Wednesday, June 04, 2008

RIP: Paul Sills (1927-2008)

For improvisers and sketch comedians throughout the world, today is a sad day as most of the world has heard the sad news that Paul Sills died at the age of 80. He was one of the founders of The Second City. His mother was one of the founders of improvisational theatre. May Paul Sills rest in peace.

Chicago Sun-Times Obituary:
Paul Sills 1927 ~ 2008
Paul Sills, father of Second City improv, dies at 80
Many comedians, TV shows owe their starts to Chicago theater teacher's innovative techniques

By Chris Jones
Tribune critic

June 3, 2008
Without Paul Sills, the founding Chicago father of improvisational theater, there would be no Second City. No "SCTV." No "Saturday Night Live." No "30 Rock."

Sills, a man who eschewed public attention but exerted a giant influence on the development of American comedy and live entertainment, was among the most influential theater people ever to emerge from Chicago.

"Paul was the Orson Welles of improv," said Jeffrey Sweet, the playwright and improv historian. "The form that he invented in 1959 at Second City is still what you see on the stage there today."

According to his wife, Carol, Sills, 80, died of complications from pneumonia early Monday at his longtime home and studio in Baileys Harbor, Wis.

Almost everyone who works or teaches in the theater and Hollywood knows Sills' work—along with that of his late mother, the drama theorist and educator Viola Spolin—and understands its significance. Many writers, directors and performers say his influence is comparable to that of other great American arts teachers and theorists, such as Lee Strasberg or Sanford Meisner. And although the late improv guru Del Close had a more public profile, much of Sills' work predated his.

"Paul was at the very heart of Chicago theater," said Mike Nichols, the acclaimed movie and stage director and one of Sills' earliest compadres at the University of Chicago, where Sills provided the vision for the legendary Compass Players, which led to Second City. "He was the only theater person I have ever known who had no interest whatsoever in results. He was only interested in the continuing process. And therefore he was incredibly sustaining and inspiring to those of us who were connected with him."

Sills was born on Nov. 18, 1927, in Chicago to a famous mother—Spolin, a drama teacher for the Chicago branch of the Works Progress Administration's Recreational Project, who developed a series of theater games as a means of fostering creative expression.

In the 1950s, mother and son worked with the Compass Players, an unofficial outpost at the University of Chicago that's generally credited as being the first theater company to use improvisational techniques to create the current-events-driven, sketch-comedy format now familiar to millions from "Saturday Night Live." The ensemble at Compass included many famous names: Nichols, Elaine May and Barbara Harris, who later became Sills' first wife.

In 1959, Bernie Sahlins and Sills founded Second City. Sahlins put up the money and the management skills, and Mr. Sills provided the artistic leadership.

"Without Paul, there would have been no improv movement," Sahlins said. "He had the very highest ideals and he never compromised."

"Paul was the unsung hero of Second City," said owner Andrew Alexander. "He was my teacher since 1951," said Sheldon Patinkin, the chair of the theater department at Columbia College and a longtime friend and colleague of Sills'.

Many of those with whom Sills worked in the early days moved to New York and Los Angeles and became household names. David Mamet, for instance, embellished Sills' techniques into full-blown scripted drama. But Sills, who approached improv and theater from a more scholarly perspective, took a different tack. In the 1970s, he retreated to Door County, Wis., where he worked extensively as a writer and teacher, although he continued to work in Chicago and elsewhere.

"I always thought of Paul as the last leftist," Nichols said. "Now and again he would think vaguely about making money but he just wasn't made that way. He treated everybody the same."

"Paul," his wife said, "was a seeker."

After the Second City days, Sills developed and refined his mother's initial work in "story theater," the technique wherein a character could also step out of the story and serve as a third-person narrator. Sills' writings and workshops on story theater became hugely influential on everything from "Ragtime" on Broadway, to the adaptations made famous by such Chicago groups as the Lookingglass Theatre Company, to the Royal Shakespeare Company's Dickensian epics.

Sills' work pointed to a way wherein non-dramatic forms such as novels and prose could be produced effectively as drama. And thus he opened up a whole new horizon for audiences. Not bad for a guy who, it could be argued, also pretty much invented improv.

"Paul was never given his due," Sweet said. "Nobody did more for the American theater."

No comments: