Improvisation and teaching – the night at the Comedy Store when I saw the light…

The Comedy Store Players: Paul Merton on the left, Richard Vranch lying down
The Comedy Store Players: Clockwise from top: Neil Mullarkey, Jim Sweeney, Lee Simpson, Richard Vranch lying down, Paul Merton on left, and Josie Lawrence the middle of the clock. Information at

Improv comedy and theatre are part of mainstream entertainment these days, but the first time I ever saw an example of it, it knocked my socks off and blew me away. When I came to my senses (and put my socks back on), I realized that I had stumbled across something of immense value in teaching – not just teaching English, teaching anything.

It was a visit to the Comedy Store in Central London that changed everything for me. Situated between Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square, the Comedy Store has shows every night. On Wednesdays and Sundays, the actor-improvisers of the Comedy Store Players take the stage.

I first went there in about 1990. The English Teaching Theatre had recently employed an actor-musician called Richard Vranch, who is also one of the Comedy Store Players. I wanted to see what he did in his other life.

Richard is an extraordinary person. After gaining a PhD in Radiation Effects on Silicon Lattices at Cambridge (I didn’t make up any of that bit), he became a Fellow of St John’s Oxford before, as he himself puts it, “running away with the circus”.

Cambridge not only taught him about Silicon Lattices, it also gave him the opportunity to work at the Edinburgh Festival with contemporaries like Stephen Fry and Hugh Lawrie. When the chance came to act and play music with the CSP, he decided to abandon the academic life and join the roller-coaster world of comedy entertainment.

The CSP began performing in 1985 and have performed twice a week since then. Richard and some of the original members are still in the line-up.

So what do they do?

They improvise a series of sketches, songs and games. They have no script, no set and no idea what was going to happen at the beginning of the evening, but they do have a series of game formats which require the audience to provide them with the raw materials for their work.

For example, they ask the audience for the name of a superhero, a household object and a location. The audience might give them Superman, a frying pan and New York City. They then improvise a story from these simple ingredients.

In this activity, one of the actors directs the other five, pointing rapidly from one to another. Each one has to continue the sentence the previous one started, sometimes they have to continue from half way through a word. To make it all more dramatic and exciting, the audience are encouraged to shout ‘DIE!!!’ if a speaker stumbles over his words – and he/she is out.

This is one of the activities that I have adapted for classroom use. Let me say immediately that encouraging the students to shout ‘DIE!’ does NOT feature in the classroom adaptation!

The games are all based on rock-solid foundations and everyone, audience and performers, understands the rules.

The group began when an American and a Canadian arrived in London and taught some drama games to some English comedians. The American was a woman stand-up comedian called Kit Hollerbach. The Canadian was Mike Myers, the actor who plays Austin Powers in the spoof spy movies.

Mike Myers as Austin Powers in the spoof spy movie
Mike Myers as Austin Powers

Myers had learnt these games at a comedy club called Second City in Montreal, Canada. This club was an off-shoot of the original Second City Club in Chicago. One of the founders of SCC Chicago was a man called Paul Sills, the son of legendary Theater Games creator Viola Spolin, who I already knew about.

I was delighted to discover that all this fun and creativity had some serious educational roots!

Viola Spolin (1906-1994)

Viola Spolin, pictured on the cover of her book
Viola Spolin, pictured on the cover of her book

Viola Spolin devised the Theater Games system of actor training. Before she got involved in theatre, she had trained in the 1920s to be a settlement worker, helping immigrant Americans to integrate into US society. She had studied at the Recreational Training School (RTS) in Chicago, an organization founded by a remarkable woman called Neva Boyd. The RTS trained teachers in the art of group games, drama and play theory, with specific reference to dealing with young people in areas of social deprivation.

Imagine! All this was happening in the 1920s! And we think our ideas are new….

Boyd’s innovative teaching strongly influenced Spolin and she remembered the activities when she later worked as a drama supervisor for the Chicago branch of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA was an organization created in 1935 on the orders of President Franklin D Roosevelt as part of the New Deal to help millions of people affected by the Great Depression.

Spolin soon discovered that traditional methods of teaching and training were no use to her in these deprived urban surroundings. She had to work out some kind of training that could cross the cultural and ethnic barriers within the WPA Project. And she had to do it quickly.

The people she worked with had language and communication difficulties and a whole lot of other problems in their lives. As often happens with communities like these, the new arrivals found themselves living in ghetto areas, with all the social unrest that this can bring.

So imagine the situation: Viola Spolin and a room full of suspicious new Americans with language difficulties, plus other ghetto inhabitants that the social services had placed in the group because they didn’t know what else to do with them.

With no material to work with, Spolin devised her own way of communicating with these people, and helping them communicate with each other. Building upon what she had learnt from Neva Boyd, Spolin developed a series of games which adapted the concept of play to help them with ‘creative self-expression’. “The games emerged out of necessity,” she said. “I didn’t sit at home and dream them up. When I had a problem, I made up a game. When another problem came up, I just made up a new game.”

The techniques she devised working at the WPA became the basis of her Theater Games system and in 1946, she went to Hollywood and founded the Young Actors’ Company. There, she trained children and young people in performance skills using the Theater Games system.

In 1963, she published Improvisation for the Theater, which contained more than 200 games and improvisation exercises. It’s a classic reference text for teachers of acting in the US, as well as for educators in other fields. Spolin’s Theater Games transform complicated theatre conventions and techniques into simple game formats. The exercises are, as one reviewer wrote, “designed to almost fool people into being spontaneous.”

There are games to free the actor’s tension, games to “cleanse” the actor of subjective preconceptions of the meaning of words, games of concentration – all areas that actors have to deal with. To achieve the games’ purpose, all you need are the players (both actors and audience are considered to be players), a space in which to play and an understanding of the rules.

The Young Actors’ Company continued until 1955, after which Spolin returned to Chicago, where she conducted games workshops with the Compass Group, the country’s first professional improvisation theatre company.

And this is where her son Paul Sills comes into the picture. Sills was nothing like the people his mother had been working with. He was white, affluent and suburban and he wasn’t planning to become an actor, so theoretically, the games weren’t aimed at him or people like him. However, he taught them to other Chicago University students, who found the games engaging and – importantly – hilariously funny.

Soon, they were playing in front of audiences, and the Second City Comedy Club took off.

Second City Club, Chicago

Second City can lay claim to be the first improvisation comedy club in the world. The original players were all Chicago undergraduates and the first shows were performed there in 1959. Many of the performers at Second City went on to star in the classic TV series Saturday Night Live. Film stars Bill Murray and Dan Akroyd performed there. When Second City opened a separate club in Montreal, Mike Myers joined … and we come back to the beginning of the story – the Comedy Store Players in London.

So … what does all this have to do with teaching???

I think I’ve taken enough of your time for today – the next posting will have some classroom application ideas.

Have a great week.


21 thoughts on “Improvisation and teaching – the night at the Comedy Store when I saw the light…

    1. Will get to it prontisimo, Vicki – real life in the shape of terse emails from editors encroaching somewhat this week…

  1. Dear dear. I’m all worked up anticipating what will happen next and then I learn real life editors have to take precedence. My mivvi is melting.

    But I’m sure it’ll be worth waiting for…

  2. Fascinating story, Ken! I’ve never been to the comedy store but would love to if it’s still going! Really looking forward to hear more on classroom applications! smn sent me a brilliant Youtube video this summer of a Brazilian group doing a sort of ‘Who’s Line is it Anyway’ improv game, where they were given a location and 2 of them were told to have a conversation only asking questions – no positive utterances or exclamation allowed…. or you were out! (DIE!) After a couple of false starts all 5 of them got in on the act and turned it into an entire soap opera! Hilarious! Will try to dig out the link for Portuguese speakers!

    1. Would love to see the Brazilian version of that so please send me the link – not just your Brazilian friends!

      My friend Richard Vranch, mentioned in the article, was the man behind the piano in the UK and some US versions of ‘Whose Line’.

  3. Hi Ken – i came to your blog via Vicki Hollett and am enjoying your stories.
    As a stickler for detail, but realizing that it is not always necessary to convey the message , i feel moved to add some extra info.
    I’m not sure Kit Hollerbach and Mike Myers were totally responsible for the arrival of improv comedy in Britain, they contributed to something already happening.
    I was on stage myself at the time and remember both of them arriving and i had already seen The Omelette Theatre group, which included Jim Sweeney in 1983.
    It’s weird that there is no mention of this on the Wiki site because their work was excellent – there’s a personal account on my own humble blog – and i was lucky to do do workshops with two more members, Peter Weir and Justin Case three years before that.
    You can read another angle on The Comedy Store by following this link
    which will also answer Paddy Greenleaf’s query above.
    There should also be some recognition of the inspiration of Keith Johnstone who also inspired a lot of improv in Britain.

    1. Helloooo Chris…

      absolutely agree that Omelette were a terrific company, and I also saw them before I saw CSP. I will never forget that my location ‘On the neck of a brontosaurus’ was used in one of their improvs!

      Interesting of course that Jim Sweeney is the link between Omelette and CSP. The difference for me is in the adaptability of the activities of the two groups for classroom use.

      And of course Keith Johnstone is important in the story – his book Impro is the first in the biblio of my book Drama and Improvisation. Absolutely love that book.

      Again, when I saw his Theatre Sports in action, I wasn’t moved in the same way to adapt them for classroom use. But I always tell people to try to read the book for its general thoughts about education, Sadly, I think it’s out of print.

      Thanks for the invaluable link!

  4. Hi, I am a drama teacher and also an ESL teacher, and this post is fantastic! Thank you very much for the ideas, and I am looking forward to the next post!
    I teach a unit of work on improv theatre to my year 7 drama students, and many of them can be adapted for an ESL classroom, I am willing to share and exchange resources if you are too 🙂


  5. A really interesting read, Ken. Thanks for reblogging it. I must have missed it the first time around, although I remember the follow-on post well.

    I particularly enjoyed hearing about Viola Spolin’s work on integration and crossing cultural barriers. I think we need lots more of this kind of work, particularly where that work seeks to understand the people involved rather than impose some kind of strategy. I’d love to find out more about it.

    Best wishes,

  6. Ken, thank you for the post, exciting and inspiring!

    I didn’t know anything about Neva Boyd and Viola Spolin before. But what the outstanding women they were! How much teachers can learn from them!

    I can’t wait for the sencond part! 🙂

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