Recognize Her? | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

Recognize Her? 

She's Josephine Raciti Forsberg, and she'd like her role in the history of Second City acknowledged once and for all.

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"I swore I wouldn't kvetch when you came up here," Josephine Raciti Forsberg says, settling into an armchair in her Lincoln Park apartment. "But how many more interviews am I going to have? I wanted to clear the air, get the truth out there." On May 5, Forsberg will receive a lifetime achievement award from the Chicago Improv Festival in recognition of her 35 years as an improv teacher, most of them at Second City. She learned directly from improv pioneer Viola Spolin and trained a raft of SC players, including the likes of Bill Murray, Shelley Long, and George Wendt. She also directed the first touring company, created the Second City Children's Theater, and--most important--opened the Players Workshop at Second City, which offered the first improv classes for the public. "I was there 28 years, and I was happy," she says. "It was family." But now Forsberg's concerned about being written out of Second City's history. There's no mention of her contributions on the SC Web site, and she doesn't appear in longtime owner Bernie Sahlins's 2002 memoir, Days and Nights at the Second City. "Thrilled" with the CIF award, Forsberg says, she'd just like to "make it clear that I wasn't a nobody there."

In fact, Forsberg was there before there was a Second City, as a member of its predecessor company, the Playwrights Theatre Club. An Oak Park native, she fell for Shakespeare when a troupe of British actors visited her high school. Briefly a theater major at DePaul, she dropped out to tour as an actor, marrying another actor, Rolf Forsberg, in 1944. Back in Chicago in the mid-50s with their young daughter, she attended a Playwrights performance in a second-floor theater at LaSalle and North. "I saw Ed Asner in Murder in the Cathedral and talked to Sheldon Patinkin [at the time a crew member] and said, 'Oh my God, this is what I want to do,'" Forsberg recalls. "I wrote my husband [who was still touring] and said, 'Come home, I want to join this company.'" Both Forsbergs became part of Playwrights' summer Shakespeare festival; besides acting, she says, "Elaine May and I were head of the costume department." Then the theater--housed in a former Chinese restaurant--was shut down by the fire department.

Forsberg is fuzzy on dates, but this one she knows for sure: on December 16, 1959, Playwrights director Paul Sills opened a new company, Second City, built on the improv theory and practice developed at Hull House by his mother, Viola Spolin. On that day Forsberg was in the hospital giving birth to her second child, a son. She took a year off, and by the time she hooked up with SC she and Rolf were divorcing. Untrained as an improviser, she worked as a hostess in the theater and became an assistant to Spolin, who worked with SC's actors for a time. Forsberg says Spolin taught her that improvisation is an art in itself--and also that "if you don't like your environment, get the hell out of it. I didn't love being onstage anymore, but I discovered I loved teaching."

In the mid-60s Forsberg was hired to train people for a second Second City company so the resident troupe could take its show to New York. After that, she says, people got wind of her teaching and the workshops took off--though Bernie Sahlins had a habit of bad-mouthing the concept. "Bernie would say, 'I don't believe people have to learn how to improvise. The audience teaches you.'" In 1971, thinking she could improve on her small SC salary, Forsberg made an entrepreneurial move, forming her own company, Players Workshop of the Second City, which continued to use SC's facilities. She cast her students in the children's theater she had also launched, and many of them--Betty Thomas, Bonnie Hunt, and Harold Ramis, for example--went on to become Second City ensemble members. "We gave her the space to run her classes," Second City producer Joyce Sloane recalls. "At that time we weren't interested in doing the training."

For several years, Forsberg says, she was the only teacher at Second City. When others started teaching there too it got harder to reserve the space she needed. In 1979 she moved most of the Players Workshop activities to a small building she bought on Lincoln and Wrightwood, still calling it Players Workshop of the Second City. She had eight teachers working for her and continued to do children's theater and some classes at SC. But in 1985 Sahlins sold to Andrew Alexander and Len Stuart. "That was a sad day," Forsberg says. "The new owner changed everything." Under Alexander, Second City launched its own training program; Patinkin, who came back to run it, says Forsberg was invited to teach there but declined. A few years later SC began competing with Forsberg directly, hiring away her nephew, Martin de Maat, who'd worked for 18 years as a Players Workshop teacher. Players Workshop went into a tailspin, and in the late 90s Forsberg sold her building and eased into retirement. The workshop's now being run at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts by a former student, Greg Winston. Forsberg, who still has a small financial interest, says he's reviving it.

Forsberg's currently writing a book about how to use improvisation for a better life. "The art of improv cleans up the mess--all the conversations you have in your head that mean nothing," she says. "When people think of improv they think comedy"--but it's really about intuition and emotion, its message "stop faking it." Forsberg doesn't want to fake her feelings about Second City. On the one hand, she says, it was a "chauvinistic place" where "I had a hell of a time just staying on my feet" and where "I think a lot of the time Bernie wanted to get rid of me." ("If I'd wanted to get rid of her I would have," says Sahlins.) On the other hand, she says, it was a wonderful place where the years flew by and "I was happy teaching something I loved." Last Saturday, in miserable weather, she hosted what she says was the last of 27 annual birthday parties for Shakespeare in front of his statue in Lincoln Park. Now, with photos from her days as a glamorous young Tatiana or Bianca as her backdrop, she talks about taking her granddaughter to The Phantom of the Opera in its current run at the Palace Theatre and surprising herself: "When the curtain opened," she says, "I started to cry."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.

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