In Nathan Heller’s wonderful New Yorker piece “Tribes: The Mixing and Unmixing of San Francisco” (August 6 & 13th), the writer references (today’s new word, kids) “Saeculum.” Saeculum is how the ancient Etruscans measured time: “A saeculum spanned from a given moment until the last people who lived through that moment had died. It was the extent of firsthand memory for human events – the way it felt to be there then… ” The article resonated deeply with me, not only because I spent many years in San Francisco in the late ‘60’s and ‘70’s, one of the periods of transition Heller describes. But also because, those times in San Francisco is when “improv chose me.” *

In San Francisco, in my teens and early 20’s, I was mentored by improvisational theater icon Del Close. Through Del’s introductions, I worked with his teachers Viola Spolin and Paul Sills. Over the years I’ve counted among my friends, many of the great improvisers from The Committee (where I was an actor) and the early days of Second City (which I later directed). And today, still active as an improviser, I recognize the good fortune of my historic overview. As I lead improvisation workshops around the world, I am aware of the importance of sharing with my students, as best I can, “the way it felt to be there then.”

Today, as our art form has gone global, the stories from our origins need to be kept alive. Improvisation’s spread across the planet provides new opportunities for people everywhere to learn and share tools for connection, compassion and creative collaboration. In the process, it provides the healthy benefits of comic relief from the firestorms and shit storms of everyday life. Fortunately, there are many books on improvisation available, and many good teachers. Encouraged by all of this, I become more aware of my role as both teacher and storyteller. As time goes by, it becomes part of my job, to postpone, once again quoting from Heller’s piece, “a certain kind of loss: the moment when the lessons that cannot be captured in the record disappear.”

* Thanks to Unexpected Productions’ Randy Dixon for the phrase