Sheldon Patinkin was 17 in 1952 when he fell into what turned out to be theater history. A precocious kid from South Shore, he'd entered the University of Chicago at 15 and was majoring in English lit. But he'd also done opera, plays, even a little radio, and started gravitating toward the student theater club, University Theater. That's where he met Paul Sills, a charismatic fellow student whose mother, Viola Spolin, had developed a set of theater games she'd been using in workshops with young people. Sills gathered a group around him that included such soon-to-be famous names as Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and Barbara Harris. Patinkin joined them in shows and in workshops during which they used Spolin's games as a basis for improvisation.
That work led to an astounding number of places, but perhaps most significantly to the Playwrights Theatre Club, arguably the first spark of the off-Loop theater movement; to the Compass Players, where Chicago-style improvisation was born; and to the Second City, where Chicago-style improvisation became an industry. Intimately associated with the Second City in multiple capacities since its founding, Patinkin took the trip, too. The recently retired chairman of the theater department at Columbia College talked about the first steps in Hyde Park.
Hyde Park in the early 1950s seems to have been the beginning not only of improvisation in Chicago but also of the off-Loop theater movement.
I agree. Well, at the University of Chicago there were no theater classes, there was no theater department, but there was an after-school dramatics group called University Theater. The 1952-'53 school year was when Paul Sills came back to UT. He had hated the guy who was running it up until then—the only salaried person in the theater, a guy named George Blair—so he'd gone off and started his own theater company on campus called Tonight at 8:30. And in the winter of '52-'53, Paul offered to teach anyone who was interested the improv games that his mother, Viola Spolin, had created. And a bunch of us took the games. What Paul was doing—with the collusion of Eugene Troobnick and David Shepherd, although none of the rest of us was aware of it—he was thinking of starting a theater company, and this was a way of forming an ensemble that Paul knew would work, because when you play the games together you form an ensemble. There's no way around it. Even if there are impossible people in it, they become part of what the ensemble is.
The last show we did at UT was [Bertolt Brecht's] The Caucasian Chalk Circle in its Chicago premiere. Paul directed, I was assistant director. And then we opened Playwright's Theater Club with Chalk Circle, June 23, 1953, at 1560 N. LaSalle—a converted Chinese restaurant, which had curtained alcoves. I always wondered what went on in those alcoves when it was a restaurant. When it was Playwrights, that's where some of the people slept.
But you did more than one show at University Theater.
That was the last one we did. UT produced, I think, four main shows a year—two in the fall semester and two in the spring semester. And then we did some staged readings and poets' corner and stuff like that. In the 1950-'51 season, Paul directed The Duchess of Malfi. That's when he broke off from UT. Then he came back in the '52-'53 season when George Blair was replaced by a guy named Otis Imbodin, and the first thing he did was the—I think—American premiere, certainly the Chicago premiere, of Jean Cocteau's The Typewriter, about a poison-pen letter writer. He didn't use the stage, though. He put the audience on the stage and around it and did an in-the-round production. It was the first in-the-round show done at the university. Mike Nichols played twins. I volunteered to run the lights. Because it was a premiere it was reviewed, most particularly in the Daily News by Herman Kogan.
Even though it was a student production?
He wanted to see the play. He wrote a rave review, which was part of helping Paul and David and Eugene open Playwrights. Then Paul and Eugene played the leads, and I played the comic lead in George Buchner's Leonce and Lena. And then we did Chalk Circle. But while we were doing Leonce and Lena, even before it, and up until Chalk Circle, we were doing the games on Saturdays.
Why was this going on in Hyde Park at that moment and with those people?
There is no answer to the question why those people were all at the University of Chicago at the same time, without a theater department or a theater class. There's no answer to that question. Serendipity. We were all smart, we all wanted that kind of education.
That kind of education?
Stiff, straight liberal arts for the first four yearlong courses. And we learned a lot. And that's what people wanted who were there—we wanted to learn a lot. It was tough. It was really hard. But that all of us who were there ended up in theater—and really wanted to be in theater all along, I guess—there's no explanation. Some of them were drawn to Paul as a guru, as a teacher.
What did he do to deserve that?