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.”

 

 

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