History of Improv

"Making it up as we go along..."

Earliest form: 1500s to the 1700  - Beginning during the Renaissance and lasting into the eighteenth century, traveling troupes performed the commedia dell' arte, the Italian comedy. The company's ten or more actors each developed a specific type of character, such as:

 The Captain
 Two old men (Pantaloon and the Doctor)
 The Zanni (valet-buffoons)

Since all wore masks (like the greeks), their roles were eventually called masks.

Along with these comic characters were "The lovers".
Female parts were originally played by men, but later played by females.  

The actors had specific comic business (lazzi) that they developed. Before going on-stage, actors would agree on a basic plot and a general idea of how it should be performed. The improvised performances were never subtle; the humor was often bawdy and coarse.

Starting in Italy, troupes moved into all of Europe, influencing theatre in SpainHollandGermanyAustriaEngland, and especially, France.

A typical "bare-bones" scenario:

-  As the curtain rises, Harlequin is ill.

-  The Doctor and his servant try to determine what is wrong.

-  The Doctor, after much enticing, gives Harlequin a shot on his backside with a huge syringe.

-  Harlequin is found to be pregnant and delivers three babies, one of which survives.

-  Harlequin nurses and mothers the baby. He teaches the child to walk.

-  Harlequin complains to the Doctor regarding the problems of rearing a child.

-  The child is whipped by Harlequin.

-  The play ends with Harlequin teaching the child to read.

-  Throughout the play, Harlequin is made fun of by his friends.



1890s - theatrical theorists and directors such as Stanislavski and founder of a major stream of acting theory, heavily utilised improvisation in acting training and rehearsal.

*While some people credit Dudley Riggs as the first vaudevillian to use audience suggestions to create improvised sketches, Modern theatrical improvisation is generally accepted to have taken form in the classroom with the "Theatre Games": rehearsal-room activities that evolved quickly to an independent artform worthy of presentation before a paying audience.

MODERN Theaterical Improvisation

1940s Viola Spolin

Considered the American "Grandmother of Improv". She influenced the first generation of Improv at The Compass Players in Chicago, which led to the Second CityHer son, Paul Sills , along with David Shepard, started The Compass Players and Second City. 
They were among the first organised troupes in Chicago, Illinois and from their success, the modern Chicago improvisational comedy movement was spawned.

Many of the original cast of SNL came from The Second City and the franchise has produced such comedy stars as Mike Myers , Chris Farley  and John Belushi

1950s  Keith Johnstone

"The Theatre Machine", which originated in London , was touring Europe. This work gave birth to Theatresports , at first secretly in Keith's workshops, and eventually in public when Keith moved to Canada. Toronto has been home to a rich improv tradition.

1984 - Dick Chudnow
"Kentucky Fried Theater" founded ComedySportz  in Milwaukee, WI.

1985 - Expansion began with the addition of ComedySportz in Madison, WI.

1988 - Comedy League of America National Tournament
Was held in with 10 teams participating. The league is now known as World Comedy League and boasts a roster of 19 international cities.

Modern Political Improvisation's Roots Include:

1950s and early 1960s -  Jerry Grotowski's work in Poland

The late 1960s -Peter Brook's "happenings" in England

The early 1970s -Augusto Boal's  "Forum Theatre" in South America 

The 1960s - San Fransico's, The Diggers' work.

Some of this work led to pure improvisational performance styles, while others simply added to the theatrical vocabulary and were, on the whole, avant garde experiments.

1930s to 1970s - Joan Littlewood 
The English actress and director who made extensive use of improv in developing plays for performance. NOTE: She was successfully prosecuted twice for allowing her actors to improvise in performance.

Until 1968 -  British law required scripts to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain's Office. The department also sent inspectors to some performances to check that the approved script was complied with exactly.

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