WTTW documentary recalls how Chicago gave birth to improv

Inventing Improv

From the Compass Players at the University of Chicago to The Second City, Chicago has been synonymous with improvisational comedy for decades. But few know the real story of how the world-famous art form began.

“Inventing Improv,” the latest installment in WTTW-Channel 11’s “Chicago Stories” series, premieres at 8 p.m. Friday on the Window to the World Communications public television station.

The one-hour documentary and accompanying website explore the life and legacy of Viola Spolin, the social worker and daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants who came to be known as The Mother of Improv.

Viola Spolin

As a teacher at Jane Addams’ Hull House on Chicago’s West Side, Spolin devised a set of “theater games” to help immigrants acclimate to life in the city and work together on a stage as an ensemble. Those techniques formed the basis of improv as we know it today.

“Spolin is another one of the unsung heroes behind many things whom you don’t hear about, especially if they’re a woman of a certain time period,” Jude Leak, writer and producer of the film, told WTTW digital producer Meredith Francis.

“It’s a fascinating story that the roots of improvisation are in this idea of democracy. It’s rooted in social ethics. And it makes perfect sense that it would be. But again, it’s important to recognize the connection to Hull House, another Chicago jewel, because that’s just another reason to be really proud of Chicago.

“What I recognized in interviewing so many people involved with Chicago theater is that there is such a reverence for Viola and her work. I got a real sense that people were thinking, ‘Wow, it’s about time that someone’s telling her story, because she really deserves it.’”

Spolin’s son, Paul Sills, became co-founder and director of both the Compass Players and The Second City.

Along with rare archival footage and clips of such stars as Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch, the documentary features interviews with Alan Alda, George Wendt and Tim Kazurinsky, among others.

“We hope the audience comes away with an appreciation for improv, as Paul Sills described it, as the most democratic form of theater, because it values everyone equally as a player,” Leak said. “The essence of improv is community . . . performers using their gifts to make a better place for everybody. And it all started in Chicago.”

Monday’s comment of the day: Martin Hawrysko: Congratulations to Dave Juday on his continued success in the broadcasting industry, now as a mentor to the next generation of broadcast professionals. Still remember the early AM 1000 days when he was on at night with Steve Olken and Dave Wills on the old “Sports Line.”