Improvised performance is as old as performance itself. From the 1500s to the 1700s, Commedia dell’arte performers improvised in the streets of Italyand in the 1890s theatrical theorists and directors such as Konstantin Stanislavski and Jacques Copeau, founders of two major streams of acting theory, both heavily utilised improvisation in acting training and rehearsal.
While some people credit Dudley Riggs as the first vaudevillian to use audience suggestions to create improvised sketches, modern theatrical improvisationis generally accepted to have taken form in the classroom with the theatre games of Viola Spolin in the 1940s and Keith Johnstone in the 1950s. These rehearsal-room activities evolved quickly to an independent artform worthy of presentation before a paying audience.
Viola Spolin can probably be considered the American Grandmother of Improv. She influenced the first generation of Improv at The Compass Players inChicago, which led to The Second City. Her son, Paul Sills, along with David Shepherd, started The Compass Players and Second City. They were among the first organised troupes in Chicago, Illinois and from their success, the modern Chicago improvisational comedy movement was spawned.
Much of the current “rules” of comedic improv were first formalized in Chicago in the late 1950s and early 1960s, initially among The Compass Players troupe. From most accounts Elaine May was central to this intellectual effort. Mike Nichols, Ted Flicker, and Del Close were her most frequent collaborators in this regard. When Second City opened its doors on December 16th, 1959, Viola Spolin began training new improvisers through a series of classes and exercises which became the cornerstone of modern improv training. By the mid 1960s, Viola’s classes were handed over to her protégé, Jo Forsberg who further developed Viola’s methods into a one-year course, which eventually became Players Workshop, the first official school of improvisation in the country. During this time Jo Forsberg trained many of the performers who went on to star on Second City stage.
Simultaneously, Keith Johnstone’s group The Theatre Machine, which originated in London, was touring Europe. This work gave birth to Theatresports, at first secretly in Keith’s workshops, and eventually in public when Keith moved to Canada. Toronto has been home to a rich improv tradition.
In 1984 Dick Chudnow (Kentucky Fried Theater) founded ComedySportz in Milwaukee, WI. Expansion began with the addition of ComedySportz-Madison (WI), in 1985. The first Comedy League of America National Tournament was held in 1988, with 10 teams participating. The league is now known as World Comedy League and boasts a roster of 19 international cities.
In San Francisco, The Committee theater was active during the 1960s.
Modern political improvisation’s roots include Jerzy Grotowski‘s work in Poland during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Peter Brook‘s “happenings” in England during the late 1960s, Augusto Boal‘s “Forum Theatre” in South America in the early 1970s, and San Fransico’s The Diggers‘ work in the 1960s. Some of this work led to pure improvisational performance styles, while others simply added to the theatrical vocabulary and were, on the whole, avant garde experiments.
Joan Littlewood, the English actress and director who was active from the 1930s to 1970s, made extensive use of improv in developing plays for performance. However she was successfully prosecuted twice for allowing her actors to improvise in performance. Until 1968, British law required scripts to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. The department also sent inspectors to some performances to check that the approved script was complied with exactly.What