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Compass Improv Festival celebrates St. Louis roots

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 16, 2012 - When most people think of improv, cities like Chicago and New York City come to mind. However, before Second City, there was the Compass Players – a group that was instrumental in the development of improv, with roots in St. Louis. This week, the Compass Improv Festival hopes to pay tribute to the Players through a series of improv shows and workshops, featuring nationally recognized groups.

According to Eric Christensen, longtime improv performer and producer of the Compass Improv Festival, the Compass Players were instrumental in turning improv into a theatrical style. The group started at the University of Chicago in the 1950s, but moved to St. Louis and opened a theater in Gaslight Square. The Players are credited with developing long-form improvisation – the type of improv that is most often performed to this day. 

“This group was here in St. Louis for a good amount of time and we want people to know that history behind St. Louis, so that’s why we named the festival after it,” said Christensen.

Though the improv scene in St. Louis is not the same as it was in the days of the Compass Players, Christensen is optimistic about where it is headed, naming several improv theaters and groups in the area, including The Improv Shop, Improv Forever and the St. Louis Comedy Connection.

The improv scene “has definitely grown a lot over the last couple of years,” said Christensen. Since he moved to St. Louis from Chicago a year ago, Christensen said he has seen the improv in St. Louis grow by leaps and bounds. “It’s really been a lot of fun to be a part of,” he added.

The Compass Improv Festival, Oct. 17-20, will feature more than 20 improv troops from around the country. With 11 different performances and a number of workshops, festival organizers hope to cater to all different ages and styles of comedy.

Christensen said Wednesday night’s kick-off show will feature family-friendly short-form improv, similar to what one might see on “Whose Line is it Anyway?” After that, it’s a “mixed bag,” he said. Groups will be coming from as far as Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, as well as from right here in St. Louis. Christensen pointed out that a number of performers coming in from out of town are St. Louis natives.

“It’s kind of a homecoming of sorts for some people,” he said.

This year’s big headliner, an ensemble from Chicago called Cook County Social Club, will be performing two shows.

“They’re a dynamite group … they’re amazing to watch,” said Christensen, noting that one of the group's members, Tim Robinson, was recently cast on “Saturday Night Live.”

The festival also features workshops for performers of all abilities. There will be two free introduction workshops for anyone who has never done improv before and wants to try it. For those who have already dipped their toes in the improv pond, the festival also features professional workshops with seasoned performers teaching advanced techniques.

Besides re-introducing improv to the St. Louis community, another goal of the Compass Improv Festival is to raise funds for the newly formed Compass Improv outreach program, which is a nonprofit organization created by Christensen and other area supporters that works to use improv as an outreach tool in the community.

“We want to use improv to help St. Louis in the betterment of the community,” said Christensen.

The group has already partnered with the Prison Performing Arts program to teach improv to kids at a detention center, and improv programs have been introduced in four suburban high schools through the group’s program, CORE Improv. Compass Improv wants to expand its program to schools within the city and also do shows at children’s hospitals in the area. Christensen hopes this festival will help raise the money necessary to fund such programs.

“The Compass Improv Festival is a way for people to experience improv in all its forms and also to help a good cause in the city,” said Christensen.

The Compass Improv Festival kicks off Wednesday night at the Stray Dog Theater, Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave., at 8 p.m., with tickets available online or for $7 at the door. For more information, go to compassimprov.org.

Elizabeth Bartek is a Beacon intern.