Paul Sills

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Paul Sills

Paul Sills (November 18, 1927 – June 2, 2008) was a director and improvisation teacher, and the original director of The Second City, Playwrights and Compass Players. Paul was the son of teacher and writer Viola Spolin, who authored of the first book on improvisation techniques, "Improvisation for the Theater," and so grew up in an environment full of educational theatre experiences. Spolin in turn was the student of play therapy theorist Neva Boyd.

In 1948, Paul enrolled in the University of Chicago, where he established himself as a director, founding the university's first student-led theater group "Tonight at 8:30" and "Playwrights Theater Club". Here, with fellow actors Elaine May, Mike Nichols and Edward Asner, they blended Spolin’s technique with established theater training.

Sills and David Shepherd founded the Compass Players in 1955, the first improvisational theater company in the U.S. Sills with partners Bernard Sahlins and Howard Alk opened a new nightclub review, dubbed The Second City, where he was the director from 1959‑65, working with such talent as Alan Arkin, Joyce and Byrne Piven, and Jerry Stiller.

Paul was the creator of Story Theatre which staged Broadway and Off Broadway productions. Paul opened the Story Theater in Chicago in July 1968. He was co‑founder of Compass Players, as well as The Game Theatre, opened in the mid-1960s, with his mother, where the audiences were invited onstage to play the games, and Sills & Co. in Los Angeles, which also played at Lamb's Theater in New York.

In the early 1960s, Paul and Carol Sills co-founded the Second City Parents School, a cooperative elementary school for children and friends of Second City whose curriculum was based on the Spolin theories. The school operated for nearly 20 years in Chicago.

He started the New Actors Workshop, an acting school with Mike Nichols and George Morrison where he led guest workshops, lectures, and directed once a year. He also founded the Wisconsin Theater Game Center with his wife Carol at his rural home in Baileys Harbor. For many years he and Carol produced annual original productions in Door County, working with a local troupe. Summer classes in Spolin theater games and Story Theatre continue to be taught there by Carol, Aretha and Neva Sills, Bob Moyer, Max Schafer and Sparky Johnson.

Sills was briefly married during the 1960s to actress Barbara Harris.

Sills died at his home in Baileys Harbor, Wis., of complications from pneumonia. He is survived by his wife Carol, a son, four daughters, four grandchildren, and two great grandchildren.


“There is no technique. You just need a little respect for the invisible." - Paul Sills

“There’s no laugh like the explosion of laughter after improvisation.” - Paul Sills