A Brief History of Josephine Forsberg and the Players Workshop of the Second City


JOSEPHINE RACITI FORSBERG

An Important part of Chicago Theater History

This paper was presented by Eric Forsberg

At The Columbia College THEATER SYMPOSIUM in Chicago – May 20th, 2011

Intro

I am here to talk about, my mother, Josephine Raciti Forsberg, and her influence on Chicago Theater. Josephine has been an actress, a director, a producer of new works, and a store-front theater owner. But most importantly, Josephine has been a pioneer teacher of improvisation. From the early 1960s until the day I write this she has guided and empowered thousands of aspiring young talents, training many of them for The Second City stage.

Early life

Josephine was born “Pepina Raciti” on January 28th, 1921. On her fifth birthday she received a Shakespeare picture book and from that point on she wanted to be an actress.

Jo got her first taste of improvisation at DePaul University’s drama department where she studied with David Itkin, a student of Stanislavski. Itkin gave Josephine her very first taste of improvisation – and the idea fascinated her. After DePaul, Josephine continued her studies with Mini Gallitser at “The Actor’s Company”. There she met a leading man and aspiring director named Rolf Forsberg. They got married and went on the road together, performing in Toby Shows, Passion Plays, and the comedy hit, “Good Night Ladies” in which Josephine played a sexy lead. Jo even tried her luck in New York and was quickly cast as a dancer for a show at Carnegie Hall.

Josephine and Rolf had their first child while on the road, Linnea. She was raised in hotel rooms and train cars and put in every child-role available. Soon Josephine’s little nephew, Marty (Martin de Maat) wanted to be in the theater too, so Josephine and Rolf brought young Marty under their wing like a son. Theatre was now the family business.

When Josephine and Rolf weren’t on the road they lived at The Art Circle, touring Chicago with their compilation show called “Moods from Shakespeare” in which they played dozens of roles, sharing seventy-five costumes all made and designed by Jo.

Playwrights

Jo also loved to see new plays. One evening she went by herself to a performance at Playwrights, on the 2nd floor of a Chinese restaurant. Jo was bowled over. Afterwards she met Sheldon Patinkin and Paul Sills and they became friends. When Playwrights later planned to do a Shakespeare Festival they invited Jo and Rolf to join the company and asked them to bring their costumes. At Playwrights Rolf directed plays and Josephine launched a Children’s Theater. Her first show was “The Emperor’s New Clothes” with Sheldon Patinkin in the title role. Then she did one more show and turned the project over to Elaine May. Another person that Jo met at Playwrights was Viola Spolin, Paul’s mother. Josephine had always been fascinated by Stanislavski so when Viola told Jo about her theater games and how improvisation could be used to create characters they hit it off right away. Josephine acted in four of Playwrights productions in 1954 & 1955: Per Gynt directed by Paul Sills, and Shakuntala, Tempest, and “Le Ronde” directed by Rolf. Le Ronde was so risqué that the entire theater was shut down by the fire department.

Sheldon, Rolf, and Jo continued to do shows around town under the “Playwrights” banner – while one of the company’s more radical partners, David Shepherd raced to The University of Chicago to produce his “Living Newspaper”. Then in 1959, Paul Sills, Sheldon Patinkin, Bernie Sahlins, and Howard Alk, created “The Second City”.

The Second City

In 1959 Sheldon asked Jo to join The Second City but she was pregnant and said “ask me in a year”. One year later, after I was born (on December 16th 1959, the opening of Second City no less), Sheldon asked her again, to join the new theater, and this time she said “yes”.

Jo was cast as Second City’s female understudy and for this she needed to take improv classes with Viola Spolin. Viola quickly broke Jo of her need for a script and taught her how to trust herself and improvise. Jo understood the games so well and she was able to articulate their theatrical applications so clearly that Viola made Jo her assistant teacher. Jo worked day and night; learning Viola’s theater games, helping her with classes, rehearsing scenes from the show, working with Sheldon to cast an alternate mainstage company, and being the house manager and hostess in the evenings. But one element was missing – her Children’s Theater. Viola had already done a children’s show at Second City and she wasn’t interested in doing another, so Jo jumped in: It would be Classics for Kids. Sheldon played the piano for Jo’s first production; a Mexican fantasy of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

Sheldon also did the role of Caliban in Jo’s version of “Tempest”. And at the end of each performance the kids were invited up onto the stage to play theater games – birthday kids danced under the Maypole – and then everyone did “Lion Hunt”. By the time Jo helmed “Charlie’s Aunt” and “The Mikado” it was clear that her “Children’s Theatre of the Second City” was firmly entrenched: she would produce kid’s shows at Second City non-stop for more than thirty-five more years. If you were raised in Chicago (especially on the North Side), the chances are that one of your first experiences with live theater was at Jo’s Children’s show – which was iconic-ly referred to by the Second City main stage cast as “Sunday, Sunday, the little Bastard’s Fun-Day”.

watching Jo’s kid’s show at Second City on Wells St

In the mid 1960s, Viola left Chicago and Josephine took over her workshops. She began modifying many of Viola’s games and adding her own exercises. She wanted to make the work as applicable as possible to developing sketch material and doing a show. By the time that The Second City moved from Clark Street to its current location at 1616 North Wells, Jo had turned much of her attention to directing the very first Touring Company: it was a milestone for Second City and there have been touring companies ever since.

Jo as director of the first Touring Company at Second City

Then, in 1969, Jo got the very hippy notion to move to Crested Butte, Colorado to bring the mountain folk there improv and bagels. She left Linnea and Martin in Chicago to teach her classes – but me, she took with, driving there in a VW bus. However, after 6 months in the mountains eating wild game and getting altitude sickness, Jo realized that nobody in Crested Butte wanted improv or bagels – so she came back. However things had changed at Second City while she was away – other instructors had ascended, including the formidable Del Close. Class space there was getting mighty tight, so in the spirit of Jo’s hero from Little Women, she rented a space from the Buddhist Temple around the corner, built a stage in it, and decided to open her own school of improvisation, with a course log, a teaching staff, and diplomas. She organized her hundreds of exercises, some of them Viola’s, some of them Jo’s, and many of them a hybrid of the two. This became the improv course that she taught for the next thirty years: she called it “Players Workshop”.

Chicago Tribune article naming Jo “Second City’s Den Mother” – 1974

PLAYERS WORKSHOP

Players Workshop was incorporated in 1971 – the first school of its kind. It’s charter was to teach people how to improvise over a course of five terms, prepare them for The Second City stage, and offer them opportunities to perform. With a space of her own, Jo was now able to hold classes in the evenings when people who worked during the day could come. Suddenly a new influx of student started to enroll: working people who just wanted to have fun. Jo saw this as an opportunity to turn masses of people on to the stage. And that was her ultimate goal. Jo would often say “I want a theater on every corner”. Even though she had her own space Josephine was still an integral part of the Second City family. Joyce Sloane, Sheldon Patinkin, and Bernie Sahlins were very loyal and gracious to her over the years; and they included her, as well as Linnea, Martin, and me, in every opening night and all major Second City events. Josephine continued to teach many of her more advanced classes on the main stage there; her Players Workshop sign was hung on the Second City wall by the stairs for all to see; and her Children’s Theater was going strong every Sunday, offering original plays and musicals with audience participation and free birthday parties. But most of all, Jo’s students and graduates were being selected over and over to be in the Second City companies – because they were talented and because Jo trained them well.

On the Second City website listing the alumni members of all the main stage casts between 1965 and 1989 –

SIXTY-ONE of them are JOSEPHINE’S STUDENTS – including:

Bill Murray    Harold Ramis     Peter Boyle    Betty Thomas    Joe Flarity    Dan Castellaneta

David Rasche    Shelley Long    Tim Kazurinsky

Bob Odenkirk      Ken Campbell     Bonnie Hunt    George Wendt    & dozens more

So if a person wanted to get on the Second City stage, they often went straight into Jo’s classes at Player’s Workshop.

Jo also had students who made great strides outside of the Second City. One person she nurtured was a young playwright that she hired to play the piano for her kid’s shows. His name was David Mamet. Her box office manager was a young man named Brandon Tartikof, who later became the head of NBC. Another student who she encouraged to “just go out and do it” was Robert Townsend, who later made his first feature film using credit cards. Jo dug deep into her student’s wants and needs, deep into their lives and dreams, taking on her student’s growth with delight. She studied psychology, Transactional Analysis, EST, and many other venues for self improvement and personal growth. She became not only a teacher, but a mentor and a friend.

Player’s Workshop flyer circ 1977

Jo also knew that her students needed more opportunities to perform so in the mid 1970s she transformed her workspace into a coffee house theatre called The Players Oe. There she produced and directed everything from scripted plays to sketch comedy revues. George Wendt did his first sketch shows there. Jo also created a touring children’s theatre company which performed her original shows like Land of the Stage and the award winning, Comedia”. Josephine also held annual “theater seminars” for a couple of weekends every summer up in Bennet Lake, Wisconsin. It was the stuff of legend.

     Jo’s theatre seminars were the Woodstock of acting workshops

Then Jo came up with her brain-child: a graduation show on the Second City main stage. She would add a sixth term that would focus totally on show creation. It would be performed in the mornings on Sundays before the children’s show started. The idea was a hit with her students and they packed the house. Graduation shows had a side benefit too: hundreds of improvisers with produced comedy revues who all wanted to continue performing their shows. Jo just told them to find a stage and do it; so her graduates spread throughout the city and suburbs performing in their local bars and stages like Sylvester’s Sneak Joint Pub, Zanies, Shubas, and The Theater Building. It was a renaissance of grass roots theatre and it has contributed to Chicago’s healthy love of live performances.

Theatre Shoppe

In 1981 Josephine purchased a three story building at 2636 North Lincoln Avenue. She called it “The Theatre Shoppe” and it was a place to teach classes and direct shows. There was a seventy seat theater and a forty seat theater as well a classroom.

The Theatre Shoppe façade – mid 1980s

This pic of Jo’s lobby was used by WTTWs as a promo for its Chicago Improv special

In the early 1980s Jo gave up her class times at Second City keeping only Sunday for the grad shows and the Children’s Theater. Jo and her children, Linnea and Eric then founded a not for profit theater company called Performer’s Arena as a production body for experimental shows. One of the plays Performers Arena produced every year was “The Gathering”, a dramatization of the last supper that Jo developed through improv. Performer’s Arena also produced scripted works like Rhinoceros, What the Butler Saw, and Marat Sade, all directed by me; as well as classics adapted by Linnea into improvised epics like “On the Road to Canterbury” and “Hunchback of Notre Dam”. Jo’s Performer’s Arena also produced the Joseph Jefferson Award nominated, “A Tenth of an Inch Makes the Difference”, written and directed by her ex-husband, Rolf. One of the most experimental shows produced by Performer’s Arena was a poetry performance cycle, about the birth and death of a world, titled “A Dozen Idiots”. After the show each night there was an all-are-welcome late night, Keith Johnstone style team improv sports competition. It packed the house until the wee hours of the morning and was a ton of fun. If you were just breaking into the improv scene in Chicago and you wanted to get on stage, Jo’s Theatre Shoppe was the place to be: it had a great energy just like her.

One of Josephine’s unexpected contributions to the improv world happened in 1982 when Josephine brought her old friend and socialist improv guru, David Shepherd to Chicago to help him develop his idea for an event called The Improvisational Olympiad. She set up a class for him filled with eager Players Workshop students wanting to study with the legend. One of those Players Workshop students was Charna Halpern. David modeled elements of his Olympiad event after the improv competitions at The Theatre Shoppe, formed teams, and, with Charna as his producer, David’s Improvisational Olympiad was born. It had its first competitive Olympiad at The Theater Shoppe and was an instant hit. Even as David and Charna trained other teams, the Players Workshop crowd made up the bulk of the early supporters. And in the late 1980s the first city wide Improv Olympiad championships were held on The Second City main-stage, with dozens of teams competing: The winning team – Oral Majority – from Players Workshop.

Training Center & Retirement

In 1987, Players Workshop was the largest improv school in the city, and maybe the country, with around 400 students. Jo’s school not only produced children’s theater and grad shows at The Second City but also shows for Taste of Chicago, The King Richard’s Faire, The Chicago Symphony, Candlelight’s Forum, and her two stages at The Theatre Shoppe. But the writing was on the wall for all that to change. Jo was talking about retirement, the Theater Shoppe was in need of remolding, and the Improv Olympic began offering classes which made Jo have to market herself and she was never very good at that. Also, Jo’s nephew Martin deMaat who had been teaching at Players Workshop for almost twenty years was hired as the workshop director of The Second City’s new Training Center, which began as an advanced course in creating sketch shows for those who already knew how to improvise. Martin looked for students who had completed at least a year of training, preferably at Players Workshop, so the relationship actually had some huge benefits. Jo’s sign came down and she started sending all of her graduates to Martin and The Training Center – and nearly 50% of them went. It was like the early days all over again – with Jo’s students filling the seats and class spaces at The Second City itself. Soon The Training Center was clearly the best place to prepare for an audition for The Second City stage. Josephine was sorry to see her school lose its unchallenged foothold but she accepted that things change over time and she and Martin made sure that Players Workshop and the Training Center moved into the future hand in hand. Jo was brought on by Martin as a consultant for the training center and I was hired as a teacher and level five director. And this cooperation was great for both schools. As the Second City Training Center grew so did Players Workshop, reaching over 500 students in 1989. But fewer and fewer Players students were making it into the Second City companies and before long it was clear that Jo’s school had seen its day. New life was breathed into it as Linnea brought on Emerald City to help produce the Children’s show and I brought in huge casting contracts for Six Flags Fight Fest. Also, for a while, Players Workshop shifted focus to the corporate world – which opened a new student base. But the school was not as young and vital as IO or the Training Center, and Theatres like The Annoyance were shaking up the space in a way that Players Workshop was just too venerable to compete with. Jo removed the phrase “of the Second City” from her letter heads and her ads, then she sold the Theater Shoppe and moved Players Workshop first into the Athenaeum in 1993 and then to a performing arts center in 1999. For a brief time we opened a Players Workshop West in Los Angeles, run by me. But soon the Second City Training Center also opened in LA, with Martin as its artistic director, and I decided to be a founding member of that school instead, directing one of the LA Training Center’s very first shows.

By turn of the millennium, Jo was more than ready to retire. Linnea, who had been running the workshop for years, had finally accepted a position as a college professor, and I had already moved to Los Angeles to make feature films. Then, Martin deMaat died, so long before his time, and it truly felt like Josephine and her entire family had come to the end of an era. So, wisely, and reluctantly, Josephine decided to close the doors on her school and let it slip into history.

However Josephine is still an honored guest at Second City functions and not forgotten by her students or by this symposium. Andrew Alexander, Kelly Leonard, and the late Joyce Sloane, have shown her great respect over the years. Jo has also been honored by other institutions in the City that she loves. Josephine has been honored by numerous improv councils including a lifetime achievement award from the Chicago Improv festival in 2007, a honor from the Funny Lady’s Fest, and numerous awards for her children’s theater. She was also honored by Mayor Daley for her children’s theater with a plaque in 1993.

Even though Players Workshop is a thing of the past, Jo’s influence still exists in every institution in this city that she helped to empower. She contributed to the construction, to the very foundations of American improv – and she has touched, even changed, thousands of lives. Josephine is one of the oldest members of her generation of improv pioneers that is still alive. And my hope is that she and her family will always be welcome at The Second City as well as the entire Chicago Theater establishment that she loves and to which she has given so much.

But like her hero in Little Women, Jo is not through yet. Just a few years ago her former student Bill Murray flew Jo to the east coast to teach improvisation to the New York Giants. She did workshops with members of the team for three days. She was tiny in the photos compared to the team members, but with a personality as big as anyone’s.

And just a few months ago her college text book “Improvisation for speech and theater”, which she wrote with her daughter, was published by Kendal-Hunt Press. So, even though Josephine Raciti Forsberg will be 91 next January, she is still going strong – with plans for another book in the future.

And oh, by the way, the Giants won the super bowl that year.

BELOW IS A GALLERY OF OTHER PICTURES

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