Sheldon Patinkin Credit: lloyd degrane

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?

[Long pause] He was filled with theater, and his need to get others to feel the way he did was a constant communication. He was mesmerizing in a lot of ways. He was smart. He was semi-inarticulate, which made it that much more interesting, in a way, to understand what he was saying. You did, because he used body language plus whatever words would come out, and occasionally he would just scream at you until you got it. There were people who would never work with him again, and there were people who would work with him no matter what.

Does that include you?

Yeah, I loved him. I have deep respect for him. But I would never have wanted to work with him again after a while. After Playwrights on the south side, 1967. You don’t know what I’m talking about.

No, I don’t know what you’re talking about.

We’re all better off that way, Tony.

There was an off-shoot of Playwrights on the south side?

At the Harper.

The Harper off 53rd?

We—[Second City cofounder] Bernie Sahlins, Paul, and I—opened a theater called Playwrights at the Harper, or something like that, in 1967. The first show we did was Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park, which Mailer himself adapted into a play. Paul wouldn’t be with us unless he played the lead in that play. He clearly identified with it, but he couldn’t act. I directed him. He wouldn’t take direction. It was a disaster, just awful. I quit. The next show Paul directed was one that we had worked on for a year in the mid-60s at the by-then closed Game Theater—it was near Second City—playing Viola’s games on the text of The Cherry Orchard. The Cherry Orchard wasn’t any better than The Deer Park. A little bit better. [The theater] closed after those two shows.

What did you learn from working with Sills in Hyde Park?

That acting was listening and reacting. You can only be as good as how much you are a part of what everybody else is doing. That what’s between produces what’s inside rather than what’s inside producing what’s between.

By “between” you mean between two characters.

Relationship, yes. We learned the games. I see or talk to Mike Nichols maybe once every four or five years, maximum, and he always considered me to be the kid. Actually, I was: I’m a month younger than Barbara Harris, four years younger than Mike and Elaine. At any rate, without any communication over a long period of time he called me yesterday because he had a question about something. And it was like we had been talking the day before. That’s how it is with all of us. And that’s about what we learned as people in learning how to play the games.

And that’s true of anybody who learns the games, not just the people who were in Hyde Park?

Straight down the line till now. But it started in Hyde Park. And came back to Hyde Park with the Compass.

But you weren’t involved with that.

No, I was being a good Jewish boy and getting my master’s and my doctorate in English literature. Since I didn’t want to be a doctor, a lawyer, or an accountant, I could at least be a teacher.

You weren’t a member of the Compass Players but you saw them—

Regularly.

Talk about the scene.

You know that the form started differently from what it became. The first act started with some kind of a blackout. [Then the] living newspaper and a six- or seven-scene scenario that had been improvised during the week. Then they took suggestions and did some improvs. The scenarios were strongly socially satirical. Strongly.

[The ensemble members] were incredibly funny. Smart, funny, on each other. Severn [Darden], as he continued to be able to do at Second City, would ask for any college topic, do a 15-minute lecture on it followed by a Q & A. You could ask for any author in the world at any point of time and they would improvise a scene in the style of that author. Well. Always well. They played the hurt game.

I don’t know the hurt game.

That means, say things to try and hurt other people, and if they flinch you win. They played it onstage, only slightly fictionalized. It got brutal every once in a while.

Who was your audience?

Mostly it was students and faculty and staff [at UT], and so was the Compass audience. So was the Playwrights audience. So was the original Second City audience. The original Second City audience was college students and professionals, usually with advanced college degrees. There were a lot of psychiatrists at the original Second City. We knew a lot of our audiences at Playwrights, at Compass. But it built itself its own reputation. Also, the standard of suggestions that the Compass got when they took suggestions was highly literate, well-informed—and you had to be, too, to improvise in front of that audience.

So the performers couldn’t have been anything less than University of Chicago students.

And other smart people.