DOOR COUNTY MAGAZINE: SUMMER 2009
Given the assignment of writing a tribute article for a man I never had the privilege to meet, I approached the Sills’ home near Baileys Harbor this spring with some trepidation. Paul Sills, who passed away a year ago in June, was a renowned figure in the theater world, from New York to Los Angeles. Many writers already have documented his life and accomplishments very well.
How can yet another writer capture his legacy in a meaningful way? Telling a man’s story is more than reciting a chronology of dates and facts.
Then I met Sills’ widow, Carol Bleackley Sills, at their rural Liberty Grove homestead. She offered an open window into her late husband’s life and work.
The Paul Sills story really starts with his mother, Viola Spolin, who became recognized around the world as the originator of “theater games” — the foundation of improvisational theater. She taught drama with the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression and studied group work with sociologist Neva Boyd. Boyd began the Recreational Training School at Chicago’s Hull House, which taught educational programs in group games, gymnastics, dancing, dramatic arts, play theory and social problems.
Paul Sills, born in November 1927 on Chicago’s north side, was immersed in theater from a young age due to his mother’s profession and growing reputation. It wasn’t long before Sills found his own path in improvisational theater, one that would become a lifelong journey.
After graduating from the esteemed Francis Parker School and serving in both the Merchant Marines and the U.S. Army, Sills attended the University of Chicago. There, he co-founded the Playwrights Theater Club.
“There was no drama department there, but there was so much theater,” Carol commented.
In 1955, he started an improvisational cabaret theater with David Shepherd called The Compass Players. Then, in December 1959, Sills co-created a very special organization with friend Howard Alk and producer Bernie Sahlins — one whose name, along with Sills’ own, would become famous.
“My roommate said there’s a new club in town, let’s go,” recalled Carol, who had moved from her native Canada to spend a year in Chicago. “It was so amazing.”
It was The Second City, a comedy revue that based spontaneous play on audience suggestions. It would become a source for Saturday Night Live and SCTV cast members and would launch the careers of countless now-household names, including Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Bill Murray, John Candy and Harold Ramis. Eventually, The Second City expanded to include main stages in Cleveland, Toronto, Las Vegas and Detroit as well as several training centers.
Carol worked on weekends in the club’s beer garden.
“That would have been the summer of 1960,” she said. “That place was like a magnet. And we were a big family.”
She started dating Paul Sills that October, and they were together for the next 48 years as partners in every sense of the word.
“I designed for Paul’s theater for many years,” she said, smiling. “We were colleagues.”
Sills sold his share in The Second City in 1965, moving on to start The Game Theater in conjunction with friends in the local arts community. There, he and Carol both became involved in The Parents School, a progressive organization that featured a curriculum based on art forms.
The Game Theater evolved into Paul Sills’ Story Theater in 1968, which eventually opened on Broadway and won several Tony awards. Sills then created a 26-week Story Theater television series, made in Vancouver.
“Story Theater let him stage things that he was moved by, the work of authors he admired,” Carol said. “He believed in transporting meaning to audiences.”
Paul Sills started theater companies and taught workshops. He published books. He adapted literature for the stage. In 1988, with Mike Nichols and George Morrison, he began a graduate-level acting program called the New Actors Workshop in New York City. He stayed active in theater in every imaginable way, working in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.
While Sills did move steadily from one venture to the next over the years, Carol took exception to an oft-repeated comment that Sills was interested in process rather than results.
“He was totally interested in process, that’s true,” she said. “He worked on perfecting elements in his shows, but once it was staged, he believed it became the responsibility of the players.”
She also observed that Sills had no interest in commercial theater.
“When it becomes commercial, you lose the ability to control the creative process,” she said.
With their heavy involvement in the national theater scene, the Sills found themselves seeking a sanctuary. Door County landed on the radar during their time with The Parents School.
“We would drive north occasionally to find a vacation cabin or go to Madison or Spring Green,” Carol recalled of their early forays into Wisconsin. “A couple of families knew Door County and had a farm commune here. We started driving around the peninsula. We’d been looking for a place in the country.”
They found one: the 1870 Strege homestead in Liberty Grove.
“We thought we went to heaven,” she said, laughing. “When the Story Theater opened on Broadway in 1970, we decided this would be our home base.”
Interestingly, the Sills were not aware of the nascent arts community on the peninsula.
“We had no clue,” Bleackley Sills said. “As it turned out, Door County gave Paul a nice, quiet laboratory.”
It also gave him a peaceful haven for many quiet musings.
“He was a contemplative,” she said. “”He loved the nature of this place and could walk for hours. That’s not really known; he loved wandering around. He was really a thinker… he had a lot in common with the Concord writers, especially Thoreau.”
In 1987, Sills founded the Wisconsin Theater Game Center at the Door County homestead, offering intensive, weeklong workshops during the summer months to interested participants from around the world. He also became involved in the local performing arts scene.
“He collaborated with American Folklore Theater maybe four times,” Carol said. “Fred Alley, Fred Heide, Jeffrey Herbst… he liked working with them and gave them a lot of workshops. Paul was on a similar passage. Story Theater was a form that was absolutely right for them.
“We’ve been strong supporters of Door Shakespeare,” she added, commenting that founders Jerry Gomis and Suzanne Graff studied with Sills at one time. “He loved Shakespeare.”
Through Paul Sills’ Community Theater, he also adapted and directed a number of local shows. They included an original version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” at the Door Community Auditorium; “Holiday Story Theater,” “Ovid’s Metamorphoses” and Kenneth Grahame’s “Wind in the Willows” at the Peninsula School of Art’s Guenzel Gallery; “Paul Sills’ Story Theater” at the Ephraim Village Hall and many more.
“He was thinking about what his next show as going to be,” Carol said softly. “He had just finished a workshop in LA, and we came back here in May. He died June 2. We had no idea that was going to happen.”
The show, however, goes on. Carol has a full plate, handling a number of projects important to her late husband.
“He loved many poets and philosophers,” she said. “Whenever he read an author, it could become a show. He kept notebooks he called ‘notes for the drama’… quite a few were about American history. He was interested in the Bostonians, the Concord writers like Emerson and Thoreau. And he left many scripts. Our daughter, Polly, is helping me; we’re going to see about getting them published.”
Sills also was working on a book about community theater.
“He worked on it all his life,” she said. “I will prepare it for publication. I’m also editing the fourth edition of Viola Spolin’s book ‘Improvisation for the Theater,’ which is published by Northwestern University Press.”
As Sills’ writing continues, so does his Wisconsin Theater Game Center. It will offer two workshops this July.
“We take 16 players in each workshop, and they come from all walks of life — actors, teachers, even lawyers,” Carol said. “Each workshop is a one-week intensive, Monday through Friday. People really get to know each other.
“I’ll be teaching with Neva Sills, our youngest daughter,” she continued. “Our daughter Aretha is going to do Paul’s workshop. We didn’t let it lapse. We kept it going.”
Also ongoing is the New Actors Workshop in New York City.
“All this really occurred thanks to his mother,” Carol said, reflecting on Sills’ long career and many accomplishments. “Viola was the spark for improvisational theater.”
Spolin believed that art was play, observing, “When it bogs down, play a game.” In her writings, she said the audience was a fellow player, working hand in hand with the performers. And the goal was to let go of self-consciousness — to literally get out of one’s own way.
Sills himself noted, “Focus… rests the mind and overcomes the distractions of intellect. It is a form of ‘meditation in action,’ as Viola called it, and it acts as a springboard into the intuitive. Of all her spontaneous sayings, the one I most often recall was… ‘My vision is a world of accessible intuition.’”
Her vision, and that of Sills, continues to shine in contemporary improvisational theater, from ComedySportz to SNL, and from the New Actors Workshop to the Wisconsin Theater Game Center. And Spolin’s and Sills’ story and game theater methods are frequently used in schools and workplaces, having an impact on every new generation.
And then there are the memorials that have continued a year after Sills’ passing; his four daughters, one son, four grandchildren and two great-grandsons; the vigorous energy and light shining in the eyes of his wife and partner; and a spirit that remains very much alive at his cozy, lovingly renovated homestead.
Paul Sills did indeed leave a profound legacy. And it lives on.