9/9/20: Sam Wasson’s “Improv Nation” — The Confusion of Art and Show Business #poetry #essay #PoeticEssay #improvisation #SamWasson #MikeNichols #DelClose #SecondCity
When Sam Wasson called me a few years ago to interview me as part of his research for his book on improvisation, “Improv Nation”, I was excited. He said that he wanted to write a book about improvisation as an art form. That was a topic of great interest to me.
Wasson and I have different definitions of the word “art” however. Consequently, he largely ignored what I had to say and misrepresented my views, and even my background in the form, in the slight mention that I have in the book. In fairness, my views about the art of improvisation were in an earlier developmental form than they are today. I was trying to find my place in the improvisation community, and was learning, at first painfully and then happily, that I had no place within it.
So Wasson’s confusion was similar to my waning confusion.
My confusion related to improvisation has ended. You cannot serve art and show business at the same time. They have contrary aims. Art is about truth, show business is about money, popularity and power. Some artists share their creations through the marketing mechanisms of show business, somehow making all relevant decisions regarding the work without compromise to commercial pressures. Sometimes, art does make money, popularity and power, because the truth and audiences’ need and desire for the truth happen simultaneously, maybe even miraculously. Just as often, the audience doesn’t want the truth, and prefers an “escape” into its prejudices. Show business will willingly offer either option to make box office receipts grow.
I don’t think there has been a good book written about the essence of improvisation since Viola Spolin’s “Improvisation for the Theater”. There have been decent works about the history of improvisation, but none of them really deal with the essence of the form. And most of these historical books tend to be hagiographic — written by improvisers for improvisers —a kind of “Lives of the Saints of Improv”. There has never been a really critical work about what it is to improvise since Spolin. Many amplifications of what she wrote are out there — but Spolin is the seminal work, the best consideration of what improvisation “is”.
Tellingly, Spolin’s book is interactive. You can only understand improvisation by doing it, and the depth of your understanding matches how goo you are at improvising. In the 1980s, Paul Sills said that I was a great improviser. I don’t mention this to promote myself. I say it because I have done the work at a high level that gives me a right to participate in this discussion.
I should be limited in my criticism of improv writing since I have no interest in writing such a book myself. I think these short pieces honor that limitation.
I commit myself to creating my own art which is beyond improvisation. I learned a lot about creativity as an improviser, but I have transcended the form — my art is beyond improvisation. I think improvisation’s greatest contribution has been introducing artists to the basics of group and individual creation. The artists have always matriculated to more sophisticated forms. I think improvisation’s original sin is how it has been co-opted by show business, advertising and marketing. Spolin’s tenets have been corrupted to … sell shit.
The opposite of the artist is the salesman. Sam Wasson can’t seem to distinguish one from the other.
“Improv Nation” isn’t about the art of improvisation. It’s just a current rendering of the myth of improvisation.
Spolin’s improvisational practice was at once accessible and challenging. It was democratic in that it was open to anyone who showed up. Its values demanded the best in all participants.
Spolin has been bastardized by the commercial improv “schools”. The improvisational practices are open to everyone — that’s where the money is, but the values are simply the prevailing fashions and attitudes of the greater society. Art, on the other hand, stands outside of society and reflects it, so society can see its vices and virtues and act accordingly.
The “schools” and most current teachers claim Spolin as an ancestor while ignoring her idealism and rigor.
I don’t think much of what calls itself improvisation today is improvisation at all.
And any claims to artistry in these “classes” is mere sales puffery.
As a former improviser and former student of the founding generation of improvisation — Sills, Shepherd, and to a lesser extent Sahlins, I feel no kinship with the hostile takeover of improvisation by commercial interests.
Improvisation is not only not an art form as most often practiced currently. It is actually anti-art.
Second City has teamed with the University of Chicago Business School in the application of improvisational instruction to the training of business professionals. I am tempted to rest my case. Business almost always assumes primacy in any relationship — they don’t call it the almighty dollar for nothing.
Something can be art or business. There is no possible compromise. Business might be employed in a secondary way to further art, but it can never lead.
What has happened in the history of improvisation has happened in other sectors of society, including commercial real estate. Artists move into an undeveloped area. They innovate and create interest and vibrancy. Real estate investors see opportunity. They infuse capital. They market to expand the audience for what the artists have created. The dark anti-arts of marketing corrupt the pure artistic visions. Something new is born. What is left of the art in the area are museum pieces — dead things. Actual living artistic process moves on to different neighborhoods …
much as the true artists of improvisation emerge from the improv cauldron and create with purity elsewhere.
Wasson has a commercial writer’s sense of what sells. He claims that “Improv is America’s farthest reaching indigenous art form.” He is right that Improvisation writ large has had a big impact on popular culture. He is wrong that improvisation has had a big impact as an art form in American culture.
I agree with Viola Spolin’s famous introductory line, “Anyone can improvise.” It is a wonderful first line for a teacher. But I will add a caveat — not everyone can improvise as an artist.
Art is an elite experience. Talent is required. Development of that talent in craft, but mainly in values is required.
Anyone can play football in the backyard. Few can play in the NFL.
The selling of improvisation as an art form that anyone can do leads to a lot of ignorance and arrogance around “improv’s training centers”…
and also a cruel bait and switch for naive people who think they can take classes and become movie and TV stars.
There is an Improv Nation of lost souls chasing impossible dreams of little value, dutifully paying tuition for nothing with money they don’t have.
Wasson offers a thesis for his book — improvisation is an art, but really doesn’t follow it up with any depth. He fades into the fallback position of past writers about improvisation — biographies of the stars who cut their teeth as improvisers early in their careers.
“Improv Nation” is not about the art of improvisation. It is ultimately about improvisation’s commercial success. I find that perspective to be hardly groundbreaking and of little interest. Of course, it is a great addition to the industry that lies to people and says you can be a combination of Picasso, Einstein, Bill Murray and Marilyn Monroe if you just come pay us and play some some games.
Wasson descends into who-slept-with-who gossip when discussing the early Compass and Second City eras when improvisation was actually an art leading the culture instead of calculating ways to exploit it. It is a telling distraction. If he really went into an in-depth analysis of the work of the likes of Paul Sills and Nichols and May, it would destroy his flimsy hypothesis for the book and he’d have to start over.
Mike Nichols saw limitations in the artistic potential of improvisation and Del Close thought improvisation was an art form in and of itself. I worked with Mike Nichols and Del Close and have great admiration for Nichols and no admiration for Close. I think a comparison of the two men’s bodies of work can rest my case on the false claims regarding “improv” as an art form.
A recent piece on Nichols:
6/25/20: Mike Nichols #poetry #America #movies #theater #improvisation
Some of my beats are America, movies, theater and improvisation. All of those beats are in trouble right now, and also on the brink of great opportunity. Today’s segment is a song of praise that surprised me about a man who surfed time from Hitler to Obama, adapting and thriving as a human being, artist and businessman — in that order — maintaining his core and transforming his approaches to stay timely, relevant and healing until the end.
Mike Nichols was a nice man
a good man
a man from another time
I worked for him briefly
He made me feel like I was a genius and the next big thing
He did that for most everybody
He loved actors
He personified the best of what Second City could be
during and after
he hit a sweet spot that touched art and commerce and being a mensch
He was very smart
and very warm
I didn’t set out to praise him so today
I started with the idea that Mike Nichols’ life and work and career are already of a time gone by
never to return
Nichols tracked the arc that America followed from culture to markets
he died before our descent into fascism
but he surely saw it coming
he knew it
he saw it as a seven-year old escaping Nazi Germany
and he never forgot it
He was a hybrid American
The ultimate insider
deflecting all eyes
from his role as precocious outsider
That was his ultimate magic trick
a master of disguise
He wasn’t as innocent as most of the rest of us
He knew how dark Man could be
But also how light
He was Einstein’s cousin!
What kind of crazy strains of goodness and brilliance was at his childhood dinner table
from the lesser members of the family who shared that gene pool?
He was a bard of how psychological and sociological attitudes affected ordinary people’s behaviors
His work, to me, seems to be about always finding a route to kindness, empathy, humanity
through a field of weakness, quiet desperation and temptation
He wasn’t nice just to be nice
Like everything else about him
he knew that it was smart to be nice
He got the most out of his colleagues with the sweet attitude
and he relied on them greatly
Nichols was less a creator and more of an arranger of other people’s talents
He had remarkable taste
Like a great baseball manager he knew how to put his players in the optimal positions and situations in order to win
Working that week for Mike Nichols was a great experience for me
Turns out, I was just a brief visitor to his world
I don’t do what Mike Nichols did
I just tell the truth
He was more subtle
He told as much truth as the audience could hear
He listened to the audience
and like a master politician
he led them as far as they could go and never went farther than what they were ready for
It’s my job just to tell the truth
I don’t think one approach is better than the other
Both are needed
Nichols was, and I am an untrained intellectual
Our type isn’t certified to understand things
We just look
I retreated to Mike Nichols yesterday afternoon
watching old videos in my sanctuary
as America goes through its necessary unraveling
and begins to
at long last
deal with racism
and all the other abstractions we attach
to our fear, ignorance, arrogance,
stupidity, meanness and cruelty
and old, dead, man of the past
was less an escape
and more of a balm to me
Nichols made a lot of money
and made a lot of art
but as I watched him get progressively older in his interviews
those material things
were revealed to be means and not the end
I liked him much more than I expected to
The man dwarfed the prodigious body of work
and the gold medal career
Mike Nichols had a special life
My week with him was a special week
Nichols saw the world’s darkness with the eyes of refugee from Hitler’s Germany
its potential delights as a golden boy who enjoyed stratospheric early success
and its moral responsibility as a spoiled boy who more than anything wanted to grow up to be loving man
When I was with Mike Nichols for a week
I was in awe and nervous for that week
Stunned by the movie stars and New York intellectuals that I sat by
He was impressed by all of that too
but never to the exclusion of what really mattered
and now I see why fate sent me into that brief close proximity to Mike Nichols
and to my distant appreciation of him in the subsequent years
culminating with my video viewing yesterday
and it has nothing to do
Copyright 2020 Richard Thomas
Recent pieces on Close:
8/16/20: The Guru #poetry #essay #PoeticEssay #Improvisation #Teaching
Another recycled anecdote
of the dead guru
of the dead performance form
with all the secrets of success and life
primarily for actors
(they are particularly susceptible to this kind of bullshit)
but for other people too
conquer your introversion
make it in show business
let your freak flag fly
and if you do none of the above
at the very least be hip
too cool for school
Be a bum with a difference
All cults don’t involve God
The Guru remembered
He once acted with coleslaw in his pants
“Is it true?” the aging acolytes of the dead Buddha giggle
The Guru was an off and on drug addict with horrible personal hygiene
He sneered at the establishment with an insincere conspiratorial grin
a horrible actor who taught acting
every once in a while he shows up in an old movie
in small offbeat parts
he never got a good one
He was the thesp equivalent of a novelty act
When a director wanted a strange or unreal moment
or wanted to warmly remember their youth in improv class before they went off and made a living at it
The Guru was their man
He wasn’t really cut out for a profession which required access to one’s vulnerability and personal feeling
But he was a hell of a businessman
A real innovator
His insight was that you could corporatize anything
even the drug abuse and faux spiritual habits
of a bum
and the basic creativity 101 insights of a failed artist who never finished the job of developing his gifts
Afraid and lazy
like all salesmen are
If he hadn’t made himself into the King of Improv Teaching
he might have set up shop at the train station
seducing teen runaways into white slavery
He had many students who became successful entertainers
Let me tell you something about teaching
School is like Vaudeville
A lot of people go through it
They get experience
good and bad
no matter who the teacher is
and some of them use their brains and talent to figure out how to be successful
I’ve done a lot of teaching
I taught improv for several years
A lot of my students have been successful in show business
Probably a better percentage than the Guru’s
A network talk show host
Several TV writers and show runners
An Oscar-nominated actor
and a lot of my students have been successful in other fields
and life in general
Here’s the thing
I HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT
THEY WOULD BE WHO THEY ARE IF THEY NEVER MET ME
This isn’t false modesty
I think a lot of myself
as a person and as an artist, writer
And I am a good teacher
It’s just that teaching is a gig and it’s not a big deal
teaching is just a job where you manage an environment where people can work before they have the opportunity to be paid for that work so that you can do the work that you love that no one pays you to do
Universities don’t look at teaching as the primary thing in selecting their tenured faculty
They look at the research and the writing
But the Guru was a big bum
salesmen are bums
and bums are cunning
they spot people’s weaknesses
and they exploit
I have no idea where the coleslaw story came from
But I am sure the Guru never did it
Probably he heard that someone else did it
a homely outre’ move
turning working and middle class life
into bohemian subversion
because that’s the nihilistic message isn’t it
it’s all bullshit
get the drug
get the attention
get the applause
there ain’t no love
love is for suckers
This is the message of the salesman
I’ll answer your need
Methadone for the soul
The first hit is for free
This con man
(who was a human being too, he had many warm moments with people — why not, gangsters and white nationalists are good to their dogs — sometimes … )
was just trying to get over
He lost his main enabler
and he figured out a way
to periodically walk into a theater
and preen in front of wide-eyed disciples
intone rambling monologues
sprinkled with occasional tidbits of useful information
while a shoe box was filled with tens and twenties
Then he would take the cash
go back to his chaotic and filthy apartment
and read comic books
The crock of shit life
led to a great legacy
a theater devoted to the spirit of the Guru’s blather
Several books glorifying the Guru
written by reporters and academics who don’t understand theater or the creative process
all of which is relatively harmless
There is a lot of jerk-off material available so people can distract themselves
But one aspect of the Guru’s immortality sucks
He was the founder of a shit “improv” culture
as insensitive and disrespectful
and banal — don’t forget banal
as the Guru was himself
Circle jerk improvisation
sniggering about navel lint
or some other insignificance
a siren call to lives without purpose or excellence or value
the prison of the adolescent clique
love. work, marriage denied
The existential equivalent of sitting on a rug cross-legged
with your ne’er do well no exit friends
sucking on a bong
The fond memories of the Guru aren’t about the Guru at all
they are nostalgic remembrances of a moment of youth
that his adherents lust to make permanent
But here’s the thing about moments
they always change into something else
and Paradise becomes Hell in a split second
if you don’t let it go
Here’s one more thing about all the students who become successful, independent agents of their own lives
The alumni winners that are the Guru’s top marketing bullet point
they aren’t really “successful”
They are in process
just like the rest of us
Here’s the thing about improvisation
How can someone teach you how to do it?
It’s about meeting the unknown, right?
The games, the rules, the forms
are false equivalencies
to the unfailingly surprising transformative instances of life
The Guru has nothing to do with that thrilling and/or terrifying reality
He just took credit for it
killed it and pressed it onto a microscope slide
The sweet people who worked with him remained sweet
The bitter, cynical pricks got a license to spread his gospel of denied despair widely
to the four corners of the earth
Impostors of importance
selling something of no more importance than fame
or even more cruelly for the less gifted and misguided masses
a dream of fame that will never come
The famous find no satiety in their prominence
the frustrated obscure are blocked from the opportunity to move on to the deeper and glorious satisfactions of life
so they light candles to honor the dead Guru
and give outsized attention to each other and compete in petty power games
in a sad
and pathetic (I use the word sorrowfully and not with meanness)
imitation of life
exiles from art
The Con Artist Guru and his marks
generations of denial
and unconscious suffering.
Copyright 2020 Richard Thomas
11/5/19: The Definition of Success
I think Del Close was an asshole. He directed me briefly at Second City when I was just hired and he was about to leave. I have a few memories of him. I saw him yell at a baby. I saw him enter the theater with vomit stains on purple corduroy pants.
He liked me initially. He gave notes to me like “you beat the other player with a stick in that scene.” He encouraged me to dominate. I wasn’t interested. His enthusiasm for me and my work waned.
I knew Close just before he reinvented himself. He was ending his codependent relationship with Second City and was about to strike out on his own. He exploited his bohemian appearance and sold himself as hip and edgy. He did drugs and had a pedigree as a beat intellectual, but he had the values and aspirations of an insurance agent. His core attitude never transcended the foolishness one hears growing up in the neighborhood. He wouldn’t let it. There’s no money in that.
It’s an artist’s job to reflect the whole world, not merely his audience.
Close was no artist.
Close’s legacy is the iO theater. I’ve never seen anything on the stage of the iO theater that I enjoyed or admired. I haven’t been there often. To me, the place has the feel of a Trump rally. It’s a crude and stupid place.
iO is a place of ignorant name-in-the-paper ambition. It rejects excellence.
iO is a museum, a wax museum. It hasn’t furthered the art of improvisation. It sells it. It’s a training ground for noisy TV commercials and insipid sitcoms.
I think “yes, and”, which has become the international mantra of improvisational theater, is bullshit. Agreement with everything that is initiated by anyone leads to denial of the real.
The classes at iO and Second City offend me as an educator. They sell a base level success. Embrace mediocrity as a means to popularity.
It may strike you that I have some ax to grind here — some personal animosity. I truly don’t. It’s my job as a writer to separate high and low. No one ever makes these criticisms. I find what is happening in these “improv factories” to be morally repellent.
I saw a Conservatory graduation show at Second City a few years back. A lady sat next to me. She was a nurse who worked for film studios. She knew Sylvester Stallone. Her son was in the show. He was awful. The show was terrible. The students lacked craft, the directors didn’t know what they were doing. Yet, the woman was convinced that her son was going to be a star, and that this improv “training” was worth his dropping out of college.
He would be a better improvisor if he went to college. What an evening with vampires. People with nothing to say shouting look at me! look at me!
There is something cultish going on in “improv” education, reminiscent of Trump and Scientology.
When I was in the resident company at Second City, sometimes people looked at me with foolish awe. “How do you learn your lines?” “Do you get nervous?” “You met Eddie Murphy?!?!” Improv training as it stands at iO and Second City exploits that innocent, stupid immature take on life, and capitalizes on it. Real education and art would transcend it.
Bernie Sahlins was my director and producer when I was at Second City long ago. He told me “you don’t want to be famous doing shit work in show business. You are an artist.” Bernie was a sophisticated man, and he gave me great advice at a formative time.
I learned my lessons more from people like William Blake and Herman Melville than from Del Close. Both writers worked in the commercial realm and then walked away from it. They knew that the market corrupts. They weren’t salesmen. They were interested in what life was saying to them, not in what people want to hear.
Close told me when Gilda Radner’s obituary was international news, “We’re bigger than the Beatles.”
What a cold morbid fucker.
My job at Second City was like a school for me, but it was actual work with people who had done accomplished work, not classes taught by people who never did accomplished work, when I worked there in my 20’s and early 30s. Like any other school, I had some good teachers, I made some good friends and I dealt with a lot of assholes.
But it was just a school.
And I graduated.
I’m not part of it anymore. I’ve created my own art — which has transcended all that I learned. Many Second City alumni have done the same thing. Others are like middle-aged and older former high school football players who are trapped in memories of a state championship game played in the last century.
One of my friends from Second City is very well-known as a commercial actor, and he has done excellent work at that trade. He also has written some very good plays and has tried to get them produced. He felt dissatisfied with his hit TV show that he also occasionally wrote. He felt limited by commercialism. His journey to get his worthy work produced led him down the road of exploitation. He found open doors, but they were the wrong doors. People wanted to exploit him. Little theaters wanted to use his name to sell tickets. Actors and directors saw him as a gravy train and flattered him and gave him false support. When push came to shove, and people had to take the next step —- take a risk, put their own skin in the game, they were nowhere to be seen.
The outer rings of success are rings of hell. Fame, money and popularity, like beauty, fades.
William Blake lived a life of joy. He supported himself running a print shop and making art. It is said he lived his life in obscurity, but that’s not true. He connected with people in a real way. Melville said “fuck struggling to get published.” (I paraphrase.) He worked as a customs inspector. The result was Moby Dick. Their successes were not within the capitalist definition of success.
Conventional wisdom says that Blake and Melville were obscure. I say that they knew the world and were more known to the world than Del Close or John Belushi with their eyes on the grosses, the ratings, the box office, their brand and other drugs.
It is moronic to calculate success by counting dollars in the bank or likes on Facebook.
An artist limits himself when he caters to his audience.
A commercial artist is like a scientist who works for a tobacco company. All of his findings are bullshit.
I was in the Second City resident company when John Belushi died. Bernie sent our company to the funeral. I was walking into some gathering related to the memorial in a line with famous people. Hundreds of people surrounded as we made our way to the entrance. They shouted at each individual who passed. “Bill Murray!” “Dan Ackroyd!” When I passed they shouted “Nobody!”
This did not hurt my feelings. I smile as I remember it. I thought then what I think now —
who could possibly give a damn about what these people think? What a burden — to restrict yourself to some lowest common denominator — what a lousy job show business is for the successful and for the strivers …
My brother is a prominent judge — considered very important in his community. When my father died in 2009, word got out to the entirety of the Illinois Bar. A few hundred showed up for the wake and funeral. My father was buried at a lawyer’s networking event.
I didn’t like it, but to my brother’s credit, he didn’t either. He wanted to be a judge because he believed in the Law. He liked being able to spend more time with his kids than he would if he worked at some big firm. He didn’t like all the ass kissing and schmoozing — all of the using. He was in the same boat as my friend the TV star.
When my mother died it was just family and a few close friends. The death notice was posted right before the funeral, which was held on an inconvenient Monday morning. We only wanted the people who really loved her there.
We wanted meaning, not spectacle.
I consider myself very successful. I’m not rich and I’m not famous. But I was a very good improvisor, and a talented trial lawyer, and I am a very good writer and a very good teacher. I have a good marriage, and good friends. I’m a concerned citizen. I live my life as an artist, and I’m good at it.
A teacher at iO recently challenged my claim of success. He said, “Success isn’t about what you think, it’s about what other people think.”
Copyright 2019 Richard Thomas
Wasson argued that Close ultimately had more influence than Nichols.
Not with me — obviously.
Art may have its day soon. The artist is usually called upon when the people are in trouble. When they feel more secure, they enjoy having their asses kissed and indulging fantasy.
Wasson calls the current long-form improv team “T. J. and Dave” as “brilliant” and exemplars of Del Close’s vision. I’ve seen the team perform three times. T. J. is a good actor, Dave not so much, and their scenes had no substantive content. For example they did a scene in which they superficially improvised some exposition related to exploring the nature of death, and then retreated into jokes about getting high in a cemetery work shed. Their audience was a group of iO improv students. The theme of the evening was “look we are making money at this”.
Exhibit B for the plaintiff in the case of Nichols vs. Close.
Wasson ignores improvisation as practiced the world over. This American “improv” is an efficient tool of cultural imperialism. There is a poetic aspect in the improvisation of other countries that Americans would be wise to learn from — and international improvisers would be well-served to have a greater skepticism about much of the improvisation they are too willing to embrace as influences from the United States.
Tina Fey claims that “improvisation will change your life.” She is wrong. Art is what changes lives …
and improvisation needs more of it …
I close with a piece that I wrote about my experiences with Second City. The piece was one of the most read and positively commented upon segments that I have ever published, and, of course, ignored by Second City …
because it is a business and not a place of art …
My name is Rick Thomas. I am an alumnus of the Second City – Chicago Resident Company from the early 1980s. I am also an exile from Second City. I’ve always been an outlier on the fringes of the Second City tradition. I didn’t pursue a career in show business. I am a writer, a lawyer and a college professor. Please check out my website at http://www.richardthomasjd.com and my blog at http://www.richardsteventhomas.wordpress.com. Those links will tell you more than you want or need to know about me.
I have always been interested in improvisation, acting and writing as art forms more than Second City as an institution.
I want to give you a bit of an oral history of my experience with Second City in the hopes that it might be helpful to you in your time of systemic change.
My relationship with Second City has always been mixed. I have some friends who I got to know there, good friends —- and there are people associated with Second City who have done work that I greatly admire.
But there also has been much about Second City that I have been ashamed of, and I have been hurt by Second City as well.
I am writing this as an open letter because I want anyone who is interested to know that I have never been a part of any of the institutional or onstage racism that has occurred at Second City, and that I have also been anti-racist for a long time. I have suffered within Second City culture for my values, and ultimately have had to disengage and go my own way — which has actually been good for my art and my career.
I also am going to make some pretty direct observations here, but it is not my intention to be harsh.
For example, I know and like Andrew Alexander. I think he is a very good and well-meaning guy.
My goal here isn’t to punish or chastise. It is to contribute to a conversation that hopefully leads to improvement in the future.
OK, here are some anecdotes from my personal experience at Second City:
1982 -1983: As a young improviser in the resident company, the natural development in my personal voice gravitated to discussion of social issues. I came back stage during a set and senior cast members were getting high and mocking me “Rick is getting heavy again.” This was my introduction to an anti-intellectual, anti-social justice strain in some but not all Second City performers. It seemed the idea that was encouraged was to sound smart and have “reference level” but not really to say anything. I think the reason for this was to be sure not to alienate any of the paying customers in the audience. The unspoken ethos was to be hip, but not transformative.
Also in this period, Bernie Sahlins, who was the producer/director called me into his office and said that he wanted a “floor” to our content onstage, but he didn’t want to get too far ahead of the audience. I rebelled against this, and eventually this led to me leaving the company. I think Bernie was saying that Second City was show business and not theater. I think that Second City needs to be theater.
Later, Bernie, who I loved by the way, took me to lunch at Nookie’s down the street. He told me one of the most helpful things I ever heard. He said, “You don’t want to do some stupid sitcom. You are an artist. You are better than that.” That was wonderful for me, but damning for Second City. I think Second City should be better than that. I think the world is demanding now that a theater be just that — A THEATER — and take sides. I think Second City has to do a lot better in its training and casting and direct its efforts to smarter audiences of greater quality than ignorant bus tours etc. Andrew’s great mistake was giving the conservative white exurban point of view its commercial due — if Black Lives Matters gets a benefit, cops should get half the proceeds. What the Trump administration has taught us, and what I knew in the ancient history of Chicago main stage in the 1980s is that you have to take sides. Evil has been falsely presented as a debating point. Second City has to do everything it can to speak the truth.
I had a conversation with Kelly Leonard, another person that I think very highly of, a few years ago. He had shared a “positive” review of a Touring Company show in Colorado, I believe, that praised Second City for not taking sides. This was a satiric review that radical right wingers could enjoy. Kelly was happy about that review. He spoke about a colleague he had on the corporate side at Second City who was a Republican and had a right to his point of view. That all sounds very reasonable and liberal even, but I think Kelly was making an error. Oscar Wilde or some other great writer said, “There are some people that I wish to offend.’
SECOND CITY SHOULD TAKE SIDES.
Here’s what I think — SECOND CITY SHOULD BE A THEATER. A THEATER TAKES SIDES BOTH ONSTAGE AND OFF. SECOND CITY SHOULD NOT BE SO COMMERCIAL THAT IT CATERS TO LOWEST COMMON DENOMINATORS INSTEAD OF BEING A TRANSFORMATIVE PERSONAL AND SOCIAL FORCE.
I think Second City has done much better aiding people in personal transformation than on the social side of the ledger — but the personal work is never complete without addressing the social as well.
In my period on the main stage in the early 1980s, Bernie introduced me to Paul Sills, the founding director. Paul introduced me to David Shepherd. I loved both Paul and David very much.
Paul and David were socialists. Paul spoke to me about police misconduct at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention and how Second City became a refuge for demonstrators beaten during police riots. In the 1990s, I did a video workshop with David in the Hamptons on Long Island no less — that had a very diverse group of participants. David’s thing largely involved giving unheard people a voice. This constructive radicalism is a big part of Second City’s artistic and social tradition and I hope as its leader you reclaim and restore it. The current issues are not new — that’s part of the problem.
I once did a cartoonish gay character in a scene in one of Paul’s workshops. He got pissed off and growled “comic books.” I got the point —-artistically, socially and as a matter of personal development. You need teaching like that. I’m willing to teach for you, by the way — under the right circumstances. The people who founded Second City were artists and intellectuals. They had life experience. They were thinkers. I think you have to pick up your game in terms of the quality of your teachers and instruction in the Training Center. I taught with some of your Training Center faculty when I taught Professional Presence using improvisation as a pedagogy at UIC. I found my colleagues ‘approach lacking. I don’t think that they knew a thing about improvisation. The Training Center was a good business model and a lousy artistic one. Those levels, the conformity of mastering the “games’, the dumbing down and making everything fun … all is anti-improvisational and anti-creative. I was around the Training Center briefly in the early 2000s. I felt like Frankenstein being chased by the villagers. I was taunted for things like being smart or taking a stand. I had a guy lecture me on why 42nd Street Porn Peep Shows were superior to Pulitzer Prize winning plays. Faculty held their turf. Students rebelled against being challenged in workshops and demanded party games. It was an awful place — artistically and educationally. I went to teach at universities where I knew that I would be in a more serious atmosphere.
I want to say again that this is MY EXPERIENCE. I am not painting with a broad brush or saying good things weren’t going on — but I am telling you problems that are part of the organization that you have inherited.
An interesting thing about the way that Paul and David taught was that they did not want their methods to become sacred script. Improvisation, like any art form, is a process and in a state of constant revolution. I have always felt that I wanted to honor Paul and David’s values and to do improvisation, writing and teaching my own way. I think Second City should do that too. I am not an old alum saying that we did it better in the old days. In fact, we didn’t and today requires the new. I don’t like reminiscing for the sake of it. I live in the present and the future. I am writing you because I see opportunity in Second City’s current challenges. There is enough of a strong foundation to build on, and enough mistakes and sins to learn from to make a better future.
Bernie hired Ed Greenberg as a director while I was at Second City. Ed is another nice guy, very progressive and woke — but he was wrong about one thing. I was taking suggestions from the audience one night and some young guy yelled out “Lech Walesa licks pussy!” This was at a time when Poland was fighting a non-violent war of liberation from Soviet Russia. I was repulsed by the ignorance of this drunken audience member and the insensitivity to the courage and suffering of the Polish people. He was also mocking me for being intelligent on stage. I got angry with him. I wasn’t cute or clever. I told him he was ignorant and spoiled. Ed told me that I was too angry. Ed was wrong. I was right. Ed wasn’t angry enough. John Quincy Adams knew that black lives matter. He said so. The point isn’t just to say what is right after the social change occurs. That’s just show business. The point is to be outraged now whether it is popular or not. That’s what a theater would do.
I HOPE UNDER YOUR LEADERSHIP SECOND CITY RECLAIMS ITS BIRTHRIGHT AS A THEATER, AND LOSES ITS NERVOUS PRE-OCCUPATION WITH KISSING THE ASSES OF BIGOTS AND FOOLS.
In 2017, former Second City Director Tommy Giannis, briefly directed me in a one-man show. Tommy directed the acclaimed Pinata Full of Bees. The show was based on my writing in my blog. I was trolled by some white nationalists on my blog. Anti-fascism and anti-racism have been major themes of my blog since I started it in 2014. Tommy suggested that I invite the white nationalists to my show. There was no fucking way that I was going to invite Nazis to my show. I put them in a category like pedophiles — it is necessary to shame and ostracize them and punish them — folly to engage them in a dialogue. Again, I was wrongly criticized as too angry.
SECOND CITY HAS TO LEARN THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN REACTIONARY ANGER AND VALID MORAL OUTRAGE. SECOND CITY SHOULD BE A VOICE OF SOCIAL OUTRAGE AGAINST ALL FORMS OF INJUSTICE —- BECAUSE SECOND CITY SHOULD BE A PLACE OF ART AND INJUSTICE IS REALITY AND OUTRAGE AGAINST INJUSTICE IS WHAT IS TRUE.
1990s to today:
Since my time on the main stage I have interacted with Second City and its offshoot iO from time to time. I was always treated with respect by Andrew and Kelly and some old friends. But … I have also been hurt in those interactions, and I think my personal wounds are connected to a larger problem.
I never received the respect with the overall Second City community that I deserved.
Paul Sills saw my one-man-show in the mid -1980s and said that I was the greatest improviser that he ever saw, and compared me to Lenny Bruce.
I had a nervous breakdown shortly thereafter and I had to mend myself personally.
At age 50, I became a lawyer and ultimately a professor. I developed my writing. I taught using improvisation in colleges.
I was never accepted back into the improvisation community. I was a loser because the community became so sitcom-centric — defining the only type of success as that of fame in the world of entertainment.
Many non-entertainers — psychologists, business professionals etc. applied improvisation to their professional objectives to very good results and I applaud them.
But none of those people are as accomplished at improvisation itself as I am.
I had and have much to teach improvisers — both in classes and also in sharing my work (writing and performance) but I was not given an opportunity to do so.
Oh soME old friends included me — Jeff Michalski and Jane Morris, Dan Castelleneta and Deb LaCusta — but other than that all doors were closed.
And even in those situations, I was constantly fighting people who didn’t want me there.
This jealous guarding of turf …. this resistance to being challenged …. this resentment that somehow I had been away and therefore didn’t deserve a seat at the table anymore — and they didn’t like me anyway because I talked smart, and I talked truth — not show business kiss ass nonsense.
MY POINT HERE — SECOND CITY SHOULD BE NICER AND MORE CIVIL AND MORE INCLUSIVE; AND HAVE A BROADER VIEW OF WHAT IMPROVISATION AND THEATER CAN DO.
Of course, as an old white guy, a legitimate question to ask of me is what do I have to offer to people of color?
I have found that racism and other discriminatory oppression has been a common theme of almost all of the students that I have taught at Lewis, UIC and Loyola. I went to higher ed because my tribe rejected me. The problems are the tribe’s and not mine. And now that the tribe is recognizing its blindness — I think I may be well-positioned to help Second City get back on the right track in a big way.
My teaching uses improvisation through speech and writing to empower students by removing the internalized obstructions placed upon them by the power structure.
I am not writing you to beg for a job. My commitment is to my own work, not to fitting into some corporate scheme. But if Second City has mutual goals, I’d love to help.
I’ve been right on anti-racism and improvisation as an art form.
I AM SECOND CITY AND IMPROVISATION. MORE THAN THE TRAINING CENTER OR IO OR THE MAIN STAGE NOW OR IN THE PAST.
I’M THE REAL THING. PAUL SILLS USED TO SAY THE ARTIST IS REJECTED UNTIL THE PEOPLE GET IN TROUBLE AND CALL HIM BACK TO SAVE THEIR ASS.
I, and others like me, young and old, can save your ass now. Bernie used to talk about the tension between commerce and business. Second City has gotten into trouble because it has tilted too far to the business side. You can be the leader who charts the institution’s course back towards art.
I have worked my entire adult life to further the arts of improvisation and writing, the causes of social justice, and individuals in their human development. I don’t wear the blinders of show business. I am highly educated and broadly experienced.
You need me right now.
Rick Thomas, Chicago Main Stage ’81 -84
Richard Thomas JD, LLC Ethical Presence TM Consulting
1000 E. 53rd St. Unit 405, Chicago, Illinois 60615
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