The Playgoer: Paul Sills

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Paul Sills

Second City co-founder Paul Sills died yesterday, a very influential teacher and mentor for contemporary American theatre and entertainment. If the rise of improv as an aesthetic in late 20th century US performance can be traced anywhere, it is to him.

Here's an obit from Variety. And from the Trib's Chris Jones in Chicago, the city that Sills arguably put on the map as a theatre/comedy town.

Anyone out there study/work with him?

1 comment:

Jeffrey Alexander Lewonczyk said...

Back in the mid-90’s, when I was an undergrad at Bard, Paul Sills came to teach as a guest professor. I won’t pretend he was altogether easy to work with, but damned if acting in his production of Story Theater (ostensibly the first time he directed that material since the 60’s) hasn’t been a huge influence on much that I’ve done since. An anecdote will hopefully illuminate both sides of the experience:

I was the second brother in the story of The Little Gray Man, and, as with all these stories, I had to go out into the world to prove myself. In rehearsal, Sills told me, “I want you to go out walk through the forest, and I want you feel the wind in your hair – I want you feel the grass beneath your feet. Can you do that?” Sure, I said, and did a walk-through of the rehearsal room, looking around and miming stuff. When I finished, he walked right up to me and asked, “So did you feel the wind in your hair?” Sure. “Did you feel the grass beneath your feet?” Yeah. “Really?” Uh-huh, I said. By this point he was about an inch away from my face, and he shook his head in angry disappointment before saying, so softly that no one else in the room could hear, “You shit.” Then he walked away.

In the end, he let me know he was very pleased with the work I did on the production, but as a teacher and director – at least in this late point in the career – he was a certainly a crank. It was strange to work with him on previously scripted material from the past – he didn’t seem altogether comfortable with it himself. Still, he imparted quite a lot. With Piper McKenzie we still employ a lot of concepts and exercises we learned from him, as well as of his riper phrases. My favorite was when he thought people were doing half-assed work during an improve exercise and he’d shout from the sidelines “Bullshit! Bullshit writing!” Never run out of uses for THAT one…