THE COMPASS by Janet Coleman


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The story of a Chicago theater that changed the course of American comedy--narrated in appropriately staccato style by the coauthor of Mingus-Mingus: Two Memoirs (1989--not reviewed). In 1952, David Shepherd, a young, upper-class New Yorker, dreamed of starting a working-man's cabaret in which America's blue-collar experience could be dramatized and explored. After an unsuccessful attempt in Gary, Indiana, he moved to the Univ. of Chicago, whose eclectic, intellectual atmosphere lacked steelworkers but at least provided a steady supply of would-be performers. Linking up with fledgling director Paul Sills, Mike Nichols, and Elaine May, among others, Shepherd established a storefront cabaret named The Compass. The cabaret featured improvisation techniques aimed at encouraging relevant social commentary, but also preferred by the actors for the nightly challenge and the lively give-and-take with the audience. Elaine May quickly became the star with her ruthless characterizations of a PTA chairwoman, a witch, and a Venusian queen; others invented dotty Univ. of Chicago professors, nuclear physicists, and a group of enterprising teen-agers in search of a car. Though performances were wildly uneven, audiences proved enthusiastic. The Compass moved to larger quarters, where the actors dropped the social commentary in favor of more big laughs. Nichols' and May's eventual fame and a number of Compass offshoots went on to profoundly influence comedians Woody Allen, Steve Martin, and others. ""It was a theatre intended for people who had no theatre,"" founding member Barbara Harris concludes. ""It went straight to the sophisticates that David wanted to get away from. What happened to the Compass was a total paradox."" Coleman's enthusiasm, spurred by her own experience as an improvisational actor, makes this thorough, fast-moving account a sure bet for devotees of theater and improv.

Pub Date: May 9th, 1990
Publisher: Knopf