The Compass Players (or Compass Theater) was a cabaret revue show started by alumni, dropouts and hangers-on from the University of Chicago from 1955-1958 in Chicago and St. Louis. Several of the members went on to form The Second City Theater in 1959. Founded by David Shepherd, the original idea was to produce a new play derived through improvisation from outlines (in the tradition of the Italian commedia dell’arte) or scenarios written by members of the ensemble.
Shepherd turned to director Paul Sills to head this venture based on his experience working with Sills on an earlier Chicago theater effort. He noticed that Sills in rehearsal employed theater games, structures designed to create spontaneous theatrical play between actors that had been developed and named by Sills’ mother, Viola Spolin (who would later author the ‘bible’ of theater games, ‘Improvisation for the Theatre’).
Originally, for the first several weeks, the company presented original improvised plays from outlines that had already created in a space in the back room of a bar near the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park. Bartender Fred Wranovics asked if they could make the show longer so he could sell another round of drinks, and the actors, not having any more material prepared, seized on the idea of creating material based on audience suggestions.
This part of the show proved to be an overwhelming success, to such an extent that it took over the show. The scenario plays were presented less and less as audiences flocked to see these clever youngsters whip up theatrical magic out of thin air. Initially, scenes were presented only once, but some of the players grew interested in polishing material into finished pieces. Mike Nichols and Elaine May created many of their signature scenes in this manner. Shelley Berman found that he could create solo routines by showing one half of telephone conversations.
The Compass moved from their Hyde Park home to two subsequent places that were more nightclubs than theatres, and the tone of the material changed to accommodate the new audiences. When the company finally called it quits, some of them went to St. Louis and joined a Compass that had been started there at the Crystal Palace under the supervision of Theodore J. Flicker. It was here that company members Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Del Close, and Flicker codified a further set of principles to guide improvisational players. Close spent the rest of his life developing, refining, and experimenting with these principles.
Not too long after, Nichols and May went to New York and swiftly became stars performing material largely derived from their Compass days. Berman, too, soon became a star with his phone calls. In Chicago, Paul Sills had a hunch that a more disciplined version of the Compass might succeed. The successor troupe, The Second City, debuted in 1959, the self-mocking name taken from the title of an article about Chicago by A. J. Liebling that appeared in ‘The New Yorker’ magazine in 1952.