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Art at an End

July 3, 2008 By:
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Some obituaries hit you a little harder than others. When I say this, I'm not speaking of reading about the loss of a loved one, which can be devastating. I'm thinking of something more abstract, but with no less resonance. In this particular case, I'm speaking of the loss of a stranger, though someone not totally unknown, an artist whom you've never met but whose work you've been familiar with most of your life.

The passing of any artist is a double loss; the person is gone and the art comes to an end. (By saying this, I don't mean to imply that the deaths of people in other professions don't have the same ring of tragedy, no matter how or at what age they die; I'm just hinting at a further layer of meaning.)

The recent death of Paul Sills at age 80 is a case in point; his name probably won't be recognizable to most readers of this column (except the die-hard theater buffs), yet they know his work without being aware of the fact.

Sills, as described in Campbell Robertson's obituary in the June 4 New York Times, was one of the founders of the Second City theater company and "the godfather of the modern improvisational sketch comedy."

Sills may just have been the complete embodiment of the off-Broadway spirit in the post-World War II era, but his theatrical universe was really off-off-off Broadway since most of it took place in Chicago. Writes Robertson: "As a founder and resident director of a series of small theater companies that began in bars, former bakeries and Chinese restaurants ... Mr. Sills taught an approach to theater that would later feed directly into the creation of 'Saturday Night Live' and influence a range of artists including David Mamet and Richard Foreman. Under Mr. Sills's direction, performances were based on games, audience suggestions and bare-bones scenarios, the basic building blocks of improv comedy."

As the obituary makes clear, many of the techniques that Sills utilized, he learned from his mother, Viola Spolin, who had first used them "as a drama teacher with the federal Works Progress Administration from 1939 to 1941 and later codified them in her influential book Improvisation for the Theater."

But, while Spolin may have "refined" the theory of theater-games, it was her son "who spread the gospel, starting the careers of comedy giants like Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Barbara Harris, Alan Arkin and Paul Sand. While his influence spread, Mr. Sills continued to stick with the basics, moving on to his next opportunity as a teacher and director and remaining mostly obscure."

It's that last fact that remains both heartening and poignant. He held to his standards, but few knew him.

But I'll always remember a wonderful afternoon in the theater back in the early 1970s, watching a group of highly gifted actors make their way through Sills' "Story Theater." As Clive Barnes said in the Times, the show brought back "magic and innocence to Broadway." That still sounds right to me.

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