A constant in David Shepherd’s improv career was periodically revisiting his groundbreaking format, COMPASS (a “people’s theatre,” co-created with Paul Sills in 1955) and attempting to update it with the collaboration of improvisers who were in his orbit at that time.
David continued conducting COMPASS workshops in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Ottawa, Boston, St. Louis and Chicago, well into his late eighties. These workshops focused on creating scenarios and rehearsing the Living Newspaper, the curtain raiser for COMPASS where newspaper and magazine articles were brought to life as players segued back and forth between narration, character dialogue, pantomime and tableau.
In 2002, David wrote this description of the Living Newspaper for Stephen Sim, the Artistic Director of the Winnipeg If….Improv Festival and co-founder of The Improv Company.
COMPASS: THE LIVING NEWSPAPER for Stephen Sim
The 1955 Chicago COMPASS was supposedly a sociopolitical statement in the environment of Senator Joe McCarthy. At that time, the University of Chicago had just passed through the leadership of a radical humanist – John Maynard Hutchins. And people were ready to drive great distances to hear what could be heard no place else. Nowadays expletives and derision (of this president or that premier) are not going to draw radicals and rebels to your theatre. So what do you do?
At COMPASS we set out to SHOW THE AUDIENCE WHAT IT WAS READING. “This is the Chicago Defender,” we said. “This is its ethnic self image and this is its pretension to be unprejudiced.” This is the Daily News, Chicago Tribune, Argosy, the New Yorker, The Ring, Sports Illustrated, Journal of Lifetime Living.
|The Compass Players (1955), Severn Darden, Larry Arrick, Elaine May, Shelley Berman, Mike Nichols, Rose Arrick, Barbara Harris.
Our Living Newspaper came before our scenario play, which came before audience suggestions. The Living Newspaper was short, pithy, conceptual, sarcastic, surprising.
What were some components?
Shelley Berman did an advertisement for treasure diving. He pantomimed swimming underwater while reciting the ad in a froggy voice. The pretense of discovering doubloons under one’s local pond was ridiculous.
Mike Nichols flopped his bony arm over a louvre and read New Yorker copy for a million dollar Tiffany bracelet.
Two commentators (Mike Nichols and Andrew Duncan) describe each round of a boxing match in the style of Sports Illustrated and then the Ring. The fighters appeared alternately as brutes and carefully trained strategists.
Andrew Duncan measured Barbara Harris’ dress in the salon of Christian Dior – miming a photo from the Daily News. I played Dior and read the article in the style of story theatre, speaking of myself in the third person.
In all these scenes we pretended to know exactly what the point was and why we were making it. We assumed that the audience knew what we were saying, and most of the time they did. The university produced thousands of smart, curious people who didn’t happen to want to get up on stage. Some frequent flyers did get back stage to join the company and take short roles.
As for a political tinge, Second City was more overt than we were. In fact several people in COMPASS objected to political slants, and when I got them to do a scenario about the Black List in radio, it lacked COMPASS joy.
However, LIVING NEWSPAPER COULD NOT BE ACCUSED OF DISTORTION because the very words of the periodicals were there in print in our hands as we played.
TODAY 2002, most news is on TV. Players satirize weathermen. A good visual is the TV spot – shot at home or in the office. War scenes and home disasters can be adapted for stage performance. A few sound effects on audio tape will make these locations seem more real.
Michael Golding is an improv teacher, writer and director who participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics, the Canadian Improv Games, and created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa. He is currently a faculty member at Compton College working with at-risk teens and traditional students. Michael was the artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in New York City and co-produced and wrote the documentary “David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre.” His book, “Listen Harder,” a collection of essays, curriculum and memorabilia on improvisation and educational theatre is available on Amazon.