Female Director Spotlight: Elaine May, Renegade Improv Comedienne

A natural performer from the start, director Elaine May allegedly began her career in 1935 at the tender age of three, performing in her father’s Yiddish theater company (although she conceded in 2010 that this origin story isn’t “strictly accurate”). At age 16, she married a toy inventor, with whom she had a daughter, then divorced him a few years later. After holding a series of odd jobs, including as a private detective and a roofing salesman, she decided she’d like to enroll in college—the problem was, she lacked the high school diploma that California colleges required by law. With just $7 in her pocket, she hitchhiked to Chicago, where this rule didn’t exist, to pursue an education.

Here, she met future legendary director Mike Nichols through mutual friends. The pair bubbled with comedic chemistry, and in 1955, they joined the off-campus improv group, The Compass Players. Two years later, Nichols was asked to leave the team for being “too talented,” and May quit with him. Soon, they developed their own act, forming stand-up comedy duo, “Nichols and May.” Their undeniable talent eventually landed them their own Broadway show, and “An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May” became a bonafide hit, performing for full house shows and even winning a Grammy for Best Comedy Performance. Sadly, Nichols and May disbanded in 1964, citing difficulties with keeping their act consistently fresh. Over the next several years, Nichols would go on to begin a wildly successful film directing career with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and May would try her hand at playwriting. She also acted in various screen roles, including an uncredited cameo in Nichols’ The Graduate, until she gained the experience to direct her first feature.

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