Stage director led improv into mainstream

Times Staff Writer

Paul Sills, the legendary improvisational director and teacher who co-founded the Compass Players in Chicago and was the founding director of Chicago’s Second City improvisational comedy cabaret, died Monday.

He was 80.

Sills died of complications of pneumonia at his home in Baileys Harbor, Wis., said documentary filmmaker Vince Waldron, a family friend.

“Paul was the founding father of American improvisational theater,” said Waldron, who is in post-production on a feature-length documentary on Sills’ life and work.


“The roots of Paul’s theater came out of the same era that gave us bebop in jazz,” Waldron said.

“Improvisation was in the air in the postwar era; I think Paul harnessed it for the stage.”

A former University of Chicago student, Sills co-founded the Compass Players with playwright and producer David Shepherd in 1955.

The Compass became a launching pad for some of the top performers of their generation, including Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Shelley Berman and Barbara Harris, who was the second of Sills’ three wives.

“It’s hard to make a single comment about Paul Sills because he had so many areas of expertise, not the least of which he knew when the scene was over and he turned off the lights,” Berman told The Times on Monday.

“If we wanted to run on and on, getting one meager laugh after another, POW! The lights were off and your scene was over.

“He wanted us to be only aware of each other on stage. If someone said something and it was ignored, you made a mistake. And Paul didn’t run around crabbing and criticizing. He was just a guy who was never busy asserting his authority. He made a bunch of young people become important.”

Citing one improvisation about a teenager that he did at the Compass that later became “an important piece of material” in his comedy act, Berman said Sills “helped create all kinds of material,” including “marvelous things for Nichols and May.”

“We all found treasures in working with him,” he said.

After serving as one of the directors of the Compass through its early years, Sills co-founded Second City in 1959.

The legendary Chicago improv club provided a springboard for performers such as Alan Arkin, Avery Schreiber, Hamilton Camp, Paul Sand and Severn Darden.

Sills was the primary director through the mid-1960s.

He then launched the Story Theater, a groundbreaking technique for adapting folk tales and other literary material to the stage, in Chicago in 1968.

Sills adapted the classic folk tales of the Brothers Grimm and directed “Paul Sills’ Story Theater,” which was one of the earliest hits of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1970.

The show then went to Broadway, where the cast included Peter Bonerz, Melinda Dillon, Mary Frann, Valerie Harper, Paul Sand and others. Sills won a Drama Desk Award for outstanding director.

Sills was born in Chicago Nov. 18, 1927.

He was the son of Viola Spolin, who was known as the grand dame of improvisational theater, Waldron said.

“Everything you see from ‘Saturday Night Live’ to ‘The Simpsons’ owes a debt to the improvisational work of Paul and his players, who really started with nothing more than the theater games that his mother had developed teaching neighborhood kids in settlement houses in Chicago in the 1930s,” Waldron said.

Spolin later codified her theater games into the classic book, “Improvisation for the Theater” (1963).

Sills served in the Army from 1946 to 1948 and went to the University of Chicago on the GI Bill.

Before co-founding the Compass, he and Shepherd co-founded the Playwrights Theatre Club, whose company included Nichols, Harris and Ed Asner.

In 1988, Sills co-founded the New Actors Workshop in Manhattan with Mike Nichols and director George Morrison. Sills taught his mother’s theater games and directed an annual Story Theater production there until 2003.

For the last dozen years, he would mount productions with local community actors in the barn on his farm.

He also taught summer master classes at his farm for teachers, actors, directors and writers.

In Los Angeles in April, Sills and his wife and longtime collaborator, Carol, completed teaching an eight-week workshop for actors and teachers in Sills’ Story Theater techniques.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his children, David, Rachel, Polly, Aretha Amelia and Neva; his brother, William; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.