Of all the places to launch one of the most innovative and dynamic movements in the history of American comedy, the University of Chicago would certainly not come to mind. But that is exactly where the Compass Players were born. Founded by David Shepard in the mid 1950's, the Compass Players were a group of University of Chicago alumni and dropouts who improvised plays out of vaguely outlined sketches - none of their dialogue was rehearsed prior to their shows.
One of their main performance spaces was Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap (located at 1172 East 55th Street). One night at Jimmy's, the bartender asked if the Compass Players could extend the show so that he could sell an extra round of drinks. Having run out of material for the evening, the actors asked the audience for suggestions, and their purely spontaneous and off-the-cuff performances proved to be immensely popular; they ultimately became the focal point for all of the Compass Players' shows and, moreover, created the foundation for the kind of improvisation that you see everywhere on the American comedy scene today.
The list of actors who were members of the Compass Players is astounding and impressive: Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Alan Alda, Ed Asner, Del Close, Jerry Stiller, and Valerie Harper are just a few of the names. Several of its members (including Del Close) went on to form Second City in 1959.