Compass Players

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Compass Players
Date of premiere1955
LocationChicago, Illinois, United States
Creative team
Co-founderDavid Shepherd
Co-founderPaul Sills

The Compass Players (or Compass Theater) was an improvisational theatre revue active from 1955 to 1958 in Chicago and St. Louis.[1] Founded by David Shepherd and Paul Sills, it is considered to be the first improvisational theater in the United States.[2]


Shepherd and Sills[edit]

The Compass Players, founded by David Shepherd and Paul Sills, was the first Improvisational Theatre in America. [2] It began July 8, 1955 as a storefront theater at 1152 E. 55th near the University of Chicago campus. They presented improvised plays.[3]

Shepherd, in Mark Siska's documentary Compass Cabaret ’55, about the birth of modern improvisation, stated his reasons for founding the Compass Players, “Theater in New York was very effete and based on three-act plays and based on verbiage and there was not much action,” he said. “I wanted to create a theater that would drag people off the street and seat them not in rows but at tables and give them something to drink, which was unheard of in [American] theater.”[4] [2]

Previously, Shepherd and Sills founded Playwrights Theatre Club, along with Eugene Troobnick, and employed improvisational theater forms, named Theater Games, originally created and developed by Sills' mother, Viola Spolin. These same games were employed to develop material for the Compass Players.[5]

Original announcement in Chicago's Hyde Park Herald shows first performance scheduled for Friday, July 8, 1955 at The Compass tavern, formerly at 1152 E. 55th (not to be confused with Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap to the east).

Evolution of Improvisation[edit]

Initially, scenes were presented only once, but some of the players grew interested in polishing material into finished pieces. For example, Mike Nichols and Elaine May created many of their signature scenes in this manner. Shelley Berman also found that he could create solo routines by showing one half of telephone conversations.[6][7]

Crystal Palace[edit]

The Compass Players also opened its doors at the Crystal Palace in St. Louis, where Theodore J. Flicker, Nichols and May, along with Del Close, codified a further set of principles to guide improvisational players.[8]


Sills would co-found The Second City[2] and Shepherd would return to New York City to create and produce a variety of improv forms including his Improvisation Olympics (ImprovOlympic).[9] [2]

Nichols and May went on to New York, performing material largely derived from their Compass days.[2] Close was featured in Flickers' Broadway musical comedy The Nervous Set, and afterwards developed his long-form improvisation the Harold.[10]

Notable alumni[edit]

(Please note: the following sources were used to cite and authenticate the above list of Compass Players)

  1. Mark Siska's documentary Compass Cabaret ’55[4]
  2. Janet Coleman's book The Compass: The Improvisational Theatre that Revolutionized American Comedy[2]
  3. Jeffery Sweet's book Something Wonderful Right Away: An Oral History of the Second City and The Compass Players'[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Adler, Tony, Theater, p. 815-7, Eds. Grossman, James R., Keating, Ann Durkin, and Reiff, Janice L., 2004 The Encyclopedia of Chicago. The University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-31015-9
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Coleman, Janet (1 November 1991). The Compass: The Improvisational Theatre that Revolutionized American Comedy. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226113456 – via Google Books.
  3. ^ Worcester, Nathan (November 30, 2011). "Old Jokes". Chicago Weekly. Archived from the original on July 14, 2014. Retrieved 11 July 2014.
  4. ^ a b Siska, Mark (2014). Compass Cabaret '55. documentary.
  5. ^ Adler, Tony. "Improvisational Theater". The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago Historical Society. Retrieved 19 February 2022.
  6. ^ See Stephen Kercher's book "Rebel With A Cause: Liberal Satire in Postwar America", University of Chicago Press, 2006. See also a review of this book by Warren Leming at
  7. ^ This formative time in the history of American improvisational theater is the subject matter of a 2011 documentary "Compass Cabaret '55; see and
  8. ^ Kercher, Stephen E. (September 15, 2006). Revel with a Cause: Liberal Satire in Postwar America (Illustrated ed.). The University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226431649.
  9. ^ Bowden, Beth (February 1, 1973). "Video Taped Improvisation Olympics". Show Business. Leo Shull.
  10. ^ Kim Howard Johnson (2008). The Funniest One in the Room: The Lives and Legends of Del Close. Chicago Review Press. p. 75. ISBN 978-1-56976-436-7.
  11. ^ Sweet, Jeffrey (2004). Sweet, Jeffrey (2004). Something Wonderful Right Away (Limelight ed.). Hal Leonard Corporation. p. 386. ISBN 0879100737.

Further reading[edit]