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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 the Playwrights Theatre Club, The Compass Players, the Canadian Improv Games, and the ImprovOlympic.

Early life and education


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


Playwrights Theatre Club


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] and Barbara Harris.[7]

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

Compass Players


In 1955 Shepherd 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]

In Mark Siska's documentary Compass Cabaret ’55, about the birth of modern improvisation, Shepherd 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. 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


In 1971, Shepherd established 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


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 New York City. Responsive Scene was an hour-long improvised show with professional actors performing from call-in suggestions from their audience of over 40,000 listeners.[14]

The Improvisation Olympics

New York

In 1972 at the Space for Innovative Development, Shepherd and Howard Jerome Gomberg created the Improvisation Olympics, a competitive theatrical sporting event. The event placed competing teams of improvisers on stage in front of a live audience, with performances taped for future replays.[16] The format was refined by Toronto's Homemade Theatre Company in 1974. In 1981, Shepherd returned to Chicago, producing the Improvisation Olympics and the Jonah Complex with Charna Halpern, who later went on to form i.O. with Del Close.

The Canadian Improv Games (CIG) is an education-based format of improvisational theatre for Canadian high schools. To participate in the games, high school students form teams of up to 8 players and are required to pay a registration fee (if their school is not able to cover the cost). The teams compete in regional tournaments, organized and coordinated by regional Canadian Improv Games volunteers. Players perform improvised scenes, fueled by suggestions provided by the audience. Each scene is judged based on a fixed rubric. The winning team from each region proceeds to the National Festival and Tournament held in Ottawa. The National Arts Centre is a major sponsor of the Canadian Improv Games. The National Arts Centre is the site of the National Festival and Ottawa Tournament. The Games were created by Jamie "Willie" Wyllie and Howard Jerome Gomberg, based on Shepherd's and Gomberg's Improvisation Olympics.



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. According to Shepherd, If you called him on a specific number, he would provide a short training session and then introduce you to the phone team, often national participants.

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.[17] According to Shepherd, If you called him on a specific number, he would provide a short training session and then introduce you to the phone team, often national participants.[17]



In 2010, the documentary David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre was completed. It is an oral history detailing Shepherd's career and 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 the age of 94.[3]

Lifetime achievement awards


He received lifetime achievement awards from the Chicago Improv Festival, Second City, and the Canadian Improv Games.[18]


  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 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 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. ^ Bowden, Beth (February 1, 1973). "Video Taped Improvisation Olympics". Show Business. Leo Shull.
  17. ^ a b Shepherd, David (2012). Personal Empowerment Through Improv. Tedx.
  18. ^ 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

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.
Encyclopedia of Chicago History entry