A Short History of Improvisational Theatre

(click here to read a Belorussian translation)

Improvisational theatre is as old as time. It pre-dates the invention of writing, since long before we started writing scripts we were telling stories by acting them out.

The Commedia Dell'Arte

Over the centuries, there have been many different improvisational styles. The most direct ancestor of modern improv is probably the Commedia Dell'Arte, which was popular throughout europe for almost 200 starting in the mid-1500's. Troupes of performers would travel from town to town, presenting shows in the public squares and on makeshift stages. They would improvise all their own dialog, within a framework provided by a set "scenario".

After the Commedia died off, improv theatre faded into obscurity until it was separately and spontaneously re-invented by two people who have shaped the craft as it exists today -- Keith Johnstone and Viola Spolin.

Keith Johnstone and Theatresports

Keith Johnstone started formulating his theories about creativity and spontaneity while growing up in England, and later brought them into his teaching at the University of Calgary. He felt that theatre had become pretentious, which is why the average man in the street didn't even consider attending it. Johnstone wanted to bring theatre to the people who went to sporting and boxing matches, the same audience that Shakespeare had written for in his day.

Johnstone decided that one approach would be to combine elements of both theatre and sports, to form a hybrid called Theatresports. The trappings of team sports were adapted to the improvisational theatre context; teams would compete for points awarded by judges, and audiences would be encouraged to cheer for good scenes and jeer the judges ("kill the umpire!").

Through Theatresports, Johnstone's ideas have gone on to influence (directly or indirectly) almost every major improv group.

Viola Spolin and Theatre Games

Back in the 1920's and 1930's, a woman named Viola Spolin began to develop a new approach to the teaching of acting. It was based on the simple and powerful idea that children would enjoy learning the craft of acting if it were presented as a series of games.

Spolin's son, Paul Sills, built on his mother's work and was one of the driving forces of improvisational theatre centered around the University of Chicago in the mid-1950's. Along with people like Del Close and David Shepherd, Sills created an ensemble of actors who developed a kind of "modern Commedia" which would appeal to the average man in the street. As with Theatresports and the original Commedia, the goal was to create theatre that was accessible to everyone.

The group that sprang from the work of Sills, Shepherd and Close, called The Compass, was extremely successful. It brought people to the theatre who in many cases had never gone before, and eventually led to the development of a company called Second City.

Through The Compass and Second City, Spolin's Theatre Games have gone on to influence an entire generation of improvisational performers.

For more information...

Check out the books Impro by Keith Johnstone (Methuen) and Something Wonderful Right Away by Jeffrey Sweet (Limelight). Also check out the improv book list.