You’re in “The Athenian Room.” In Chicago. It’s a few years back. Tina Fey is about to arrive and order the Greek chicken. And if you’re not careful, you’ll miss her. Should that happen, you might also miss a glimpse into improvisation for the theater, a force in American popular culture that winds it’s way off of midnight stages populated only with two chairs, past Second City alumni lists, Saturday Night Live reruns, memories of John Belushi and settles in the corners of everyday lives. Far from show business. Maybe even saving people. Changing people.
You think, this sure changed me.
Grab a small table next to the exposed brick wall, underneath the sunlight blue and white hand painted mural of a Greek fishing village.
Your eyes are drawn out the front window to the people strolling through the soft twilight of Webster Avenue on a warm summer night. Imagining the stories of each of them.
Alex looks out on the room. Gives you a nod and you nod back. You wave off the menu. Alex raises his eyebrows. You nod again and Alex leans over the front counter to tell the grill man you’ll have the gyros, fries and coke.
You’ve been here since the early years. When there was no grey in Alex’s beard. And as the sun would rise over the lake offering another summer day chance, you’d get off the shuttle bus on Halsted Street, grab a newspaper from a machine, find your coffee poured before you sat down and Alex would make the 2 eggs, toast and bacon breakfast for $1.99.
Lost in thoughts of those days of a brighter sunlight pouring through the third floor window of your tiny apartment in the yellow brick building, drinking in Saul Bellow and Algren as if they both rode in on the sunlight of the morning. So you don’t even notice the 3 people at the round table behind you, when they came in, what they looked like, you don’t notice anything until they stop talking.
That’s when you notice the intensity of the silence. You drop a napkin, shoot a look, and framed at the table, two young women and a man, are having a conversation, bubbling over with laughter, but then they all three do something remarkable. They all listen. Listen to each other as if listening was a contact sport. That silence you hear is the echo of someone listening. Listening like it was a thing you could put on the table right next to the Greek fries smothered in the juices of the gyros and flavored with a touch of vinegar.
Listening like no one else listens is the first key to improvisation.
You hear one of the women addressed as Tina. But you can’t really get a sense of who these three are. So you shift your chair. And a second glance shows something else at the foundation of improvisation for the theater. There are no stars. Not here. Not now. Learning the craft demands that there be no stars. Because everything you do depends on someone else. The three fellow diners conversationally bounce off each other like three silver pinballs. But no one is a star.
You look again and you swear that one of the women has noticed you noticing. And given you 'a look’ back! You put it down to wishful thinking on your part. But when she looked, you saw in her eyes a unique kind of intelligent awareness. Intelligence that comes from not being scared.
Their conversation deepens. You listen harder. And you start hearing names rarely, if ever tossed into the spotlights of Saturday Night Live.
You hear the name Neva Boyd. A woman born in 1876. Friend of the pioneers of social service Julia Lathrop and Jane Addams. Neva Boyd, who figured out that encouraging children to play games with each other made for deeper, richer lives.
You imagine what it would be like to live in a time when people didn’t know that.
The laughter at the table next to you stops for a moment as the food comes. Years from the night you sat at that table, you’d co-author a book with a name author on customer service. A book that featured Alex as an example of how to do it right. Then the book that was shelved and never published for one that became a New York Times best seller. Maybe a good business decision? Not so good for you. Good thing you knew how to improvise with what came next.
As you listen to the three at the next table, no one is talking about “me.” You hear the name Viola Spolin. Author of “Improvisation for the Theater.” She took Neva’s work to the next level. Her son Paul Sills pushed it forward.
The Compass Players, a University of Chicago troupe that evolved into The Second City, put the work on stage. The names are flowing, way too many to mention, especially because at improv's heart there are no "stars" and it becomes clear that the third key to improvisation for the theater is the deep history of this cultural force. First listening, then absence of stars, then history.
Tina Fey, 'future star' bubbling up with unquestioned inborn talent, has a river of history behind her. Traced all the way back to a woman born in 1876.
The sun is starting to go down on Webster Avenue. The people at the next table are done. And Alex looks over at you with a glance that says, “Hey! I need the table.”
So you’re all back out on streets of a city summer night.
Just a few blocks north on Lincoln Avenue is The Players Workshop. A place for those not destined for the main stage of Second City on Wells Street. At Players Workshop, you can pay to learn the craft of improvisation for the theater.
That’s what you do. 2 years of classes. Single best training in anything you’ve ever had. Not a lot of days go by without using what you learned.
Like for example. A couple days ago on the first 80-degree day of spring. A large square table full of well meaning people lecturing to three 13 year old boys on what it means to be part of a church, while the summer winds of distant lands came blowing in the window.
So as the boys bravely fought to keep their “I’m paying attention” faces in place, you stop the drill of one way communication and say, “OK boys, now when each of us big kids is done talking, and we will hurry our talking along, then you---as a team, because church, (like improvisation), is all about being a team, you together are going to repeat back one thing that each of us said.”
Next night eating Chicago’s best chicken wings, burgers, a salad and killer mozzarella sticks in an almost empty restaurant, the welcome of the place being a lot like the way Alex does in at the Athenian Room. And your 17-year-old niece suddenly jumps up next to the table, and shouts out, “A rapper reading the labels on a can of corn, pushing a shopping cart in a supermarket!”
And out of nothing she creates that scene. “Sarah Palin reading labels!” Donald Trump being disgusted at how much stuff costs!”
Bam, Bam, Bam, she nails each scene. It lasts about 20 seconds.
The laughter fills the room.
While somewhere Neva Boyd, Viola Spolin, Del Close, Paul Sills, Tina Fey and all of those who arrived at being stars by learning a craft based on the fact that there are no stars, just sit back and smile.
Their work goes on.