I am sure there are very few people on this site who want to compare and contrast improv vs. scripted acting theory, but it gives me a footing, So onward and upward.

  • Comment Link John Michalski Monday, 04 July 2011 22:15 posted by John Michalski

    I find it difficult to embrace the idea that I am nearer the source of American Improvisation than of any other discipline that I've ever indulged in. Josephine, whether it was her intention or not, launched the first generation of Improvisors ... not actors who improvise ... not standup comedians ... not writers ... nor directors ... nor singers ... nor dancers ... Josephine was not an Improvisor ... Del was not an Improvisor ... Martin was not an Improvisor ... Sheldon was not an Improvisor ... None of the great teachers ... those we credit with our growth ... our mutation into Improvisors were Improvisors ... We are the first generation of Improvisors who embraced Improvisation as a performing art that stands alone among the other performing arts ... We took ideas from Del and Jo and everyone else who taught and launched an art form that at it's best never stops evolving ... We have personalized techniques ... we have created new techniques ... And most importantly we have mined our own performance experiences to bring more people into this world where anyone can play ... Jo used to say that she wanted to create a world with a theater on every block ... We are not quite there as yet, but it's way different than it used to be.


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Laura Merrill

Actor, Writer

Laura Merrill is a strong comedic actor and writer. She has recently contributed as a writer and performer to "The Beverly Bonner Show" at Broadway Comedy Club, and "In Transit" and "Something Outrageous" at the 45th Street Theater. She has experience in Shakespeare, Chekhov, and scenic design.