Del Close and Early Improv
What we think of as improv began in 1955 at the University of Chicago with Paul Sill and David Shepherd forming the Compass Players, a comedy troupe.
Viola Spolin, Sills’ mother, created games in the ‘40s and ‘50s that began as exercises to help children relax and learn to ‘play’ theater. And in 1983, she wrote a book on the topic, Improvisation for the Theater. That concept is what Paul Sill and David Shepherd based their comedy troupe, Compass Players on.
After Compass Players ended in 1959, Sills, along with Howard Alk and Bernie Sahlir of the Compass Players formed a new cabaret theater called Second City in Old Town.
When Second City was formed Del Close became a key figure in the early Chicago improv scene. Del started performing in the Compass Players after they moved to St. Louis. From there in 1961, he joined Second City and spent 30 years coaching and teaching. Charna Halpern and Del Close then went on to form the iO Theater. The iO Theater began as a way to perform a new kind of improv, the “long form”, where scenes were no longer just games but a complete story that lasted longer.
In 1967, Second City touring company hit the road. It was during this time that many well known comedians of today began their career. Some of the notable comedians to begin their careers are Bill Murray, John Candy, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Mike Myers, Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Stephen Colbert, among others.
Del died of emphysema on March 4, 1999, five days before his 65th birthday. Being a character that he was, even his death had a story. Rumor was that he bequeathed his skull to Chicago’s Goodman Theater to be used in productions of Hamlet and specified that he be credited in the program as Yorik. The skull was donated by Charna Halpern in a high profile TV ceremony on July 1, 1999.
After Close’s death, his former student from Upright Citizens Brigade founded the Del Close Marathon, three days of non-stop improv at various venues in New York City.