Disclaimer: There were so many juicy quotes in this book that most of the review is going to consist of them. No, seriously, that's gonna happen. If I spent like a week reading and typing these things up, y'all can read 'em.
The copy of this book that I'm reading is straight up from 1978. Yay libraries. Anyway, the editor of the book got the idea for it after realizing that most of the theater/film people he admired were graduates of Compass Players, Second City, and a couple of other improv theater companies cut for space. He got the idea to interview some of the best known alumni about their participation back in the day, dating from the mid-70's. He was shooting for Rashomon-style, but was unable to get a few interviews such as Viola Spolin and Elaine May...but what can you do. But he still got a loooooong list of professionals to talk about theater, bias, and each other. He also starts out with a brief theater history, starting from the concept of commedia dell'arte in Renaissance Italy and moving on to David Shepherd's creation of The Compass in 1955, and the later creation of Second City, which rolls on. He starts out by interviewing Shepherd and Paul Sills, director of Second City.
Shepherd doesn't get all that much play in this book, probably because he wasn't doing it for all that long by comparison. But here's an interesting rundown on him by Theodore J. Flicker:
"He introduced Shepherd and me, and we liked each other very much. Our aims were the same. Popular theater. Though I always felt that he was a touch too visionary, and he always thought I was a touch too crass. He really did believe you could do improvisational theater on tabletops in a lunchroom of a Gary, Indiana, steel mill and that the workers would adore it, when, in fact, what the workers really wanted to do was have lunch and "Stick your theater up your ass, who the hell are you?"
But it seemed to me that with improvisational theater, David had come up with the best possible idea. That maybe this was the answer to everything."
Amusingly enough, the author points out:
"As might be expected, the community portrayed here is by no means one big harmonious bowl of good will. Undeniably, certain personality clashes developed at The Compass and The Second City, and, to the extent to which I think they are relevant to the work the companies did, I have incorporated mention of them."
Hoo boy, is this ever the case! A LOT of drama especially comes from the mention of Paul Sills, everyone's "favorite" big shot director.
"A good deal of this book is devoted to various reactions to working with Paul Sills, and quite a bit of it attests to his often upsetting behavior in rehearsal. I cannot confirm or deny these impressions on the basis of my own experiences."
Regarding the interviews he did with Sills, the editor says:
"He agreed to meet with me on the condition that he have final approval on quotations attributed to him. With this caveat in mind, I taped an initial session with him and then prepared an edited transcript which I submitted for his approval. He felt it rambled and proceeded to cross out two-thirds of the transcript, eliminating most of what I felt provided insight into the driving forces behind his work.
In the meantime, we had become friendly, and I told him I thought what we had so far wasn't a sufficient representation of his perspective. A year after the first session, we taped a second. I prepared an edited version of this and sent it to him for his approval.
This time, he cut only about one-fourth of the material."
As a former journalist, this makes me wince a lot. DAMN, dude. Anyway, let's start this puppy out by letting the man speak for himself: Paul Sills, everyone!
"I think it's a dark hour and everybody better man the pumps and get in there and get ready because this society has turned out an awful lot of slaves--people who are too afraid to move one way or another--and that could cause a lot of trouble. Samuel Adams said it: "If the spirit of liberty sleeps in the people this will become a nation of tame and contented vassals." That was his prophecy and he wasn't about to let it happen then. I pick up that pride. To me it's very important the people get a little heart and spirit back. Now I can't go up to some guy who's putting in a lot of dead time with his life and say, "Look, you're screwing your own existence." But if the actors hit it, everybody will pick it up."
"Improvisation has led me to some kind of understanding of the spiritual reality, but I can't express it clearly. I do think that theater and religion and education are very closely connected. Many church people are very aware of the spiritual value of the games. They didn't see it in The Second City because it was clever people entertaining in revue form. But with the kind of group improvisations that happened at The Game Theatre, they become very aware of the spirit's presence. The authentication of the spirit--which has something to do with the church--is vital to the theater and is something that the theater can and must do."
Hoo boy. I have to say, that's some deep stuff and I like those thoughts. This seems to be the dilemma of Sills in general: good thinker, horrible ....execution, I guess? I did a fun little roundup of the quotes about him so you get the drift.
- Andrew Duncan, who cites Paul Sills as a chair-thrower: "Don't drop your pants," he'd say, "but if you do, make sure your ass is painted blue."
- Mike Nichols: "Paul never taught me, except as a person."
- Severn Darden: "Actually, I feel he has no talent at all. He's just an opportunist in it for the money. Paul Sills is in it for the buck. You can quote me on that." (Wait, he's in theater for money?! Wrong business for that!) And also: "I mean, Hitler was a simple megalomaniac. Sills believes it! Can you imagine the hell he goes through!"
- Sheldon Patinkin: "I love Paul very much and respect his talent as much as anybody I've ever met. He has also given me more hellish times in my life than anyone who is not a relative. And I have been just as rotten to him"
- Paul Mazursky: "I think perhaps the most important thing that Paul Sills has done is to create an arena and constant work for a lot of people--work that is obviously gratifying and intelligent. I'm glad I was part of it, but I feel I would like to see some of them drop their pants."
- Joan Rivers: "Paul Sills never looked me in the eye. There's nothing to say about Paul except that he hired me and then I don't think we ever connected."
- Avery Schreiber: "He's a great technician of the human spirit. He can make things happen. You might not like what comes out. You might not like the hammering that goes into it sometimes, but then... he's mellowed out lately. There was a time when many people could hold Paul up with a sort of reverence. I can't do that any more. Because he's a conduit. A conduit for creative experience. We can grow and get nourishment by drinking from a cup, but the cup itself, sad to say, can't partake."
- Robert Klein: "Paul Sills is not a great communicator. That was the real crack in the arch of his reputation. Paul knew what to do but couldn't always communicate it."
Wowza. But seriously, there is so much delightfully catty stuff the interviewees say about each other! It's so much fun! (And must have been so ugly after book publication!)
- Bernard Sahlins: "For instance, I like David Steinberg very much. But I would no more think of having him in a company now than the man in the moon because he uses the other actors for his own advancement with the audience, his own advancement in life. He's a user. He's totally self-involved. He's a Duddy Kravitz. And I like him. I love being with him. He's charming, he's sentimental and sweet, but he's a prick in that way."
- Robert Klein: "I mean, we we would get into a scene and he would maneuver it so that I'd be sitting in a chair as he was pacing back and forth getting the attention....He always wanted to dominate the scene. When those little edges of advantage occurred, he always got them... By the time we closed, it was ridiculous. It really was like a David Steinberg jamboree!"
For the record, David Steinberg on himself: "I was selfish onstage, not just with [Robert Klein]--with everyone. I was selfish offstage, too. Let me put it this way: I feel that my Second City years were like my asshole years."
- Joan Rivers on Bernard Sahlins: "if I heard him say one more time, "If you don't like it, we can replace any one of you with a bartender...." There was no regard or respect for anybody." Did he make any creative contributions, the editor asks? "As far as I was concerned, only the salary check."
And then there's Severn Darden, who is apparently QUITE THE WACKADOO. It's a shame I never heard of him prior to this, he sounds up my alley of crazy.
- Alan Arkin:"What was his way of working? No one will ever be able to tell you, including him. God knows how Severn works! Severn was like working with cybernetic Jell-O. It's like working with an abstraction. He's not like a human being." How did you relate to that? "You couldn't. It was like playing Ping-Pong into a sponge. An enormous wet sponge. Whatever you threw at it would stick. I don't know how to describe him. He's not like any person I've ever known."
- Paul Mazursky:"Yes, his religion is New Orleans cape. He was at a New Year's Eve party at my house several years ago and he stood on the law and mooed like a cow all night long. That's all he did. People would walk by and he'd just be there and moo."
- Joan Rivers: "Severn pinched my boobies the first time I met him. It was just madness. I could never relate to Severn. He wore a cape and carried a walking stick. One time he brought me Nivea oil and poured it all over my back."
- Avery Schreiber: "I said to Paul, "Who'll I audition with?" He said, "Severn," and I chickened out. I said, "I won't go onstage with that man. I'm afraid of that man!" I told Paul, "I can't," and I didn't."
Severn Darden on himself, for the record: "I don't think I've ever had any dignity that I know of."
Bwahahahahahah. And just for fun, here's a choice moment with Del Close:
"About this time--I guess it was '58 or '59--I was taking acid for the Air Force. They were investigating REM--rapid eye movement--and I started as an experimental subject. The point is they would take me to the dream lab in Brooklyn, hook me up to this machine, I would dream, and when REM indicated dreaming, they'd wake me up and say, "Are you dreaming?" "Yes, I am, you motherfucker." "What were you dreaming about?" "I don't know. Bunny rabbits." I didn't like it. I got tired of it real fast. About this time, Ted Flicker offered me a part in The Nervous Set, so I split for St. Louis. I left a forwarding address, and I got a letter that said, "Dear Mr. Close: You still owe the United States Air Force one dream."
What a job, man.
Reading a book this old does make you think about what was going on during that time period. The author takes care to ask about things like "how were women treated in the theater" and "how were non-white people treated in the theater," which gets some...interesting... responses. Like this one from Roger Bowen, answering the question of why there are so few black people doing improv:
"I think that satiric improvisational theater is definitely a cosmopolitan phenomenon and the people who do it and its audience are cosmopolitan people who are sufficiently liberated from that ethnic background to identify with whatever is going on throughout the world. They know what a Chinese poem is like and what Italian food tastes like. But I don't think most black people are cosmopolitan. I think they're more ethnic in their orientation, so when they're black actors, they want to do black theater.
You see, ethnic art tends to emphasize, enhance, and reinforce certain ethnic values, to say, "Our group is a good group." But when you get out of that and you identify with a larger intellectual environment, you say, "Well, gee, that was pretty narrow stuff." You get a concept of the brotherhood of man and how much alike people are rather than how different they are. You become de-ethnicized and you become a citizen of the world. And the thing you busted out of becomes a chrysalis, a discarded self, and the tendency is to turn on it.
Black people aren't at that point. The ethnic experience is very enjoyable, but it excludes the outer world. It's always "Us against them." In some ways it makes it easier for a person to get along because he doesn't have to fight every single battle."
After reading that, I was all holy god, dude, you are lucky you were saying that shit in the seventies instead of now. Wowza.
The various questions on sexism were better handled, especially since the editor did take care to interview women on their experiences as well. The ladies commented that they essentially had to play more limited roles due to the culture of the time, and there were less slots available for them in companies.
From the Q&A with Mark and Bobbi Gordon:
Q: Because it was related to what was going on socially--that women were more restricted in the roles they could play in society.
Mark: Yeah, and we reflected that. It's interesting that almost all improvisational companies had five men and two women or four men and one woman. I don't think that's changed even today.
Q: What kind of women did you find yourself playing, Bobbi?
Bobbi: I felt more comfortable in the stereotyped roles, I guess. In a lot of the scenarios I was the wife or the mistress. Elaine, on the other hand, was always the psychiatrist or something like that. I tended to play traditional women. Elaine always went against that.
Anne Meara: "It being 1958 and women not having as much access to certain professions, whenever we got a suggestion from the audience--say, "A dentist in the Alps"--it would instantly be be funny if either Nancy or I started by playing the dentist."
Joan Rivers: "They hired her and me at the same time and they told both of us, "One of you isn't going to make it." This is the kind of thing they used to do. I can't remember if it was Paul or Alan Myerson who said this. "One of you girls isn't going to be here in a couple of weeks. Now, go onstage and be funny."...It was situations like this that were created by the management. If they had left us alone, it would have been a glorious period for all of us."
"Don't you think it makes you uptight? You both want the job, you both want to be actresses, you like each other, and you're both blonds? I can't tell you the hysteria."
Robert Klein: "The women were mostly less pushy and aggressive, so they did fewer scenes, so there were fewer women in the companies. It's kind of a mirror of what was happening in society generally."
On the other hand, there are some things that just came off...quaint, I guess. Such as Joan Rivers saying that pretty ladies don't have to be funny, and Avery Schreiber thinking that girls don't learn about teamwork via team sports in the way that men do, so they didn't have enough experience at that to trust themselves. Though to be fair, he also says later that he thinks the changes in society are improving the situation.
And then there's Gilda Radner: "I actually believe there is going to be a turnover in comedy, that you're going to see a larger number of women comics. Because women are where the social action is, and wherever the social action is is where the comedy is going to be."
Okay, and finally I'm gonna get to some actual Deep Quotes About Improv Theater:
Theodore J. Flicker: "The thing that makes improvisational theater so fascinating, and something which happened then but I was unaware of at the time, is that each company takes on its own character and the character of its audience. For me, the only reason for doing theater, as opposed to making films, is that in the theater you have live people. If you can't use that aspect--really use it--what the fuck is the point?"
Jerry Stiller: "The glory of this improvisational business was that you found something you could never do in a role as an actor. You all of a sudden were making a direct connection with your audience from your innermost feelings, because there was no time to prepare or fabricate or give anything that was less than true. Coming on at that moment with an instant selection, the audience was watching you, watching your mind think. You were exposed. You were absolutely open. There was nothing you could hide, and the audience recognized that. If you allow yourself to be totally open, the audience will respond in a way you won't find with any other format. That's why so many improvisational people were so absolutely successful."Bill Alton: "So the Game was about really accepting the reality. What it was about was that if you were a member of this group that plays the Game, if someone comes up to you and goes "Bang!," shooting you with an imaginary gun, no matter what you are doing, you fall down and do a death scene. Say you're winning a Pulitzer Prize for a novel you've written, and just as they're presenting it to you I go "Bang!," you've got to do a death, and the more convincing and outlandish, the higher your integrity and friendship is. We started doing this in London and it got really crazy with everyone shooting each other all over the place. We finally had to limit it to one shot a day, and you never knew when it would happen. The Old Vic used to hang out at The Establishment, and they got in on it. There are people all over the world doing it now, and if you see one of them and you shoot them you know you're going to die. I once shot Del on Greek Street in Soho and he died for something like four blocks."
Joan Rivers: "I was never truly happy at Second City, but it made my whole career. By working with these people, I learned self-reliance and I found out for the first time in my life that what I thought was funny, other people thought was funny also. I suddenly found out I didn't have to talk down in my humor, that there were a lot of people who could understand what I meant. It was wonderful that I could make a living making bright people laugh."
Avery Schreiber: "We got into transformations, and it got to the point where Dick and I could do transformations so fast--shift the reality of a scene and make an agreement so fast--that it became almost like ESP. Doing the transformations helped open me up a lot, helped me present my own personality onstage."
"I believe what she (Viola Spolin) and Paul have gotten into will last longer than this country. Thousands of years. Their names will be forgotten, as will all of ours, but what they've done has really opened up a new vista for communication."
Richard Schaal: "We are all one story, and the techniques or approach to that is that the story leads you. You don't lead the story, it leads you."
"What improvisational theaters and workshops would want to help everybody discover is a deeper intuitive--a wider understanding and more feeling. I've seen stiff spines soften and narrow minds broaden; people just go through incredible metamorphoses in this work.
"Well, it changed my life, and everyone I've known who's ever really been touched by it has been changed or altered for the better, I think."
Alan Alda: "For instance, I'm very interested in parapsychology and I see that in the games. I'm always talking about psychic connections. In the Apple Tree workshop, I would start off with a warm-up exercise which was a telepathy experiment. Everybody would have a paper and pencil and would get off by himself or herself in a corner of the room and try to draw a picture everyone else was drawing, but not know what it was going to be. In other words, try to hook into the same picture with everyone else. The interesting thing was that we did it for ten weeks and the first week there were a couple that were the same, and every week after that there were more and more pictures that were identical. Sometimes the shared drawing was an abstract design and sometimes a literal drawing. Nobody knew what it was going to be. In the final week, we had about seven or eight out of ten drawings that came out identical."
"I think you'll get a lot more people who become so-called stars coming out of improvisational theater than you would expect to get from any other group by virtue of what improvising gives you as a person.
Now I don't think anybody really knows what makes a star, but one of the things is probably self-confidence. Another is the ability to relax under the most harrowing conditions. Certainly improvising teaches you that. And there's another element which is extremely strong, but very hard to define, and that's magnetism, for want of a better word.
Up to now it has been thought that people are either born with magnetism or they're not. But I think improvising really makes you more magnetic, increases your natural magnetism. As you can guess, my own feeling about magnetism is that it is a telepathic thing--a kind of largely nonverbal bond between the performer and the audience. I want to amend that and say that I think it may be a telepathic thing. Of course nobody really knows what it is. When I say it's a nonverbal bond between the actor and the audience, I mean that there's a middle zone between direct, conscious signaling and telepathy. It's not a broad leap between the two. There's a continuum of communication that we all engage in, and between conscious communication and telepathy there's a middle zone of unconscious communication such as body signals. We process a great deal of information through this middle area of unconscious communication, and sometimes we learn more about another person unconsciously than we do consciously. I think it's this area of unconscious communication that lays the groundwork for telepathy. "
Oh, Alan Alda, you delightful hippie.
David Steinberg: "The goal at Second City was to be the smartest and funniest you could be. Comedy up until then had never been like that. Before, the audience went to see the comic and the comic played a schmuck they could feel superior to....Now I don't look at this as a lesser form of comedy. It's just a different form from what I and a lot of the younger people are into. What Lily and Richie and I are saying is, "Let me tell you what I think is funny." We're assuming that we are part of the same community as the audience and that they know what we know. We don't treat the audience as being above or beneath us. They're our peers."
Robert Klein: "Also, the poise and the general confidence you get from the Second City experience! You're on your feet six days a week in front of a live audience getting paid and getting into shape. Why, that's wonderful! There's nothing better! It's one of the purely positive aspects of my career, and I guess that's why I'll always think fondly of it and almost everything to do with it."
J.J. Barry: "So what I'm trying to create now is a totally safe environment where someone can actually make an asshole out of himself, which I wish the hell people would do. Because if you can't do it in a safe environment, you certainly can't do it in the world of reality out there. Because we know what that's all about."
Gilda Radner: "One thing about working at Second City--there would be nights where this magical, chemical, extrasensory thing would happen between you and the others, and something incredible would happen between you and the others, and something incredible would happen onstage... And later, you'd be so excited about what had happened, you couldn't sleep all night. You'd be trying to remember exactly what made it click so well and made it come together like a piece of art, with rising action and a climax and an end."
"Del said to us, when you are onstage at Second City, you can always get all the attention, you can always steal the focus and be the funny one. Just stick your finger in your nose and you can get focus. But to equal the other people onstage--to give them their moment and then take yours and go back and forth--that was the much more difficult and greater thing. To really have a game of catch with somebody is the true excitement of improvisation, and it's so much more rewarding.
Another thing about Second City--it was always an outlet for the emotion sand the agonies of the day. You would make comedic choices based on what was happening in your life. Your work would come from your soul. Sometimes there'd be a problem that you couldn't solve in your everyday life, but it would come up in a scene, and acting it out you'd solve it."
"What did we have? A revolving doorway, two other doors, and six or seven chairs. And we could make them anything we wanted."
"It took me a year and a half to get to the point where I could go mad on television. To feel comfortable enough to go insane. Second City afforded that opportunity all the time. The people who were best at it were mad. It's madness to begin with. It's you, writing on your feet, listening to the audience, watching yourself. If you think about it, the concept of creating a reality onstage, and then having to bend that reality to wait for the laugh...it's schizophrenic.
I miss Second City so much. Throwing a hat on and being a whole character, or sitting on a chair and pretending it's a car, or bringing on a stick and pretending it's a gun. I miss when you could just pretend anything in the world."
Around the end of the book, Joan Rivers says, "And I'd like them to throw a dinner for us so I could pick up an award--and my acceptance speech would be: "They were sons of bitches, but we owe it all to them." The editor finishes up by recounting an event like this that actually happened--the University of Chicago held a luncheon and handed out medals--though Joan didn't show up for it. Reunion performances happened with both theater groups, and the editor clearly had a very good time watching and briefly recapping it all--especially since he'd been too young to see them in their heyday.
Four stars. It's a very good read. I quoted a ton from it, but there's