Working with Robin

Carol Schindler performing with Robin Williams in 1984.

Carol Schindler performing with Robin Williams in 1983.


I’ll never forget the night that Robin Williams walked into our theater at Chicago City Limits and asked us if he could perform with us. It was in 1983 when he was in New York City shooting Moscow on the Hudson. As you might imagine, we were surprised and thrilled. We were just getting ready to begin our Saturday night show. We had recently gotten some good reviews and the house was packed.

Robin came backstage with us as we quickly changed the running order of the show to accommodate him and his amazing skills. He loved the idea of improvising a Shakespearean play so we did a Shakespearean “Caller’s Option.” A caller’s option is a scenic game where a cast member (the caller) stands on the side and every once in a while freezes the action and asks the audience how to continue. Unbilled and unannounced, Robin was going to make his initial entrance in a Shakespearean caller’s option.

Chicago City Limits performing with Robin Williams.

Chicago City Limits performing with Robin Williams.

The caller got the suggestion of a song title from the audience and a cast member entered and began a Shakespearean soliloquy using that title. The job of that first cast member is to set up a Shakespearean story: the king is in trouble and I must help him or I want the throne and I am out to destroy the king – that kind of thing. The caller then freezes that action and tells the audience that the king is going to enter with news and asks what is that news? The audience supplies the news. That is when Robin made his entrance as the king.

It took the audience a few seconds to realize just who the king was. You could hear a surprise gasp starting in the front of the audience and working its way to the back. Then came the applause.

Robin was a great improvisers and he did the whole show with us improvising in scenes, songs, and stories. He was a whiz at foreign language “gibberish” and he would improvise a poem in gibberish and one of the cast members would translate. He did a conducted story with us. He did a “first line/last line” scene. It was a magical night.

And it was just the first. Robin came back every weekend. He would come on a Friday night or a Saturday night and sometimes both nights. On stage he was on fire. Off stage he was soft-spoken, almost shy. I remember him as being kind and generous. We would sit backstage and talk about life and comedy.

Carol Schindler, with fellow members of Chicago City Limits and guest star Robin Williams in 1983.

Carol Schindler, with fellow members of Chicago City Limits and guest star Robin Williams in 1983.

When I heard the sad news about his death I was shocked. Even though it had been many years since I had seen Robin I felt in some way like he was a friend. I cared what happened to him and always wished him the best. I guess that was because he had given us such a gift with his talent and generous performances on our stage. I remember his manic stage presence and his shy offstage personality. I wondered if he was unable to ever comfortably merge the two. I have heard rumors that he was bipolar but I do not know if this is the case. I only know that all of us were unable to love him enough, that, in spite of fame and fortune, he must have felt very much alone, and that makes me sad. Still, he left us with a tremendous gift – his talent and his life! How he made us laugh and what a sacrifice for him that must have been.

Schindler in California, Selling Improv to Execs

Carol Schindler at a recent seminar.

Carol Schindler at a recent seminar.

Palm Springs, CA, TechServe Alliance Annual Conference, Nov. 14 –The presentation was entitled “Your Brain, Your Body, and Your Business: Trade Secrets from an Improviser,”  and the speaker was Carol Schindler, a founding member of Chicago City Limits and co-author of A DOCTOR & A PLUMBER IN A ROWBOAT: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO IMPROVISATION.

Schindler spoke about how it is “in the present moment that we are authentic, intelligent and impactful and yet, it is difficult it is to stay in the present moment when are minds are full of needless thoughts.”

She added: “You know how to show up. You could not be in business if you didn’t. However, there are those times when we get lost in our thoughts. Our minds are busy thinking about everything but what is happening right now. Your body is here but your mind is thinking about a meeting you went to yesterday or wondering if your flight home is going to be on time. Showing up is more than having your butt in a chair. It’s about paying attention to what is going on in the moment.”

Schindler revealed what she called “the three trade secrets” for “staying present”:

Breathing helps a speaker or performing stay grounded in “your body and aware,” she said. “This helps us to focus on what is happening in the moment instead of spinning our wheels over thinking,” she explained.

Active Listening helps a speaker or performer to “connect with others. We take listening for granted when in reality to really listen we have to be focused. Here is what active listen looks like: we are fully engaged in listening and not thinking of a response; we are making eye contact; our body language is open and positive; we are generously giving the speaker our full attention. Yes, it is very active, hence the name.”

“Yes, Anding,” she noted helps a person to :agree and to add to ideas, suggestions, and situations that we may find ourselves in. It is saying ‘yes’ to what is happening in the moment rather than resisting what is happening. In this way we learn to build on the ideas of others. Resistance stops creativity and innovation.”

Schindler will be teaching a Monday class, from 7-9 in New Jersey, starting in January.

When Theft Is the Sincerest Form of Flattery

An unused cover for the book.

An unused cover for the book.

To paraphrase  an old saying, “Theft is the sincerest form of flattery.”

That was one thought that went through the heads of Tom Soter and Carol Schindler when they saw three listings on the Google search engine that all offered free downloads of their book, A DOCTOR & A PLUMBER IN A ROWBOAT: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO IMPROVISATION.

“It was flattering in a strange kind of way,” Soter said, “because someone thought our book is popular enough to attract internet users to their scam, whatever it ultimately is.”

Soter also said that there was a site that offered nine of his books for a free download. “At least they are completists,” he said.

The copyright infringement was reported to Google, which removed the listings from the web.

Improv Author Reflects on Her Teachers

CCL, c. 1985: Chris Oyen (pointing) with (left to right) Paul Zuckerman, Carol Schindler, Linda Gelman, and David Regal.

Chicago City Limits, c. 1985: Chris Oyen (pointing) with (left to right) Paul Zuckerman, Carol Schindler, Linda Gelman, and David Regal.

Carol Schindler, co-author of A DOCTOR & A PLUMBER IN A ROWBOAT: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO IMPROVISATION, recently reflected on her three most important improv teachers.

“I have had the good fortune to have studied with three amazing improv teachers: Del Close, Paul Sills, and George Todisco. Each of these men was passionate about improv and each had a unique style of teaching the art.

Del Close, at Second City, was experiential and undisciplined. We never knew if he would even show up. He’d often get frustrated with us and walk out of class. He was high a good deal of the time. We stuck around because he was an improv genius, and when he was on, there was no other teacher like him. He pushed us to allow our imaginations to fly. I found working with him thrilling. I was part of his Farwell to Chicago show. And what a wild and wacky bit of work it was. He was my first improv teacher and I learned to love improv listening to Del and watching Second City.

George Todisco (center) with Chicago City Limits in 1980.

George Todisco (center) with Chicago City Limits in 1980.

George Todisco was a true artist. Like Del, he lived on the edge but George was more driven. I met George in Del’s class, from which he founded Chicago City Limits. George wanted to form a great improv group, hoping to make Chicago City Limits better than any other troupe out there. He took us on the road to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and New York City, so we could learn from the best and get our performance chops. He moved us to New York because Chicago did not need another improv group. And he was right.

“George was all about the performance. We worked our shows until they were perfect. We rehearsed and rehearsed the set pieces and drilled the improv games and scene work. He worked with us until it got to the point where we could almost read each other’s minds. George wanted dedicated improvisers. If you were not willing to risk all for improv, you weren’t welcome in the company. It was through George that I learned to be passionate about improv and, through him, I realized that improv was going to be my life’s work.

“Paul Sills was more quiet and studied. He was very interested in what unfolded in ‘the moment.’ He would not accept anything that was untrue or not organic to the scene. We struggled in his class to find the truth in scenes, which often emerged in the moment. He had cut his teeth on improv – his mother, Viola Spolin, had written the first book on it, Improvisation for the Theatre – so he was not easy to study with. He was so strict with his ideas and would not tolerate other approaches. I was an experienced improviser when I worked with Paul, and I found that studying improv with him was like trying to be a boxer with both hands tied behind my back. He tolerated none of my quick wit or active choices. But Paul Sills introduced me to working in the moment.

The book of improv.

The book of improv.

“Unfortunately, all three of these wonderful teachers has passed away leaving this planet way too soon. I grieve for them all but mostly for George, whom I loved dearly as a generous and good friend as well as a teacher.

“In this book, I will try to pass on to anyone interested a little of what these three men taught me. I will also pass on what I learned in my many years performing improv, for experience as they say, in the end is the greatest teacher. I am grateful to them and to everyone that I have ever performed with but especially the cast of Chicago City Limits, Linda Gelman, Chris Oyen, Paul Zuckerman, David Regal, and our wonderful pianists, Rick Crom, Eddy Ellner, and John McMahon. These are the people who not only taught me about improv but who worked and struggled and laughed and gave all to make Chicago City Limits what George wanted it to be, a great improv company.”






The Book of Improv

The book of improv.

It’s here!

The book that has been called “a document of our time,” by master teacher Rob McCaskill, and a book “for anyone who is is still on the path to knowledge,” by actor Mark Ruffalo. Veteran improvisers Carol Schindler and Tom Soter offer an essential guide to improvisation. “I wish I had this book when I was starting out!” says TV’s Hal Linden. 

A DOCTOR AND A PLUMBER IN A ROWBOAT, by Carol Schindler and Tom Soter, is for anyone interested in exploring how to have more confidence, be more spontaneous, and tap into their creativity. 

Aimed at improvisers and those who teach improvisation, the lessons in this book can also help actors, writers, teachers, corporate executives, producers, dentists, firemen, factory workers, goat herders, astronauts, social workers, magicians, accountants, manicurists, Ninja warriors, and, of course, doctors and plumbers. Improvisation can be helpful for everyone. Even if you don’t necessarily want help, it’s still just plain fun. 

Available now from Amazon.

Improv Author Remembers Key Moments

Rick Simpson, Tom Soter, Deb Rabbai, and Carl Kissin in a 1994 reunion of the New York Improv Squad.

Rick Simpson, Tom Soter, Deb Rabbai, and Carl Kissin in a 1994 reunion of the New York Improv Squad.

Tom Soter, the co-author of A DOCTOR & A PLUMBER IN A ROWBOAT: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO IMPROVISATION, remembers some keys moments from his many years of teaching and performing improv.

“When talking about making someone look good, I always remember a scene Leo Jenicek  did in my class years ago. The suggested location for the scene was a clearing in the woods, and Leo was sitting with his back to his scene partner – never a good idea, by the way – and in the audience we could see that he was miming writing a letter. But his partner could only see his back and that he was doing something with his arm. She made a guess and entered, saying, “Are you still frying those beans?” – or something like that – and Leo immediately twisted his hand around to mime the holding of a frying pan. Now, an inexperienced improviser would have said, “I’m not frying beans, I’m writing a letter” (subtext: you idiot). But Leo is a good improviser and he adjusted, not holding onto his idea and not pointing out that his partner had misinterpreted his actions. When you are improvising with an expert improviser you are in good hands. Working with an improviser like Leo is fun because you know that he’s got your back, so you can relax and let the scene flow. 

Leo Jenick, Michael Bridemstine, and Matt Ostrom, performing as part of the Chainsaw Boys.

Leo Jenick, Michael Bridenstine, and Matt Ostrom, performing as part of the Chainsaw Boys.

“In one show I was in years ago, I started a scene with Matt Ostrom  in complete silence. We looked at each other. Then he took a chair that was on the stage and moved it, very particularly, and set iy down on the stage. Then I took another chair and moved it, very particularly, and set it down on the stage. We ended up alternating in the arrangement of the chairs, which was done in a very precise manner; it was almost a ballet of the chair arrangement. The opening of that scene looked very impressive. My father, who was in the audience, said to me after the show, “You must have planned that bit with the chairs. It was very well choreographed.” But we hadn’t choreographed it. It was pure agreement – I agreed with Matt’s initial action and my intention was to make him look good. I could have just watched him rearranging chairs – be passive – but my instinct was to support his idea. Even though I didn’t know what we were doing – and he didn’t have much of an idea either – I went along with him and that made him look good, and he made me look good. And the scene that developed looked good too.

Tom Soter and Carol Schindler (far left) performing with the cast of Sunday Night Improv.

Tom Soter and Carol Schindler (far left) performing with the cast of Sunday Night Improv.

“I once had a student named Rhonda, who was very talented but didn’t understand how to start a scene. She would invariably start talking the moment it would begin. She would lay out a whole scenario – in effect, saying, “This is the story, and here is your part and here is my part.” She didn’t observe what her partner was doing – which is a way to inspire yourself – and she didn’t listen unconditionally to what her partner was saying. I ended up creating a rule for her, which I called “The Rhonda Rule.” Whenever the rule was imposed, Rhonda couldn’t start talking in a scene until her partner spoke for the first time. When “The Rhonda Rule” was in place, her partner could often draw out the silence at the top of the scene, forcing Rhonda to listen and observe. Some amazing scenes came out of that. They were all based on listening, observing, and communicating, too. I now apply the rule to other students who suffer from Rhonda’s complaint.

Tom Soter and Linda Gelman at Sunday Night Improv.

Tom Soter and Linda Gelman at Sunday Night Improv.

“Silence and listening can be a potent combination. I once did a scene in which my partner started talking about her character’s problems. She went on in a stream-of-consciousness sort of way, and as I listened and observed her, it seemed like she was solving her character’s problems as she spoke, so I ended up not saying anything, just nodding. The scene ended with her saying to me, “Thank you, Tom, talking with you sure helped straighten me out.” Blackout. And I didn’t say a thing. I just listened.

“Active listening is what the best improvisers do. Watching Chicago City Limits in the 1980s, I was often impressed by the “active listening” practiced by the troupe, especially when it did a “Conducted Story.” It was amazing the way the conductor could cut off cast members mid-word and the next person speaking would pick up at mid-word, seamlessly following the flow. It sounded like one person speaking.”


My Dinner With Miriam

Miriam Sirota and Tom Soter.

Miriam Sirota and Tom Soter.


The scene is a coffee shop. Miriam Sirota and I are talking about improvisation.

“What do you feel has to happen between a group of people to make a group scene work?” Miriam asks.

“They have to have a lot of silence at the beginning. And beyond the silence, they have to clear their heads of any preconceived ideas. Then they have to watch what the other people are doing, listen, and observe what’s happen and not speak until they feel they have something to say. Sometimes you speak without knowing what you mean entirely. You have to trust and leap somewhere. I know that sounds very mystical, but you rely on techniques to try and figure out who the people are, even as you’re acting them out. The best thing that can be said is you have to trust who you’re working with.”

“For me,” says Miriam, “in a group scene where so many people are involved, you have to be aware of what is the scene is about. Who are the people in the scene? Who is the conflict with? And you have to play the part that you need to play within that. Because a lot of times, people try to pull focus in a group scene, they try to take over instead of listening and observing.”

Chris Hoyle, Tom Soter, and Miriam Sirota at Sunday Night Improv.

Chris Hoyle, Tom Soter, and Miriam Sirota performing the Flamenco at Sunday Night Improv.

“There’s a very good example of that. We did a scene at a funeral and someone made a mistake and made a reference to one of the dead people being our mother, when we had established that it was our father. And some other improvisers offstage rushed on and changed the coffin – it was very broad and comic and explained the confusion, but it also broke the realistic mood and made it into a big gag. Instead of trusting that we could have explained the mix-up ourselves. But it didn’t stop there. Soon they started changing the coffin regularly and turned that into a pattern, a disruptive pattern, because they didn’t trust that we had anything happening and they wanted to get some immediate laughs going. That’s a good example of what happens if you don’t give improvisers their space you don’t give the scene its space to breathe.”

“You’ve taught improv for years. What do you think is the most common problem that most newcomers have?”

ChrIs Griggs and Miriam Sirota in the film FLOWERS ARE FOR FUNERALS.

ChrIs Griggs and Miriam Sirota in the film FLOWERS ARE FOR FUNERALS.

“They think they have to be funny. They feel like they have to come up with gags and quips and play zany characters. They’re not real. They try to come up with one-liners, rather than realizing that what improv is about is playing a thinly disguised version of yourself in different situations and using the same skills you use in life, which is to listen, to observe, to communicate, to try to not judge. And they’re very judgmental of themselves when they get up there.”


Improv Book Garners Fans

The book of improv.

The book of improv.

A DOCTOR & A PLUMBER IN A ROWBOAT: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO IMPROV is collecting new fans every day. Among the comments:

“I highly recommend the book A Doctor and a Plumber in a Rowboat: An Essential Guide to Improvisation to anyone starting out or who is still on the path to knowledge.” Mark Ruffalo, star, The Avengers: Age of Ultron

 “I wish I had this book when I was first starting out!” Hal Linden, star, Barney Miller

 “Hats off! A beautiful, worthwhile book. It is deep, informed, reflecting decades of first-hand experience… The two authors have distilled their complex understanding to a very readable volume. Like most great teaching, it comes across as simple. The prose style itself is clean, the syntax perfectly organized. The insights are wisely arranged and described with well-chosen examples. The two have captured the history and craft in 138 pages. It will remain a document of our time and will be read by actors and improvisers for decades to come. But, although it is a great teaching tool for anyone who wants to improvise well, it’s really about living well.  Sharing, listening, being in the moment, saying yes to the offers of others.”  Rob McCaskill, writer, actor, director, master teacher, improviser

Tom Soter, in front of the HomeGrown Theater, longtime home of Sunday Night Improv.

Tom Soter, in front of the HomeGrown Theater, longtime home of Sunday Night Improv.

“I love this book. I learned so much. It made me want to do improv every day. It also made me want to be a better improviser (to paraphrase a famous movie line). And I don’t think you can ask for anything more from an improv guide.” Ian Prior, emcee, All-Star Improv Jam

 “One of improv’s cardinal rules is ‘Never deny.’ In writing characters, the cardinal rule is ‘never sound written.’ Not as easy as it might seem. I found the best way not to sound ‘written’ was to remember my early training with Carol and the gang at Chicago City Limits. I learned to ‘improv’ scenes in my head, with no idea of where they might go. I found some of my best material this way.” William Lucas Walker, writer/producer, Frasier, Roseanne, Will & Grace, The Chris Isaak Show 

“Carol and Tom are the real deal, having been part of the vanguard that put  improv on the map in New York City. They have a deep love for the art form and great insights into the underlying skills. Carol and Tom understand improv.” Paul Zuckerman, executive Producer, Chicago City Limits

Tom Soter, Carol Schindler and other performers at Sunday Night Improv in 2008.

Tom Soter, Carol Schindler and other performers at Sunday Night Improv in 2008.

 “When I wanted to study improv I asked two talented performers I knew who I should study with. They both said, ‘Tom Soter.’ I’m happy, all these years later, to make the same recommendation. Tom is a great teacher who knows his stuff.”  Mike Bencivenga, playwright, Billy and Ray

“It’s hard to imagine my career – and life – being what they are without the skills I learned studying improv, and harder yet to imagine anyone better at teaching those skills than Carol Schindler.” Richard Doctorow, story editor, The Simpsons

 “Carol Schindler and Tom Soter have done an excellent job of explaining the underpinnings of improvisation. For those of us involved in corporate training, applying improvisation techniques is a great way to improve interpersonal communication and collaboration skills. This book gave me a better understanding of how I can incorporate improvisation in my own practice.” Holly O’Grady, corporate trainer 

Tom Soter (pointing) with the New York Improv Squad at the Village Voice Festival of Street Entertainers in 1985.

Tom Soter (pointing) with the New York Improv Squad at the Village Voice Festival of Street Entertainers in 1985.

“I always thought the reason to have improv training at a corporate event was to help managers lighten up and use humor at work. But when I read this, I realized that improv is the perfect model for building a culture of innovation and action. If want to learn how to get your team working together and pushing projects forward, put the lessons of this book in action.” J. Dunston, corporate trainer

“Tom Soter is a great improv teacher, a master of comedy and drama.” Marc Bilgrey, author, And Don’t Forget to Rescue the Princess



Carol and Tom on the Art of Improv

The book of improv.

The book of improv.

Improvisation, says the new book A DOCTOR & A PLUMBER IN A ROWBOAT,  is the “comedy of the moment.” Since its rebirth in Chicago many years ago, “improv” has become so successful that hundreds of improvisational groups have sprung up around the country. They have names like Chicago City Limits, the Upright Citizens Brigade, ComedySportz, the Chainsaw Boys, the N.Y. Improv Squad, Gotham City Improv, the Committee, Hi Robot, the Pollyannas, Shock of the Funny, Theatresports, For Play, and the First Amendment. Countless Improv alumni like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, the late Robin Williams, Drew Carey, and others have used their improv skills to catapult them to stardom.

But what is improv? It has its basis in the commedia dell’arte, an Italian Renaissance form of theater in which traveling comedy troupes would perform farces without a written script. Though the basic scenario was agreed upon, the pacing of the story often depended on audience reactions.

Modern improvisation began as drama exercises for children, developed by Viola Spolin and described in her book, Improvisation for the Theater. Her son Paul Sills began experimenting with improv for adults and performance in Illinois in 1955 when he – and students from the University of Chicago – began performing improvised skits from their own scenarios. This group developed into the Compass Players and later into Second City, the most successful improvisation group, and the one to which all modern improv groups owe their existence.

Improvisation shows – featuring scenes, games, story-telling, and music – have been increasing steadily since then. In the 1980s, Chicago City Limits and the First Amendment performed before packed houses in New York City, as did the Committee in California and ComedySportz seemingly everywhere (they are a franchise). And the trend continues to this day, with lines around the block for such groups as the Upright Citizens Brigade and such venues as the PIT (People’s Improvisational Theater) in Manhattan.

At Sunday Night Improv (l to r) Tom Soter, Miriam Sirota, Jeff Clinkenbeard, and Nancy Lombardo.

At Sunday Night Improv (l to r): Tom Soter, Miriam Sirota, Jeff Clinkenbeard, and Nancy Lombardo.

What is an improv show? Once upon a time, it was simple: a group of five or six players taking suggestions (a location, a state of mind, a relationship) that they would then use in a scene, story, or improvised song. These days, however, almost anything goes in an improv show: from the multi-layered “long-form” piece called “The Harold,” to the bizarre antics of a man who performs all the roles in a one-man improv “troupe.”

All of this has been fed and amplified by the success of such TV shows as Curb Your Enthusiasm, a series that utilized improv to create scenes for each episode using planned scenarios, much as the commedia dell’arte did, and the game show Whose Line Is It Anyway? The latter program was both good and bad for improv. Good, because It popularized the art form but bad because it also (through editing) made it appear as though improv succeeds every time and that you have to be a quick-thinking, specialized wit to do this stuff.

That ain’t necessarily so, as we hope to show you in our book.