Chicago’s Second City Theater And Paul Sills

“Something wonderful right away.” That was the motto of a theater director I studied with for a year in Chicago. His name was Paul Sills. His mother was Viola Spolin. She and Stella Adler were the theater workshop divas of New York in the 1950’s. She had written a book called ‘Improvisation for the Theatre’ which became something of a bible for teaching improvisational theatre. Many of the games were incorporated in the workshops at ‘Second City’ where I also studied…for five years. Paul had directed the main company at ‘Second City’ and then set up his own separate workshop. He and Mike Nichols and Elaine May had known and learned from each other during the days of the ‘Compass Players’…a group formed at the University of Chicago. As is well known, haytheatre Nichols and May went on to fame and fortune. Especially, Mike Nichols. Paul Sills could have followed suit. He just wasn’t interested. Fame and fortune meant nothing to him. The craft was everything to Paul…the integrity and honor of the craft.

Paul was a very professional, no nonsense teacher. The theater is an area that attracts more than the normal number of fragile egos. Paul would bludgeon them. Many students didn’t last much beyond the third week. I think Paul could spot the eventual wash-outs on the first day. Some were just more die-hard than others. They were playing games that weren’t in his mother’s book, games that people in every walk of life play…”Look at me; aren’t I special?” sort of games. As far as Paul was concerned, the theater was a place for ensemble work; a collaboration of variously talented and experienced individuals dedicated to working with each other in order to stage high standard performances.

His approach to the craft was strictly improvisational. “I’m not concerned with trying to teach you how to think on your feet,” he would say. “I want you to learn how to write on your feet.” Always had to be a beginning, middle and end. It was all very linear. The trick was to put up a good scene without props, a script or any idea of ​​what your relationship was with the two or three performers on the stage with you. You wrote all that stuff as you went along. When you got fairly decent at it, Paul would throw you up in front of a live audience. That was like performing a high-wire act without a net. Still, his message resonated…”Always perform at your highest level of intelligence”.

I walked that high-wire around the clubs of Chicago for five years. Met many very talented improvisers. Never met one who didn’t still fall on his face every so often.

Paul Sills and ‘Second City’ taught me a great deal. How to start a piece, how to move it along (never deny; always, say yes and…), how to listen and how to find an ‘out’ (a wrap). Perhaps, most of all, it taught me how to fail…with resilience and resolve; not regret and remorse… self-assurance; not self-pity. I’ve never met a successful person in my life who hadn’t first learned how to fail.

“Something wonderful right away”? Sure, why not? Right after you’ve picked yourself up out of the sawdust for the umpteenth time, hobbled back up the ladder to whatever perch it is bestride that fine wire that leads to your dream.

McFinn is from Chicago and currently residing in Cambodia. He has a degree in Philosophy from Georgetown University. Much of his work should be considered humorous and fictionalized memoirs. There are also satirical essays. Location settings include Thailand, Cambodia, India, Burma, Morocco and Greece. Excerpts, reviews & purchase information are available via his website.