Learn more about breakthroughs pioneered at the University of Chicago

Improv, Explained

Improv, short for improvisational theater, is a live performance in which the actors make up scenes, dialogue and characters on the spot (sometimes incorporating suggestions from the audience). It’s often comedic, though not always.

Inspired by earlier theater forms like commedia dell’arte and cabaret, modern improv began at the University of Chicago in the 1950s. A group of UChicago students, alumni and friends used theater games developed by educator Viola Spolin to create something that had never existed before—an improvisational theater.

From their revolutionary storefront grew famed improv theaters like The Second City and iO (formerly ImprovOlympic), which have produced household names like Stephen Colbert, Steve Carrell, Amy Pohler and Tina Fey.

What is improv?

Improv is a form of unscripted performance. Instead of relying on prewritten dialog, or even the sets and props of traditional theater, improvisers create scenes based on loose scenarios. Everything from what the performers say to the faces they make to how they move their bodies is entirely made up on the spot.

Improvised scenes often incorporate suggestions from the audience. For example, a performer may ask the audience to provide a location for the scene (say, a hospital, or a jelly bean factory) or an occupation for one of the characters (a phlebotomist, a lion tamer, etc).

When improvisers use these prompts within scenes or games lasting a few minutes, it’s called “short-form” improv. In “long-form” improv, performers develop a lengthier scene, similar to a short play, based on a single premise. 

Today, in almost every major city in America, you can find a troupe of improv performers taking the stage each night. Improv is the foundation for Saturday Night Live and Whose Line Is It Anyway?. Its techniques and games have permeated classrooms, even corporate retreats and doctors’ offices.

Is improv different from sketch comedy?

The terms “sketch” and “improv” are often used together. However, in sketch comedy, scenes are almost always short; they can be entirely prewritten or use a combination of improvised and prewritten elements. Saturday Night Live is a sketch comedy show, though its writers and performers (often trained improvisers) occasionally use improv to develop written sketches.

If you’re going to catch a comedy show at The Second City in Chicago or Upright Citizen’s Brigade in New York or Los Angeles, you’ll likely see a combination of both sketch and improv.

When was improv invented?

Improvised performances have existed in some form for centuries, but modern improv largely evolved in the late 1950s at the University of Chicago. The artform’s inventors drew inspiration from older forms of theater, like commedia dell’arte, and also incorporated theater games developed by educator Viola Spolin.

“The story of improv, Chicago theater, games and UChicago are inextricably intertwined,” said Heidi Coleman, associate senior instructional professor in the Committee for Theater and Performance Studies at UChicago.

    Commedia dell’arte, or “comedy of professional artists,” was a form of highly physical, improvised theater that flourished in the 1500s during the Italian Renaissance.

    Troupes of traveling actors would typically perform outdoors to the general public. Like modern improv, there was no script. Instead, the performers used well-trod story outlines mixed with improvised dialog.

    However, unlike modern improv, commedia plays use stock masked characters like Arlecchino or Harlequin (also the inspiration for comic book villain, Harley Quinn).

    Because commedia performances were improvised, actors could shape scenes and storylines to poke fun at current events or political figures.

    Commedia dell’arte flourishes in prudish and conservative contexts,” said commedia scholar, UChicago Prof. Rocco Rubini. “During the counter reformation, theater and comedy in particular were seen as negotium diaboli, an affair of the devil, in that it was highly corruptive of morals.”

    Several hundred years later—during the height of McCarthyism in the U.S.—a group of leftist theater visionaries began developing a “modern commedia.”

    Viola Spolin (1906-1994) was an educator and theater scholar who was often referred to as the “mother of improvisation.” Many techniques and games improvisers use today can be traced directly back to the pages of Spolin’s “Improvisation for the Theater” published in 1963.

    “Everyone can act. Everyone can improvise,” she wrote.

    Spolin grew up on Chicago’s West Side and eventually trained at Hull House—a settlement house intended to aid the influx of immigrants to adapt to American life—under social worker Neva Boyd. Boyd was a staunch believer in the power of games to aid children’s development.

    “Neva Boyd believed that games, especially role playing games, allowed us to step into different aspects of ourselves,” said Coleman. “Getting people to expand their ways of thinking, to focus on talking and listening—being really present working with a group of people—these are all skills that are coming from games.”

    Spolin took what she’d learned from Boyd to teach drama for the Works Progress Administration and later trained young actors using theater games she developed. She, along with her son Paul Sills, would also train the initial cohort of the Compass Players—the troupe of talented oddballs who revolutionized improv forever.

Was improv invented at the University of Chicago?

In 1955, Paul Sills, AB’51, and David Shepherd founded The Compass, a storefront theater near the campus of the University of Chicago. It is considered the birthplace of improv. The theatre’s ensemble, known as the Compass Players, were a group of actors that included comedians Elaine May and Mike Nichols and, later, actor Alan Alda and comedian Del Close.

In the 1950s, there was no formal theater department at UChicago, yet the campus drew all manner of theaterfolk and artists. “Here in Hyde Park, on the South Side of Chicago,” wrote "The Compass: The Improvisational Theatre that Revolutionized American Comedy" author Janet Coleman, “was a legitimate Bohemian center for the undergrad.”

Among those drawn were Paul Sills—an influential young director in UChicago's theater scene—and David Shepherd, a member of the Vanderbilt family who felt that the plays on stage in New York City were elitist and out of touch.

“I wanted to rejuvenate the theater,” said Shepherd in Jeffery Sweet’s “Something Wonderful Right Away.” He dreamed of creating a Midwestern cabaret in which working class people could see themselves reflected on stage.

Sills and Shepherd worked together on a few theater projects before fully devoting their effort (and Shepherd’s money) to his political cabaret. On July 5, 1955, The Compass had their opening night. (Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap, a beloved watering hole for the University community then and now, was the theatre’s neighbor.)

Though the plan was to perform short, socially-conscious plays, they couldn’t find enough material. “I was forced to go into improvisation because I found that nobody could write the scripts I needed for the theater that was in my head,” said Shepherd.

Sills turned to his mother, Viola Spolin’s, theater games to train actors to improvise. The group developed the Compass scenario, which gave the performers locations, motivations and conflicts to play off of, without prescriptive dialog. They began incorporating audience participation. Each show also began with “Living Newspaper,” a segment satirizing the news of the day.

“As we develop a new kind of play and audience,” said Shepherd in a 1955 interview for Chicago, “we may have to develop an entirely new style of acting.”

Alan Arkin, Severn Darden (original Compass Player), Andrew Duncan, and Eugene Troobnick perform the comedy sketch “Football Comes to The University of Chicago” at The Second City in 1960. 

By 1958, the Compass Players had splintered off to pursue their own projects. Elaine May and Mike Nichols went off to form their famous act “Nichols and May.” David Shepherd continued to train improvisers, eventually co-founding the ImprovOlympic (iO) Theatre.

Sills and fellow UChicago alumni Bernard Sahlins, AB’43 and Howard Alk, X'49, bought a small theater on Chicago’s North Side where they’d continue to use Spolin’s games to produce comedy revues. They called it The Second City.

Sahlins produced and directed Second City shows for the next several decades. He hired many future household names like Dan Akroyd, John Belushi, Bill Murray and Gilda Radner. Today, The Second City is one of the largest and most influential entertainment companies in North America with several theaters, training centers and touring companies.

In 1986, Sahlins returned to Hyde Park to found Off-Off Campus, UChicago’s oldest running improv group.

“Your mission is to perform a community of discourse about certain topics that are interesting to you and your audience,” said Sahlins in a talk with Off-Off members during a 2009 visit. “If you come to Off-Off Campus and you find discourse about the very things that are bothering you…that’s the function of the work. To identify and solve the problem of growing up.”

What are common improv games?

Today, if you find yourself in an improv class, you might end up playing Contact: a game in which you can only speak if touching another person. Or maybe Gibberish: a game in which a person must translate for two other players speaking a made up language.

Each is credited to Viola Spolin, the “mother of modern improvisation.”

When developing games, Spolin made sure each had a “Point of Concentration,” or a goal the players were trying to achieve. For Spolin, this focus on problem solving gets a performer out of their own head and better able to lose themselves in the scene.

“The energy released to solve the problem, being restricted by the rules of the game and bound by group decision, creates an explosion or spontaneity,” writes Spolin. “In this spontaneity, personal freedom is released, and the total person, physically, intellectually, and intuitively, is awakened.”

What does “Yes, and” mean in improvisation?

“Yes, and” is often cited as one of the core rules-of-thumb in improvisation. Author Jeffery Sweet says that “yes, and” is a synthesis of one of Viola Spolin’s core philosophies: never deny someone’s reality. This means if someone who is improvising a scene says they are a talking hedgehog, you shouldn’t respond: “no, actually you are a car with three wheels.” You might instead ask if you could use their quill to open a very important letter.

The origins of the exact phrase “yes, and” are a little hazy, but Sweet says he wouldn’t be surprised if they came from Del Close, Elaine May and Mike Nichols.

“They came up with what were called the Kitchen Rules, because everybody was staying in the same rooming house,” said Sweet in a 2021 lecture for UChicago Alumni Weekend. “One is: Don’t deny a reality which is established. Another is: Make the active rather than the passive choice.”

Today, the expression has grown beyond the comedy world. Whether in corporate offices or family mediation, “yes, and” is often used as a shorthand for active listening and being a generous collaborator.

Recent UChicago and Off-Off Campus alumnus Mabel Lewis, AB’23, said “Often the best improvisers are really good humans who listen, and care and want to give their scene partners or life partner gifts.”