Viola Spolin

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Viola Spolin (November 7, 1906 - November 22, 1994) was an American drama teacher and author. She is considered by many to be the American Grandmother of Improvisation.

She influenced the first generation of improvisational actors at the Second City in Chicago in the late 1950s, through her son, Paul Sills, who was one of Second City's co-founders. Spolin developed new games that focused upon creativity, adapting and focusing the concept of play to unlock the individual's capacity for creative self-expression. Viola Spolin's use of recreational games in theatre came from her background with the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression where she studied with Neva Boyd.

Spolin is the author of a number of texts on improvisation.

Early work

Viola Spolin initially trained to be a settlement worker (from 1924 - 1927), studying at Neva Boyd's Group Work School in Chicago. Boyd's innovative teaching in the areas of group leadership, recreation, and social group work strongly influenced Spolin, as did the use of traditional game structures to affect social behavior in inner-city and immigrant children.

While serving as drama supervisor for the Chicago branch of the Works Progress Administration|Works Progress Administration's Recreational Project (1939-1941), Spolin perceived a need for an easily grasped system of theater training that could cross the cultural and ethnic barriers within the WPA Project.

According to Spolin, Boyd's teachings provided "an extraordinary training in the use of games, story-telling, folk dance and dramatics as tools for stimulating creative expression in both children and adults, through self discovery and personal experiencing. Building upon the experience of Boyd's work, she responded by developing new games that focused upon individual creativity, adapting and focusing the concept of play to unlock the individual's capacity for creative self-expression. These techniques were later to be formalized under the rubric "Theater Games".

Birth of American improv

In 1946 Spolin founded the Young Actors Company in Hollywood. Children six years of age and older were trained, through the medium of the still developing Theater Games system, to perform in productions. This company continued until 1955. Spolin returned to Chicago in 1955 to direct for the Playwright's Theater Club and, subsequently, to conduct games workshops with the Compass Theater, the country's first professional, improvisational acting company. The Compass Theater made theater history in America. It began in a storefront theater near the University of Chicago campus in the summer of 1955 and out of this group was born a new form: improvisational theater. They are said to have created a radically new kind of comedian–. "They did not plan to be funny or to change the course of comedy," writes Coleman. "But that is what happened." From 1960 to 1965, still in Chicago, she worked with her son Paul Sills as workshop director for his The Second City Company and continued to teach and develop Theater Games theory. As an outgrowth of this work, she published Improvisation for the Theater consisting of approximately 220 games and exercises. It has become a classic reference text for teachers of acting, as well as for educators in other fields.

In 1965, with Sills and others, Spolin co-founded the Game Theater in Chicago, and around the same time organized a small cooperative elementary school (called Playroom School and later Parents School) with Sills and other area families. The theater and the school's classes sought to have audiences participate directly in Theater Games, thus effectively eliminating the conventional separation between Improvisational theatre|improvisational actors and audiences. The theater experiment achieved limited success, and it closed after only a few months, but the school continued to use the techniques, alongside a regular elementary curriculum, well into the 1970s.

Later years

In 1970 and 1971 Spolin served as special consultant for productions of Sills' Story Theater in Los Angeles, New York, and on television. On the West Coast, she conducted workshops for the companies of the Rhoda and Friends and Lovers television series and appeared as an actress in the Paul Mazursky film Alex in Wonderland.

In November 1975, the publication of The Theater Game File made her unique approaches to teaching and learning more readily available to classroom teachers; in 1976, she established the Spolin Theater Game Center in Hollywood, serving as its artistic director. In 1979 she was awarded an honorary doctorate by Eastern Michigan University, and until the 1990s she continued to teach at the Theater Game Center. In 1985 her new book, Theater Games for Rehearsal: A Director's Handbook, was published.

Spolin's games

Spolin's Theater Games are simple, operational structures that transform complicated theater conventions and techniques into game forms. Each game is built upon a specific focus or technical problem and is an exercise that gives the actor something to focus on and create. The intention and the experience of this is one of being in the moment with creating rather than being in the mind judging. The exercises are, as one critic has written, "structures designed to almost fool spontaneity into being". Spolin was of the belief that every person can learn to act and have creative expression. In the beginning of her book, Improvisation for the Theater she writes:

Everyone can act. Everyone can improvise. Anyone who wishes to can play in the theater and learn to become "stageworthy."
We learn through experience and experiencing, and no one teaches anyone anything. This is as true for the infant moving from kicking and crawling to walking as it is for the scientist with his equations.
If the environment permits it, anyone can learn whatever he chooses to learn; and if the individual permits it, the environment will teach him everything it has to teach. "Talent" or "lack of talent" has little to do with it.