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The Real History of Improvisation

“Through spontaneity we are re-formed into ourselves.” – Viola Spolin

Viola Spolin is widely known as the mother of the improvisation technique, which revolutionized the way acting was taught. She diverted from the more dogmatic methods of her day to create a technique designed to release the full artist through the power of play, focus, and spontaneity.

It’s impossible to put Viola, her history, and her work into a nutshell, so here’s several nutshells to chew on:

Influenced by social work. In the 1920s, Spolin trained with Neva Boyd, a social worker who worked with children at Chicago’s Hull House, a settlement house for immigrants. The children spoke a variety of languages and were new to the community, but through non-competitive games and play they learned to communicate. They also built empathy, socialization skills, and confidence.

Steeped in the progressive education movement. Spolin’s approach is built on the theory that we learn by doing. Combining her theatrical background with Boyd’s children’s games, she created a technique to teach actors the aspects of their craft through playful experience rather than lecture or dogma.

Revolutionary approach to actor training. Spolin invented over 300 games, each with a specific focus and problem that the group must work together to solve (Improvisation For The Theater). The Sidecoach (instead of “teacher”) refocuses players when they get off track. Each player learns from their own experience, instead of getting lost in what Viola calls “The Approval/Disapproval Syndrome.”

Runs in the family. Viola’s son, Paul Sills, grew up immersed in his mother’s work. As an adult, he co-founded The Playwrights Theater and The Compass, the first ever improvisational revue-style theater. His mother ran ongoing workshops with both of these companies.

The Second City. Sills co-founded The Second City in 1959 as a smart, satirical revue, and Viola ran workshops to train company members such as, Alan Arkin, Alan Alda, Ed Asner, Valerie Harper, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Avery Schreiber, Paul Sands and Del Close.

While comedy improv is now recognized world-wide, many people don’t know that it could not have come into existence without Viola Spolin.

Beyond the theater. Viola’s work continues to have far-reaching influences, across modalities and with a wide variety of communities including therapy patients, women’s groups, teenagers in recovery, disadvantaged youth, incarcerated individuals, and future police officers in university criminal justice courses.

And, of course, to this day…actors.

Today. Paul Sills’ daughter, Aretha Sills, continues her grandmother’s work, running workshops all over the world. I’ve had the privilege to train and learn from the source myself, and was one of twelve people in her first ever Sidecoach Training, completed in 2021. I continue to train in her workshops whenever I can.

When you truly play, you are free. And this is the reason Spolin’s work excites me so much; because artists who are playing are, by definition, simultaneously open and focused. They are liberated into themselves and the full experiences of the here and now. They trust their instincts, their fellow players, easily take risks, and are able to creatively respond to whatever happens in the moment, scripted or not.

I have experienced this freedom first hand as an actor and as a Sidecoach I have witnessed the same in my clients. That playfulness and connection and trust…that is the magic spark. Or as Viola would say:

“It is highly possible that what is called talented behavior is

simply a greater capacity for experiencing.”

– Viola Spolin

For more information on Improvisation Workshops, please click here.

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