Josephine Forsberg, a pioneer of the teaching of improvisational acting in Chicago, an early company member at The Second City, and an influential teacher of such stars as George Wendt, Shelley Long and Bill Murray, died Monday morning at the Illinois Masonic Medical Center. She was 90.
According to her son, Eric, Forsberg died of natural causes.
“She had a great spirit and was feisty to the end,” said Hal Baim, a Chicago photographer and longtime friend.
“She was my very first teacher of improv,” said Wendt on Monday. “I was absolutely clueless. I called the box office about workshops and they mailed me this flyer for something called Players Workshop. It was the first time I had ever applied myself to anything.”
Forsberg had been around from the very beginnings of Second City. A friend of the famous improv teacher Viola Spolin and her son, Paul Sills, Forsberg was invited to be a part of the very first Second City company in 1959. But she was pregnant with her son, Eric, and joined instead the following year. She became a teacher, not a member of the professional cast.
“I fell in love with improvisation,” she told the Tribune in 2000. “And I thought, what do I want to (perform) for? I'd rather do this.”
The teaching of improvisational acting is now common in Chicago, where thousands of students take classes, and throughout the world. But that was not the case in the early 1960s, when Forsberg and the late improv guru Del Close (who preferred advanced students) had the field pretty much to themselves.
“She really was the first person to teach improv in any organized kind of way,” said Andrew Alexander, the owner of The Second City.
After Spolin left for California in the late 1960s, Forsberg became the keeper of her flame in Chicago. Among the many students who arrived at her door was Murray, to whom Forsberg famously offered a barter arrangement that involved him painting her house in return for classes. Charna Halpern, the owner of iO and an influential teacher in her own right, started as one of Forsberg's students. Forsberg also founded The Second City Children's Theatre, which ended in the early 1990s.
By then, her relationship with Second City — which, by the 1980s had become a large and powerful organization — had gone south. Like many business arrangements made in the early years of improv, Forsberg's relationship with Second City was informal; she paid no rent but shared revenue. But in 1970, with business booming, Forsberg had formed her own independent company to house her teaching. She called it the Players Workshop of The Second City, located at 4227 N. Lincoln Ave.
When Alexander bought Second City in 1985, the theater did not have its own formal training program, relying for its performers mostly on its relationship with Forsberg and some classes here and there. But once Alexander put his own training program in place, which did not involve Forsberg (although it did involve her nephew, the late Martin de Maat), Forsberg's old employer became her competition.
A series of delicate negotiations ensued over whether The Players Workshop of The Second City should become just the Players Workshop, and whether it then could survive. But although there was much respect for Forsberg's historic role, the end result was that the Players Workshop was overtaken by the Second City Training Center, led by a younger generation. By 2000, when she spoke at length to the Tribune of the events that led to her estrangement from the Second City, Forsberg talked of her attempts to keep the old spirit of the theater alive in her own workshop. “We save it here,” she said.
But by the 50th anniversary of Second City in 2009, old disputes were forgotten and Forsberg was welcomed as an honored guest. And on Monday, the memories were of Forsberg as a gifted early teacher of arguable the only art form that Chicago can claim for its own.
“She was a tough teacher,” said Halpern. “I modeled what I did after her. She'd stop you midstream, tell you what were going wrong, yell at you, and then get you back on track.”
"Jo," said Tim Kazurinsky, another former student, "was a sweet and patient improv teacher."
“I needed the fundamentals,” said Wendt. “She was the right teacher for me.”
Forsberg is survived by her filmmaker son, Eric; a daughter, Linnea Forsberg, a theater professor at City Colleges of Chicago; and grandchildren, Aidan Kirk and actress Lola Forsberg. Her former husband, Rolf Forsberg, lives in California. Information regarding memorial services is pending