CHAPTER 1: TV. Historical influences on improv. Why did impro start when it did and why did it grow?

This chapter is part of a series of blogs about my personal opinions on the historical influences on improv, why it started when it started, why it survived and then flourished, and where it fits into the wider scheme of things.


This is a work in progress, a blog not a PhD, so feel free to comment and add at the bottom and at some point I’ll re-write a more complete annotated version.

This blog makes the assumption that modern impro/improv in its current form started in the 1940s and 1950s. You could argue that in fact impro has always been around in different forms (Commedia dell’Arte, Carnival, Mask, Oral Storytelling etc) but as a recognisable thing called impro/improv the 1940s and 1950s seem to be the agreed start point.

The Early Days – Viola Spolin, The Compass Players, Second City, Keith Johnstone

Viola Spolin, a pioneer of improv, created improvisation acting exercises in the 1940s and 50s in Chicago, originally as a drama supervisor on the Chicago Works Progress Administration Recreational Project, working primarily with children and inventing improvisation games as a basis for theatre training.

Viola’s influence on her son Paul Sills lead to him founding The Compass Players in 1955 with David Shepherd, originally putting on semi-improvised scenario plays and then a full on improvised show based on audience suggestions. Incidentally I heard that David Shepherd’s original dream was along the lines of a ‘theatre of the people, where secretaries, miners, farmers and construction workers can all get up on stage and perform there and then’ I love and hopefully still support.

When The Compass Players went their separate ways in 1959 some carried on in St. Louis with a new Compass Players group, including Del Close who went on to be hugely influential in the world of improv.

After Paul Sills left The Compass Players he set up The Second City in 1959 with Howard Alk and Bernie Sahlins, which went on to be hugely successful.

Viola Spolin first published her book Improvisation for the Theater in 1963, and it is still hugely relevant today.

Almost simultaneously Keith Johnstone in London was forming something similar. He first worked as a school teacher in Battersea and then in the late 1950s was working at The Royal Court Theatre, as a play-reader and then as Director of their writers’ group. He abandoned their boring discussion meetings in favour of acting out ideas there and then, leading to various improvisation games.

Keith Johnstone’s writer’s group led to improvisation classes as a thing in itself, which lead to him experimenting with performing improvisation games in front of an audience as ‘The Theatre Machine’, touring schools and colleges and then around Europe with support from The British Council throughout the 1960s.

Keith Johnstone’s work seems to have happened in isolation from Viola Spolin, as according to his book Impro he didn’t hear about Viola’s work until an audience member lent him Viola’s book in 1966, hence the subtle differences between the two schools of thought and two words: Impro and Improv. I always feel that taking sides between the two is like deciding to run using only one of your feet, a surprisingly pointless decision that vastly limits your capabilities.

In the 1970s Keith moved to Calgary in Canada to teach at the University of Calgary. He there co-founded the Loose Moose Theatre, inventing Theatresports and various formats. He first published Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre in 1979, a book that’s also still very relevant today.

But why then? Why now? What else influenced the start and ongoing growth of improv?

There are loads of other people involved in the early days of improvisation, and many other steps they took to grow it and support it. But all that is already well documented in various books and websites (e.g. The Art of Chicago Improv by Kozlowski, Keith Johnstone’s books, Viola Spolin’s books etc and the great youtube video so I won’t spend more time writing about it.

What I’m interested in adding to this history is what other factors influenced this growth. Why did improv seem to pop up independently on different sides of the Atlantic, at a similar time, in a similar form? People are always experimenting with theatre, but why did this particular new form of theatre bed in and grow? Why does impro seem to be exploding in growth over the last ten years? What are the historical, social, cultural, environmental and political reasons influences on all this improv stuff?

Questions, questions, questions, there are going to be some answers coming out over this week, with some different ideas each day. Feel free to make your own opinions and add comments at the end.

  1. Start of Television and Ongoing Growth of The Screen

The modern television was first demonstrated in London by Scottish inventor John Logie Baird in 1926. Basic public broadcasts were established in the UK and USA by the late 1920s, with modern style broadcasting from the BBC in London by 1936. In the USA it became more familiar with the public due to the 1939 World’s Fair.

But Television didn’t achieve widespread public use over the 1930s and early 1940s due to World War II limiting manufacture. Proper commercial networking programming in the US did not begin until 1948. In Britain TV ownership didn’t become widespread until the build up to the much watched Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

So the birth of widespread television ownership in each country coincides almost exactly with the birth of modern improvisation in each country. Spookily enough countries that were later to the game with improvisation (Canada, Australia and New Zealand) were also later to the game with television ownership.

Of course this could just be a coincidence and me inventing cause & effect, similar to saying that the spread of microwave ovens
resulted in man landing on the moon, but I personally think there’s more to it.

Television has been highly destructive in my opinion (read Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander for loads on this). Before TV, entertainment was done with other people. Entertainment was sociable. Entertainment involved dancing, singing, interacting, talking, playing games, playing music. It also involved getting out of the house and into shared spaces. If it was in the house it involved family and friends interacting. Entertainment was active. Even the solo activity of reading is active, as you have to actively create the imaginary world suggested by words.

Before Television people were capable of making their own Entertainment. The Victorians played parlour games (many similar to impro games and even used to great effect by impro group Fat Kitten). In my own South London family the Grandparents from both side would still play the piano at family gatherings, organise songs and go ball room dancing. Parties would involve kids putting on sketches, doing mini-plays and magic. When they got a new pianola they played with the windows open so the neighbours could hear. My Dad’s Father was an accountant by day but pub pianist by night, going into random pubs to play and
get people singing. Music Halls would be packed with people chatting, watching acts, interacting. This has actually been a personal drive for me with Hoopla, as it is a part of South London life I thought was worth keeping alive.

When I’m putting shows together I often imagine I’m a Victorian Music Hall proprietor and try to create the same vibe in the modern world, as I see impro as the same ‘type’ of theatre as Music Hall (Rough Theatre, a term from Peter Brook’s book The Empty Space) that we always have a need for.

Then cinema arrived, pretty much killing off Music Hall/Vaudeville overnight. Movie Theatres might have killed off Music Hall
Theatre but at least they still got people out of the house, and at first were incredibly sociable places with all of the community together. Also, the originally movies actually featured old Music Hall stars (Charlie Chaplin etc) and were heavily influenced by that performing style.

But then TV brought people back indoors into segregated houses where they passively stare at an artificial light for hours on end. It’s a passive form of entertainment that keeps people isolated while giving them the impression that they are experiencing the world. Humans evolved to tell each other stories at the end of the day, now the TV does all the storytelling for us so we don’t have to talk to each other.

TV was the first of many media to place an individual screen between us and our view of (and later our interaction with) the world. As the years have gone we now also work through screens (computers), socialize through screens (facebook), play through screens (computer games), seek love through screens (internet dating), talk through screens (text, skype, facetime), and even have sex through screens (internet porn). Then when we want a break from all that we go to IMAX, nice one humans!

Screen interaction has replaced what used to be moments for genuine human connection. And we start it at such a young age, and in such volumes, that eventually the screen is the thing we practice most and human connection and interaction least.

Dr Aric Sigman, of the British Psychological Society, via the BBC:

  • At age 75, the average British person will have
    spent more than twelve years of full 24-hour days watching television.
  • The average six-year-old will have already
    watched television for more than one full year of their lives.
  • Children aged 11 to 15 now spend 53 hours a
    week, seven and a half hours a day watching TV and computers, an increase of 40
    per cent in a decade.

As TV has taken over our lives impro (among other things) has maybe survived and developed as an extreme reaction to regain human connection. I often start my workshops with a basic mirroring exercise – two people stood opposite each other, with eye contact, copying each other’s movements. After a whole day of phone, kindle, computer, phone, television this simple exercise is beautifully simple and yet surprisingly powerful. There’s a human, in front of you, now, and there’s nothing in the way.

I think of impro workshops are part of a massive uncoordinated movement of anti-TV/screen activities that seem to particularly thrive among urban dwellers (now almost half the World’s population by the way). This includes things like Bikram Yoga (advertising tagline ‘love your sweat’), Glastonbury (note constant use of mud in PR), adventure obstacle race Tough Mudder (again note use of elemental Fire, Earth, Water in marketing) and loads more.

Ironically the rise of impro also coincided with TV due to performers from the impro stage making it big on TV shows like Saturday Night Live, in fact that might have enabled the birth of more corporate improv companies.

The underlying marketing message is often “Because John Belushi/Dan Akroyd/Bill Murray/Mike Myers/Tina Fey did this course, then if you do this course you will end up doing what John Belushi/Dan Akroyd/Bill Murray/Mike Myers/Tina Fey did”. Quite often this doesn’t make logical sense because the people teaching the original course have moved on, and the reason
the people became famous in the first place was because they came up with something new and current and relevant by experimenting in the moment, rather than obeying a set course. But it still seems to be what brings in 1000s of people per year, and each year there seems to be a new improv school that is subtly marketing the ‘Get Famous on TV’ lure.



Blog by Steve Roe, co-founder of Hoopla Impro. Hoopla run improv comedy courses & classes and shows in London and across the UK. Twitter: @HooplaImpro. Facebook: HooplaImpro.

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