A Brief History
Improvisational Theater is a uniquely American art form rooted in a rich and varied global tradition — ancient ritual, festivals, celebration, children’s games, commedia del arte, vaudeville, burlesque, cabaret, to name a few. Beyond having an immeasurable impact on contemporary pop culture, improvisational theater games have been a force for social change, impacting peoples’ lives in extraordinary ways.
The improvisational theater movement in America was started in the late 1930′s by Viola Spolin. In her twenties, she worked for the WPA as a social worker and “drama supervisor” at Hull House, Jane Addam’s famous settlement house in Chicago. Spolin used traditional children’s games and invented dozens of new games in workshops with immigrants to help empower them to become more spontaneous, less self-conscious and to build a supportive community (her games are collected in her seminal book “Improvisations for the Theater”).
Paul Sills, Spolin’s son, grew up playing “the games.” As a student at the University of Chicago in the 1950’s, Sills was an aspiring theater director. Since the University of Chicago had no theater department, Sills and a few actor friends turned an off-campus storefront into a small theater. Under Sills direction, they played theater games in front of live audiences. The shows became wildly successful. Out of these shows came legendary improv companies directed by Sills, first “The Compass”, and then “The Second City”. With early companies consisting of the likes of Mike Nichols, Elaine May and Alan Arkin, then later John and Jim Belushi, Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Steven Colbert, Tina Fey and many more. Second City continues to influence and shape the entertainment and cultural landscape of America.
Del Close, another brilliant young actor trained by Paul Sills at The Compass and The Second City, became the house director of San Francisco’s “The Committee” in the late 1960’s. Founded in 1963 by Alan Myerson, another Sills disciple, The Committee was an improvisational cabaret that soon became a San Francisco institution for more than a decade.
Ed Greenberg was a student at the University of California, Berkeley, who, like so many others, considered The Committee to be the coolest and funniest way to spend a weekend night in San Francisco. When Greenberg heard that Del Close was running open workshops, he showed up at The Committee the next day. By the end of that first afternoon workshop, Close had discovered an immediate and strong creative rapport with the young man still in his teens. That day, Close invited him to become a workshop regular. With Del Close, now recognized as a visionary and giant of the improvisational theater movement as his mentor, Greenberg got an “alternative education,” was introduced to great books, the amazing San Francisco cultural scene of the day, and virtually all the great improvisers of the fifties and sixties. As their friendship deepened, Greenberg found a mentor in the classic sense of the word, and Close discovered a young person with an intuitive instinct for improvisational theater, a student to entrust with what Close respectfully spoke of as “the work.” Soon, Close hired Greenberg into The Committee as the youngest member of the company. Greenberg was introduced to and worked with Viola Spolin and Paul Sills. As time went by, Greenberg co-directed workshops with Close, and eventually took over for Close as the director of The Second City in Chicago. When Greenberg moved back to LA from Chicago to direct television and to work as a voice over actor, he continued to teach acting and improvisational comedy at local universities (USC and UCLA). He also privately trained actors and non-actors in the use of improv and voice.
While teaching at UCLA, Greenberg was introduced to Eric Kabera, the founder of the Rwanda Cinema Center who was looking for a “Comedy Mentor to help my people learn to laugh again.” Greenberg went to Rwanda to train an acting company to provide not only entertainment but to give them improvisational theater game skills to positively affect the lives of their fellow citizens.
“The program we created in Rwanda was transformational. It changed the lives of my students and it changed my life. The work I did in Rwanda crystallized my focus to expand upon the power of improvisational theater as a tool for social change in a global setting.”
Inspired by this experience, Greenberg created Laughter for a Change.