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From Hull House to Second City: How Chicago immigrants helped change theater

Viola Spolin - Second City
Photo courtesy of the estate of Viola Spolin, www.violaspolin.org. All rights reserved.
Viola Spolin, the so-called mother of modern improvisational theater, directs children circa 1940 at Chicago's Hull House using games to teach the multi-cultural actors about theater. Her son, Paul Sills, who carried on her efforts and helped found The Second City, is at the far left.

What do Jane Addams, the 19th century Chicago reformer, and modern, improvisational comedy have in common? The work of the first lead to the second.

Humor isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the philanthropic and often stoic-looking Addams, but her philosophies about democracy and helping immigrants inspired a new type of theater that caught fire in Chicago and still rages throughout the country.

At the forefront of this theatrical wildfire was Second City, a modern comedy behemoth. It started in Chicago in the 1960s as a small, experimental theater that produced bare bones shows in a new style known as improvisation, in which actors take suggestions from the audience and spontaneously turn them into humorous skits. Improv requires actors to work as a team. Prima donnas are a death knell.

Second City now has centers in Hollywood and Toronto as well. Each center produces shows and trains anybody who wants to learn improv, from serious comics looking for jobs to seniors looking for fun, people with anxiety looking for relief, and professionals looking for better skills.

Decades ago, it gained fame as a farm team for the long-lived Saturday Night Live (SNL) television comedy program. Many Second City alums became household names after spring boarding to SNL, movies, or TV: Tina Fey, Aidy Bryant, Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert, Joan Rivers, and lots more.

Their photos and quotes adorn the walls of the Chicago Second City’s Training Center. When you take a class there, as I have (full disclosure), one of the first things you see are quotes like Amy Poehler’s: “No one looks stupid when they’re having fun.” Or Gilda Radner’s: “Life is about not knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity.”

There’s also an lesser-known name – Viola Spolin. Her quote says: “The heart of improvisation is transformation.”

Spolin is considered the mother of modern American improv. She authored the so-called Bible of improv, Improvisation for the Theater. According to Second City’s website ((https://www.secondcity.com/people/other/viola-spolin/), the company wouldn’t exist without her.

You can’t talk about Second City’s roots or modern improv without talking about Spolin and Jane Addam’s Hull House in Chicago, where Spolin -- a young daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants - worked in the 1920s. “Jane Addams felt we all benefitted if we met others unlike us and learned to get along,” said Aretha Sills, Spolin’s granddaughter, who still teaches Spolin’s improv methods. Hull House helped immigrants assimilate into American culture.

There, Spolin learned to use games to do that. She assisted social worker Neva Boyd, who “believed in the use of play in education and social work,” Sills said. “Play taught them how to work as a group and as a community, and ultimately as a democracy, because when kids play together, they have to navigate all sorts of differences to get the game up and running.” In the “Improv Legends” documentary series, the late actress Valerie Harper said: “All of (Spolin’s) work is about cooperating and supporting others.”

Later in the 1920s, Spolin taught theater at Hull House as part of the Great Depression reform program, the Works Progress Administration. “Sometimes she just rounded up kids from the neighborhood and got them on the Hull House stage,” according to Sills. Inspired by her earlier experience at Hull House, Spolin developed games to put them at ease and spark their creativity. Those theater games became her life’s work. Spolin created hundreds and used them to teach actors and everyday people. “Viola thought the games would help them thrive in life,” said Sills.

Viola Spolin quote
Tara McClellan McAndrew
At Chicago's Second City Training Center, quotes from alums like Bill Murray and Amy Poehler adorn the walls. Among them is one from a lesser-known name, a teacher who shaped their art form -- Viola Spolin.

“(Spolin’s teaching) became a way to live,” says the California actor Paul Sand, who studied with her as a child. “It was like learning to trust my instincts.” Later, he helped form Second City and worked the rest of his life in TV (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Friends and Lovers,” “Joan of Arcadia,”), theater (he won a Tony), and movies. He’s written a play that is based on some of Spolin’s games.

Spolin’s son, Paul Sills, learned those games while working with his mother as a child. Later, when he was a student at the University of Chicago, Sills taught some of his college friend’s his mother’s theater games. That turned into a new theater troupe – The Compass Players – in 1955. Spolin helped train them.

The company was novel. Its actors didn’t use scripts, they improvised shows. “The work they did and the way they went about it proved to be a watershed development in the history of theater,” wrote Jeffrey Sweet in, Something Wonderful Right Away: An Oral History of the Second City and the Compass Players. Compass only lasted a few years, but it created comedy greats like Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Barbara Harris, and Ed Asner, says Mark Larson, the Chicago author of the book, Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theater.

Paul described Compass as a “search for community” in the September 1955 issue of Chicago magazine. He wanted theater to respond to the community’s needs and issues, which was Addams’ aim at Hull House. “I’d like to see neighborhoods all over the city form groups like this,” Paul said.
“Paul was very political,” Larson says. “He saw improv as a way of teaching about democracy. It wasn’t about lead characters, it was about the group.” His mother used to say, “we’re a basketball team, there’s no one player, we work with each other,” said Sand.

In 1959, Sills made history. He formed the Second City with some of the Compass players and others. It was housed in a “tiny, former Chinese laundry” on the south side of Chicago,” says Larson, and was “totally new.” Actors satirized current events; one of the early shows poked fun at FM radio’s superiority complex. “I talked to a lot of people who were there at the time,” Larson added. “Marcel Marceau (the famous French mime) came, all kinds of people came because they had heard about Second City, this little, tiny place. And that started putting Chicago on the map theatrically.”

The Second City actors didn’t realize they were making history. “We were just there, on this street in Chicago with no desire to be any place else. We were having so much fun,” Sand said. "They realized their impact “when we read about Second City in Esquire magazine, talking about this group in Chicago that are such great satirists. That never occurred to us. We didn’t take that too serious, it would have gotten in the way.”

Spolin and her son, Paul, quit Second City after about five years. “It was during Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement,” said his daughter, Aretha Sills. “He wanted a different way to react theatrically than satire. He wanted Second City to be pure improv instead of scenes inspired by improv.” (Second City began performing skits that stemmed from audience suggestions but were later rehearsed and reworked.) Paul went on to Broadway and television. Spolin continued to teach her theater games.

Today there are improv theater companies around the country and beyond. Not all are based directly on Spolin’s work, but many are inspired by it, according to Sills. “An essential part of this story is modern improv’s astonishing impact and longevity,” Larson said. “It isn’t going away. It’s become a part of teaching on campuses, a part of the way actors prepare for plays. I think it just stretched us.”