The man who improved improv

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Half my lifetime ago, I journeyed across the country from East Coast to West and found myself on my own for a few days in Los Angeles. Looking for some cheap entertainment, I picked up a $6 ticket to see something called “Sills & Company.”

As a self-directed student of comedy, I knew that Paul Sills was one of the founders of Chicago’s famed Second City.

The “and Company” were, according to the brief listing in the free paper I picked up, Sills’ friends, former students and Second City alumni.

“Should be interesting,” I thought. It was more than that.

On cheap bleachers in what I remember as a community center gymnasium (I could be wrong), Sills oversaw an evening of gimmick-free improvisation featuring a jaw-dropping lineup including Paul Dooley (the father in “Breaking Away”), Valerie Harper (TV’s “Rhoda”), Tony Award-winner Severn Darden, Richard Libertini (hilarious in “The In-Laws” and “All of Me”), Avery Schreiber (of the comedy duo Burns and Schreiber) and Mina Kolb (now best known for playing Jeff’s mother on “Curb Your Enthusiasm).

As a movie and TV geek, I recognized every one of them. And I was awed watching them create something out of nothing. Their work was hilarious but it wasn’t about cheap punch lines. Characters came to life. Joy happened.

And between sets, the group of established professionals dutifully, worshipfully, took notes from Sills and a woman who I later learned was Viola Spolin, Sills’ mother and the creator of many of the games and exercises that have become the fundation of theatrical improvisation. That these pros still cared about the opinions of their mentors stuck with me.

I still think about that evening. And I thought about it moments ago when I learned that, on Monday, Paul Sills passed away.

And while I don’t want this blog to turn into the arts obit page, I can’t help but note the man who helped shape Second City, which in turn shaped modern comedy. And one of the people who helped shape my love and respect for acting.

Today, my thoughts are with The Second City family and the universe of people that Sills influenced.

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