Planning For the Unplanned by Michaela McInerney

 Modern day improv comedy.  Photo by Kaspars Skels

Modern day improv comedy. Photo by Kaspars Skels

What do William Shakespeare and improvisational comedy have in common? While Willy Nilly probably didn’t partake in many improv scenes as an accomplished playwright, he may very well have shared his spotlight with the beginnings of the comedy form. Modern improv is attributed to the ancestor Commedia Dell'Arte, a group of travelling troupes who toured Europe from the 1500’s for about 200 years. No doubt, many of Shakespeare’s more classic lines, such as “Villian, I have done thy mother” [Titus Andronicus, Act 4, Scene 2] and “…eat my leek” [Henry V, Act 5, Scene 1] would be repeated to the audience from makeshift stages. The result would be eruptions in laughter from a fishmonger named Geffrey, or two. The loss of something so wonderfully hilarious led to many (okay, just my completely misplaced and illogical) conspiracy theories that America was actually colonized to bring improv back into our lives.

Give or take 200 more years, and we end up in the prohibition era. A time where a Viola Spolin, an actor and educator, was so bored of making bathtub gin and struggling to memorize the passwords to the speakeasies her crush was at, that she invented a new series of acting exercises in the roaring 20’s. These were aimed at making theater accessible to the average joe on the street. Viola created a series of games and exercises that allowed actors to organically grow in their art form. She also passed the teaching gene on to her son, Paul Sills, who is credited with evolving modern improvisational theater heavily in the United States. Paul co-founded a very popular improv development center in 1959 known as The Second City.

While there were many similar groups in varying stages of their development around the world, The Second City had something special. It had passion. It had grit. It had some of the best spur of the moment minds of the world – together. Development continued through the years, both in The Second City’s home base of Chicago and across the country. This all happened alongside a public appreciation for the art form through classes, performances, and community outreach. Eventually, word got around that laughing is fun. Laughing is like, totally, really, seriously, fun. Names like Steve Carroll and Stephen Colbert found their way on to the improv stage, then into our hearts and belly laughs.

In 2009 a piece of that comedy craze landed itself in one of the largest metroplexes in Texas. The Dallas Comedy House began it’s origins at the back of Ozona’s restaurant with both one improv show and class a month. The rest is history. Feel free to check it out at: https://www.dallascomedyhouse.com/about-us/. While improv may not be planned, it’s backed with plenty of thought and time (plus the occasional 16th century callback to a your mom joke).

Want more? Check out: http://www.improvcomedy.org/history.html, https://www.violaspolin.org/bio/, or https://www.secondcity.com/history/.

Michaela is a full-time jokester and a part-time blog intern for the Dallas Comedy House. She is currently signed up for her first class in stand-up comedy and her third class in improv at DCH. You can catch her drinking a double vodka soda and guffawing at nearly every Tuesday night Improv jam – stop by and say hi.