ImprovNotes December 2014 Artist of the Month: Mike Nichols

Picture of album titled High Fideltiy, showing images of Mike Nichols and Elaine May.Generally, we do not eulogize Hollywood film directors in terms of improvisation, but Mike Nichols, who died November 19, 2014 at the age of 83, was an exceptional case. Over the last half-century, Nichols directed a number of ambitious and sophisticated Hollywood films including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), The Graduate (1967), Catch-22 (1970), Working Girl (1988), Primary Colors (1998), and Charlie Wilson’s War (2007).

Nichols, however, began his performing career with the Compass Players in Chicago, founded in 1955 by David Shepherd and Paul Sills, using the improvisational structures called “Theater Games” that had been devised by Sills’ mother, Viola Spolin. (Spolin was the author of Improvisation for the Theater; a chapter from that book, “Seven Aspects of Spontaneity” is included in the new Routledge collection Spontaneous Acts: The Improvisation Studies Reader, edited by Rebecca Caines and Ajay Heble. Paul Sills went on to found the successful improvisational comedy group, Second City.) Using the devices they learned and the skills they developed in the Compass Players, Nichols and Elaine May moved to New York and became highly successful on radio and television, bringing improvisation to the previously-scripted standup comedy genre. There are many clips of the May/Nichols duo on YouTube, including “Mother and Son.”

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