David Shepherd (producer)

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David Shepherd
BornOctober 10, 1924
DiedDecember 17, 2018
Improv coach/teacher
Years active1950–2018
Notable workPlaywrights Theatre Club
Compass Players
Canadian Improv Games

David Gwynne Shepherd (October 10, 1924 – December 17, 2018) was an American producer, director, and actor noted for his innovative work in improvisational theatre. He founded and/or co-founded Playwrights Theatre Club, The Compass Players, Canadian Improv Games, and the ImprovOlympic.

Early life and education[edit]

Born in 1924 in New York City to an old money family, Shepherd grew up with left-leaning sensibilities.[1] He was the son of Louise Tracy (Butler) and William Edgar Shepherd, an architect.[1] His paternal grandmother was the sister of socialite Alice Claypoole Vanderbilt.[2]

He studied English at Harvard and received an M.A. in the History of Theater at Columbia.[3] Disenchanted with what he perceived as a European dominated theater on the East Coast, Shepherd gravitated to the Midwest.[4][5]


Producer and Improv innovator[edit]

Playwrights Theatre Club[edit]

In 1953 Shepherd was one of the co-founders along with Paul Sills and Eugene Troobnick of the Playwrights Theatre Club in Chicago.[6] The theatre was noted for its original treatment of classic plays as well as original works.[7]

Other members and participants included Elaine May, Sheldon Patinkin, Rolf Forsberg, Mike Nichols, Joyce Piven, Josephine Forsberg, Ed Asner,[8] Barbara Harris, and many more.[7]

The Playwright's Theatre Club led to the creation of The Compass Players and later The Second City.[9][7]

Compass Players[edit]

In 1955 Shephered and Paul Sills founded The Compass Players, the forerunner of The Second City.[10] Compass launched the careers of Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Jerry Stiller, Alan Alda, Alan Arkin, Barbara Harris, and Shelley Berman (to name a few) and started a revolution in entertainment.[11][12]

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.”[13]

The Compass eventually opened in St. Louis, Philadelphia, New York, and Washington.[14]

Community Makers[edit]

In 1971, Shepherd produced the Community Makers in New York City. Assisted by Howard Jerome Gomberg, the organization was created to correct ailing communities by using improvisation as a people’s theatre, and was housed at the Space for Innovative Development, 344 W. 36th Street, New York.[15][14]

Responsive Scene radio show[edit]

In 1972, Shepherd produced the Responsive Scene radio show which aired on WRVR-FM, a public radio station owned and operated by The Riverside Church in the City of New York. Responsive Scene was an hour-long improvised show with a round-table of professional actors performing from call-in suggestions from their audience of over 40,000 listeners.[14]


New York[edit]

In 1973, also at the Space for Innovative Development, David went on to create the ImprovOlympic (a competitive theatrical sporting event),[16][17][18]

The ImprovOlympic began as the Improvisation Olympics,[16] and was founded and produced by Shepherd.[16][18][17] His theatrical event placed competing teams of improvisers on stage in front of a live audience, and taping the performances for future replays.[16] The format was refined by Shepherd and Gomberg[3] and together they used the Theater Games, created earlier by Viola Spolin, as a way for teams to compete,[19] and by 1981, Shepard moved his Improvisation Olympics back to Chicago.


The first classes and ImprovOlympic shows took place at The Players Workshop,[20] where Charna Halpern was a student. There, she approached Shepherd to help run his ImprovOlympics, which she did for a time, but after a difference of artistic vision, she went on to produce her own commercialized version of his creation.[17] Halpern would later admit that, "...neither I nor the ImprovOlympic (iO) would be here if it wasn't for David Shepard."[14]


Sherpherd's ImprovOlmpic was also produced in Ottawa, Canada by Jamie Wyllie and Howard Jerome to great success. The name was changed to the Canadian Improv Games (CIG) but was still based on the concept originally conceived by Shepherd.[14]


Shepherd resided near Amherst, Massachusetts. There, he developed a new improvisational format known as Life-Play, which consists of improvised games that can be played over the phone.[21] According to Shepherd, If you called him at a specific number, he would provide a short training session and then introduce you to the phone team, often national participants.[21]


In 2010, the documentary David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre was completed. It is an oral history detailing the career of Shepherd and his contributions to Improvisational Theatre.[15] It was directed by Mike Fly and written by Michael Golding. The documentary includes interviews with past and present associates such as Bernie Sahlins, Suzanne Shepherd, and Janet Coleman.[14]

In 2014, Compass Cabaret 55, a documentary about the birth of modern theatrical improvisation directed by Mark Siska, also details the career of Shepherd and his contributions to Improvisational movement. Besides Shepherd, the interviewees include Bernie Sahlins, Janet Coleman, Jeffrey Sweet, and Compass veterans such as Ed Asner, Suzanne Shepherd, and Sheldon Patinkin.[13]


Shepherd died on December 17, 2018, at age 94.[3]

Lifetime achievement awards[edit]

He received lifetime achievement awards from the Chicago Improv Festival, Second City, and the Canadian Improv Games.[22]


  1. ^ a b "Colonel Shepherd, an Architect, and Wife Killed in Auto Crash". The New York Times. 8 April 1971.
  2. ^ "Guide to the David Shepherd Papers 1953-2006".
  3. ^ a b c Sandomir, Richard (December 19, 2018). "David Shepherd, 94, Dies; Nurtured Improvisational Theater". New York Times. Retrieved 19 February 2022.
  4. ^ Sweet, Jeffrey Something Wonderful Right Away: An Oral History of the Second City and The Compass Players, 2004, page 2
  5. ^ "Teens from Across Canada Storm Ottawa for Improv Competition
    | National Arts Centre"
    . Archived from the original on 2011-08-27. Retrieved 2011-08-06.
  6. ^ The Second City Celebrates Playwrights Theatre Club’s 60th Anniversary, Second City, May 22, 2013.Retrieved February 8, 2019.
  7. ^ a b c Spiselman, Anne (June 17, 2020). "Hyde Park and the Chicago theater movement". Hyde Park Herald. No. Arts & Entertainment. Hyde Park Herald. Retrieved 21 February 2022.
  8. ^ Staff Writer (August 30, 2021). "Ed Asner, the early years". Chicago Tribune. No. Entertainment. Tribune. Retrieved 21 February 2022.
  9. ^ Adler, Tony (4 March 2010). "Hyde Park & Kenwood Issue: The Cradle of Chicago-Style Theater | Performing Arts Feature". Chicago Reader. Retrieved 2013-10-13.
  10. ^ The 50th anniversary of the founding of The Compass Players was celebrated in 2005 by a re-enactment of a Compass-esque show by a group of students at the University of Chicago; see http://chronicle.uchicago.edu/050818/compass.shtml
  11. ^ 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 http://www.logosjournal.com/issue_6.3/leming.htm.
  12. ^ This formative time in the history of American improvisational theater is the subject matter of a 2011 documentary "Compass Cabaret '55; see http://siskafilms.com/ and http://www.outofboundscomedy.com/compass-cabaret-55-film/.
  13. ^ a b Siska, Mark (2014). Compass Cabaret ’55. documentary.
  14. ^ a b c d e f Fly, Mike (2010). David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre. documentary.
  15. ^ a b Langer, Emily (December 20, 2018). "David Shepherd, a father of improvisational theater, dies at 94". The Washington Post. Retrieved 22 February 2022.
  16. ^ a b c d Bowden, Beth (February 1, 1973). "Video Taped Improvisation Olympics". Show Business. Leo Shull.
  17. ^ a b c reporter, Achy Obejas, Tribune staff. "Comedy Guru Charna Halpern Carries oN". chicagotribune.com. Retrieved 2021-05-30.
  18. ^ a b Markwell, Scott (August 10, 1995). "Comedy Mother". Chicago Reader. No. News and politics. Chicago Reader. Retrieved 19 February 2022.
  19. ^ Adler, Tony. "Improvisational Theater". The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago Historical Society. Retrieved 19 February 2022.
  20. ^ Voghel, Jacquelyn (December 18, 2018). "'Yes, and … ': Remembering David Shepherd, father of improv". Daily Hampshire Gazette. No. News Local. H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc. Retrieved 18 February 2022.
  21. ^ a b Shepherd, David (2012). Personal Empowerment Through Improv. Tedx.
  22. ^ Holborn Gray, Hanna. "Guide to the David Shepherd Papers 1953-2006". The University of Chicago Library. The University of Chicago Library. Retrieved 21 February 2022.


Shepherd, David (2005). That Movie in Your Head: Guide to improvising stories on video. Shutesbury, MA: Gere Publishing. pp. 202 pages. ISBN 0-9743995-0-7.

Further reading[edit]

Coleman, Janet (1991). The Compass: The Improvisational Theatre that Revolutionized American Comedy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 362 pages. ISBN 978-0-226-11345-6.
Sweet, Jeffrey (2004). Something Wonderful Right Away: An Oral History of the Second City and The Compass Players. Limelight Editions. pp. 386 pages. ISBN 978-0-87910-073-5.

External links[edit]

Encyclopedia of Chicago History entry