By: Jay Reid
Earlier this Spring, I chatted with a 93-year-old man. He flew from New York to Ottawa without medical clearance wearing a bandanna around his forehead like a gosh-dang rockstar. This is him with my friend, Justin Collette.
This encounter was important and terrifying for two reasons:
1) When I meet people this old, I always worry they're going to die right in front of me (and somehow I will be blamed).
2) This person invented the first improvisational theatre in North America and you're never supposed to meet your heroes.
If improv has given you anything, you probably have this man to thank too, even though you may never heard of David Shepherd.
I will explain, but first...
A TINY IMPROV HISTORY LESSON
Most of improv techniques we use today were developed in the late 1930's by a brilliant academic named Viola Spolin. Spolin created a compendium of group exercises as a means of fostering the social development and confidence of inner-city and immigrant children in Chicago. These therapeutic games with a focus on spontaneous play were later formalized as 'Theatre Games' or 'Improv Games'.
Yes, improv was 'more-or-less' invented as a means galvanizing people - not creating comedic performance as you might expect.
A few years later Viola Spolin's son Paul Sills adapted these exercises for the use of training actors and together with David Shepherd (the very old man) started North America's first known improvisational theatre, The Compass. The Compass players performed their first show in the back of bar near The University of Chicago and in 1955 North American improvisational theatre was born. Paul Sills later went on to co-found The Second City and David Shepherd went on to create the Improv Olympics which led to the development of improv mainstays, iO and The Canadian Improv Games.
All this to say, that connecting with David Shepherd in person was like meeting improv's Mozart. Improv is a young art-form and we're lucky to have some of the originators still with us.
NOW BACK TO THE ENCOUNTER...
In the lobby of The National Arts Centre in Ottawa a handful of volunteers from The Canadian Improv Games including myself sat around David and peppered him nervously with questions, him sitting in his walker and us on the floor around him in horseshoe like an overgrown kindergarten class.
"I still remember the first time I met Viola Spolin..." David mused. "She came into the Harvard Club like she owned the place. And she looked like a plum!"
I later discovered that club was a mens-only club. So apparently, improv's Mother was a bad ass - nice! The word plum? I'm still unsure what that meant.
"David what's the most important thing about improv?" Someone else asked.
"The where. You see..." He pointed to someone across the circle. "You're feet are placed on of each other rather curiously - what does that mean?"
Mysterious. Vague but poignant.
IT WAS NOW MY TIME FOR A FEW QUESTIONS
Jay: "David, what's the biggest mistake you've ever made?"
David: [long pause] "That's a very hard question...[more pause]...because I've been very successful."
Jay: "David, What's your favourite thing other than improv?"
David: "Making love."
What I hold dear about David's story is that he is on a quest to galvanize people through improvisation, he cares less for the comedic and more about how improv "shows you people's "guts" - his words. For info on the history of North American improv and David Shepherd's story I highly recommend Mike Fly's documentary below.