Compass Cabaret ’55 is a documentary about the birth of modern improvisation, tracing its roots all the way back to 1955 and beyond.
The year was 1955. Joseph McCarthy and his House Committee on UnAmerican Activities were hunting for their witches, and a small group of students at the University of Chicago known as The Compass was creating what would eventually become modern improvisational theater. Their actions spawned Chicago’s premier comedy venue, The Second City, preceding it by half a decade, and Saturday Night Live, which first aired 20 years after the Hyde Park group’s first performance.
The Compass Theater was founded by David Shepherd and Paul Sills in 1955. The University of Chicago did not have a theater department at the time, and Sills was training actors in an improvisational style developed by his mother, Viola Spolin who created a slew of improvisational games during the Great Depression while working with poor children in Chicago. Shepherd, originally from Manhattan, felt the theater there was expensive, atrophied, and inaccessible. He had moved to Chicago in the 1950s with the goal of bringing theater to the common man. “Theater in New York was very
effete and based on three-act plays and based on verbiage and there was not much action,” he said. “This would not be of interest to people in the street. I was interested in popular theater. I wanted to create a theater that would drag people off the street and seat them not in rows but at tables and give them something to drink, which was unheard of in [American] theater.”
Featuring: David Shepherd, (Original Founder and Producer) Shelley Berman (Compass Player, Actor, Comedian), Ed Asner (Actor and Activist), Jane Alexander (Actor, NEA Chairman), Suzanne Shepherd (Actor), Mark Gordon (Compass Player, Actor), Bobbi Gordon (Compass Player, Actor) Andrew Duncan (Compass Player, Actor), Janet Coleman ( American Improvisational Theatre Historian), Abner Mikvah ( Compass Consultant, Judge, Law Professor), Richard Orlikof (Compass Attorney), Charles Jacobs (Compass Business Manager), Bernie Sahlins (Producer/Founder Second City), Leo Stodolsky (Original Compass Player, Director Max Plank Institute), Jonathan Pitts (Chicago Improv Festival Director) Larry Arrick (Original Compass Director, Yale Theatre Professor), Josephine Forsberg ( Improvisational Educator), Rolf Forsberg (Director), Jane Mathers ( Hyde Park Historian), Leah Rochelle (Actor), Helen Axelrood (Therapist)