Monday, May 30, 2011

The St. Louis Compass

Crystal Palace, St. Louis
"The third Compass to play St. Louis, again at the Crystal, was produced in the spring of 1962 and featured Jack Burns and Larry Hankin … Hildy Brooks (then known as Hilda Brawner), Martin Lavut, and Maggie Sullivan under the direction of George Sherman.” - Something Wonderful Right Away (Sweet, Jeffrey)
When I was enrolled at Ohio University, the head of the MFA Directing Program was George Sherman. It is a shame I did not return to O.U. to receive a Masters in Directing from him before he retired. Though I only took one course from him, he was a strong presence at the school, and I had great respect for the work he drew out of those in his program. He had a big smile, and a wonderful snorting laugh.

The one course I did take was Improvisation. Freshman year we received basic improv training from Denny Dalen, geared more in the direction of “club” improv. Though I grew remarkably as a performer under Denny’s tutelage, improvisation was George’s domain, and I soaked in experience during that one quarter course which has served me for the past twenty and more years.

However, it was before working with him that I got the idea to interview him for this paper I would write about improv for Mel Helitzer’s comedy class. It was probably Denny who suggested the idea, informing me that George had once been a member of The Second City, which is not entirely accurate. It was George who first told me of The Compass Players. Following the success of the Compass, and its offspring The Second City, branches of each opened in other cities through the late fifties and early sixties -- and, you know, even today in the case of Second City.

Compass originator David Shepherd had started a Compass in St. Louis in 1957 at the Crystal Palace, which went bust soon after. They tried again in 1959, and again it did not last long. And again in 1962. And that is where George comes in.

The fact is, I do not know where to proceed from here. I haven’t seen George since college, and I have only so far made a cursory attempt to find him. He’s not in the Athens phone book, we may assume he left some time ago.

Another fact is, I never finished my paper on improvisation. I interviewed George, who was very informative and interesting and spoke of many things I did not at that time understand. If there microcassette recording of the interview exists somewhere in my home, I have no idea where it is. But I recently found the notes, and they are spare but kind of interesting.

((These are not exact quotes, but reconstructions based on 23 year old notes.))

QUESTION: So, tell me about your work with Second City.

ANSWER: I wasn’t a member of The Second City.

QUESTION: Oh, uh, but I thought …

ANSWER: I was a director for the Compass Players. The Compass Players started in the late 40s or early 50s at a saloon near the University of Chicago by David Shepherd and Paul Sills. Shepherd was the intellectual of the bunch, in 1962 he started a branch of the Compass in St. Louis, we rehearsed in a big, airy basement. There was Alan Alda, Hildy Brooks, Jack Burns, Diana Sands …

Shepherd would create the premise for a scenario, we would perform object work, and create characters. He’d give us a place and time -- for example, in 1961 Jackie Kennedy gave the people a televised tour of the White House, that is a true story. So Hildy created a scene where she played Nina Khrushchev as this motherly type giving a tour of the “red House” in Moscow, or what have you.

QUESTION: This was an improvised performance?

ANSWER: No. It was developed in a workshop. Everything -- everything you see at Second City today, for example, it is all finished material, developed in a workshop.

{{2011 QUESTION: So, David Shepherd had a hand in the 1957 St. Louis Compass? Did he attempt to make it a “people’s theater”? What role did class and politics play in your work?

ANSWER: (Janet Coleman, “The Compass”) “Shepherd found … producer’s chores, as usual, unfulfilling. He was in a hurry to get back to scenario writing … he did not bear in mind Grotowski’s precept: the theatre belongs to whoever is making it.”

ANSWER: (Del Close, “The Compass”) “I’d had enough of his bullshit about ‘you’re an upper-middle-class housewife in love with a middle-class white-collar worker with lower-class parents.’ As soon as he left, things began to work.”}}

QUESTION: Where did the Compass perform?

ANSWER: We performed at the Crystal Palace in St. Louis. Hildy, Jack … Larry Harkin, he was tall, beautiful not verbal, Martin Lavut ... Lavut was quite knowledgeable, good with verbal styles.

The comedy comes from character. There is a sketch we developed that is still used today, the “Van Sketch.” Two people are driving all night in a van, and each tries to keep the other awake. It doesn’t work unless each has a well-developed character and is committed to the act of keeping the other person awake.

QUESTION: When I asked about improvisation in class, Mel said there is no such thing as improvisation. Robin Williams, Jonathan Winters, they prepare everything, it’s all a shtick, it’s all written and planned and they spring it on the audience and it looks like it came from nowhere.

ANSWER: Don’t tell me Jonathan Winters doesn’t improvise. In 1960 or something, he was cutting promos for a show, they just let the tape run for three or fours hour, huge improvised reams of tape. Sure, much of it would end up in some act. But he starts with, he draws on a character. And he can go anywhere.

Bert Lahr said “a comic says funny things, a comedian says things funny.” That is what makes a comedian more endearing than a teller of jokes. The Smothers Brothers routine couldn’t exist without it having grown out of their genuine relationship.

QUESTION: But I am confused. Is a Second City performance improvised or isn’t it?

ANSWER: Early in the week we would have improv sessions. Tuesday, Wednesday night, for people willing for something different. This would be pure improv. What works becomes polished in rehearsal. For the Saturday midnight show, everybody knows everything. We’d use lights to control the bits, wherever the scene was, we would end it on a huge laugh by taking the lights out.

If the show was dying, we’d dim the lights slowly. Lavut was hilarious, he refused to quit and the scene would become about the power going out.

The main show is rehearsed, out of free-form work. We did not think it was fair for people paying top price to receive the rehearsal itself.

... and scene.

Something Wonderful Right Away (Jeffery Sweet)
The Compass (Janet Coleman)


  1. I love St. Louis. I had to move here after a job switch and some fire damage to my home in Chicago, and I have fallen in love with the area.

  2. I drove through one night on my way west. Some day I should linger a bit.