Born in 1924 in New York City to an old money family, Shepherd grew up with left-leaning sensibilities. He studied English at Harvard and received an M.A. in the History of Theater at Columbia. Disenchanted with what he perceived as a European dominated theater on the East Coast, Shepherd gravitated to the Midwest.
In 1953 Shepherd was one of the co-founders of the Playwrights Theatre Club in Chicago. In 1955 he and Paul Sills founded the Compass Players, the forerunner of The Second City. Compass launched the careers of Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Jerry Stiller, Alan Alda, Alan Arkin, Barbara Harris, and Shelley Berman (to name a few) and started a revolution in entertainment. Since Compass, David has gone on to create numerous improv formats - including the Improvisation Olympics (a competitive theatrical sporting event), Responsive Scene Radio Show (listeners create their own stories on air) and MOVIExperience (improvising a movie) which culminated in the publication of his book That Movie In Your Head.
More recently he, Howard Jerome and Jamie "Willie" Wyllie created the Canadian Improv Games, which are produced in association with Canada's National Arts Centre and which are the subject of the documentary film In The Moment. In addition to leading workshops in Improvisation, David Shepherd has recently been involved in developing techniques for the creation of improvisational films with his partner, Nancy Fletcher. David resides near Amherst, MA. As of 2011, David was actively working on a new improvisational format known as Life-Play, which consists of improvised games that can be played on the phone or in person by two or more players.
2010 saw the completion of David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre. This documentary is an oral history detailing the career of David Shepherd and his contributions to Improvisational Theatre. The project was the brainchild of Jamie "Willie" Wyllie, co-founder and co-creator of the Canadian Improv Games (a national high school activity inspired by one of David's formats), directed by Mike Fly (creator of the web series Improv Monologue Project), and written by David's protegee, Michael Golding. The documentary includes interviews with Bernie Sahlins (co-founder of Second City), Suzanne "Honey" Shepherd (Sopranos), Andrew Duncan (Compass/Second City), Charna Halpern (co-founder of iO), Janet Coleman (author of The Compass), Mark Gordon (Compass/Second City), Howard Jerome (actor, producer, director), Michael Golding (writer, educator), and Jamie "Willie" Wyllie (Canadian Improv Games). The documentary premiered in 2011 at the 34th Annual Canadian Improv Games and at the Boston Improv Festival.
David's ground-breaking experiments with improvisational formats have, for the most part, been incubated in his company Group Creativity Projects. David has received lifetime achievement awards from the Chicago Improv Festival, Second City, and the Canadian Improv Games.