Viola Spolin is credited as “the mother of improvisational theater.” Her game-oriented approach to stagecraft has revolutionized how actors, especially improv comedians, think about the nature of performance. Many established stars utilize the games she created as part of their preparation, and you can, too. Here’s everything to know about Spolin’s legacy and how you can study her techniques.
Viola Spolin was an educator, performer, and innovator of theater arts. Born in Chicago in 1906, she studied under a sociologist at a local settlement house, learning about the benefits of group play among children that would later inform her pioneering improvisation onstage.
In 1946, Spolin founded a theater troupe for children called the Young Actors Company. It was with this company that she developed her Theater Games. She continued to evolve her technique in Chicago—first by forming the Compass Players, then for the renowned Second City Company. As Spolin’s protégés continued her teachings at newly spawned improv schools and acting companies, she herself worked in Los Angeles, directing children’s theater, leading workshops for television casts, and founding the Spolin Theater Game Center, where professional coaches were trained to teach her techniques.
By the time Spolin died in 1994, she was widely recognized for her enduring influence on improvisation, stagecraft, and comedy. “Improvisation for the Theater,” a book describing her philosophies and techniques, sits on the shelf of many successful performers.
Spolin devotees call her approach the Theater Games System. While that term encompasses many specific improvisation-based exercises, it became a school of thought for performers across the U.S. throughout the 20th century and popularized the improv comedy movement.
Spolin designed her improvisation games to make actors feel grounded in the present moment, organically creating action and character development with their scene partners (and even their audience) on the fly. Many of her exercises encourage freedom of expression and discourage self-consciousness, thus enabling actors to explore and invent fearlessly onstage.
Spolin changed the craft by shifting focus away from “acting”—studying to carefully transform into a character—and toward “doing,” which grounds a performance in the present moment. All exercises in the Theater Games System include a “point of concentration”—a single objective actors must dedicate their full attention to.
Spontaneity is a fundamental element of Spolin’s teachings. The technique centers on getting in touch with one’s impulses here and now, and acting on them quickly without overthinking or doubting. The simple structure of most Theater Games enables practitioners to respond from their subconscious rather than their intellect, releasing childlike creativity.
In fact, understanding that many of Spolin’s principles stem from her work with children helps explain their utility. As she discovered in her sociology work, children are natural communicators and storytellers, especially when the rules of a game encourage spontaneous invention.
Here are some of the Theater Games that Spolin and her disciples popularized:
- Gibberish: In this exercise, the actor must deliver a story without using real words. By communicating with an audience first in pure gibberish and then properly, they cultivate an emotional and psychological connection to their co-stars and spectators alike.
- Singing dialogue: This exercise is exactly what it sounds like, inviting actors to think outside the box about dialogue by singing it and engaging their full body.
- Mirror: Two people stand face-to-face and attempt to make themselves an exact mirror of their partner at all times. One may lead the movement while another follows, encouraging participants to keep their attention entirely on their scene partner rather than themselves.
- Contact: The fundamental rule of this game is that actors may only speak when making physical contact with their scene partner. However, they must also invent and initiate a new kind of physical contact each time. This exercise reminds actors to put as much emphasis on movement as they do on dialogue.
- Group counting: Actors must count aloud to as high a number as possible, usually while sitting in a circle. Each actor may voice the next number whenever they feel the impulse; but if multiple people speak at once, the game must start over. This encourages performers to shift their focus from themselves to others, attuning them to subtle forms of communication.
- Who started the motion?: A favorite among young theater students, this game involves picking one person to leave the room and another to lead the group’s movement. Everyone snaps their fingers or bobs their heads, for example, and everyone mimics each subsequent motion in unison. The first student, upon reentering the room, must identify the leader. Like group counting, this exercise facilitates cohesive ensemble acting onstage.
Unlike many of her predecessors, Spolin believed in democratizing the theater-making process. Her philosophies work to remove judgment and barriers between teacher and student, as well as between performers and audiences—especially as Spolin’s teachings began influencing improv comedy. “Everyone can act. Everyone can improvise. Anyone who wishes to can play and learn to become stageworthy,” she wrote.
Russian theater pioneer Konstantin Stanislavsky, and many of the major schools of acting that branched from his ideas, would not agree with Spolin’s improvisational approach to drama. Lee Strasberg’s methods, for example, draw from personal experience and memory for the character construction process, rather than spur-of-the-moment impulses.
More similar to Spolin’s games, Michael Chekhov’s acting techniques ground performers in their bodies and present circumstances, drawing from subconscious inspiration to deliver truthfulness onstage. Sanford Meisner’s instinct-based innovations mirror Spolin’s in their focus on naturalistic tasks rather than premeditated character construction. Additionally, movement-based techniques like the Alexander Technique and Viewpoints overlap with Spolin’s highly physical, ensemble-oriented games.
Established comedy and improv schools like Second City, the Groundlings, and Upright Citizens Brigade offer classes built on Spolin’s techniques. Among the studios continuing Spolin’s legacy are her son Paul Sills’ Wisconsin Theater Game Center, the Sills Spolin Studio, and the Viola Spolin Estate; all offer workshops that are informed by her innovations.
One of the best ways to access Spolin’s work is reading about it directly. Her most famous book, “Improvisation for the Theater,” is one of the most essential tomes for acting students. Her “Theater Games for the Classroom” contains resources for children—whether they’re actors or not—while “Theater Games for the Lone Actor” is ideal for solo study.
The following actors are among those who studied Spolin’s teachings, either directly with Spolin or her son, most famously at Chicago’s Second City Company:
- Alan Arkin
- Dan Aykroyd
- John Belushi
- Chris Farley
- Valerie Harper
- Shelley Long
- Bill Murray
- Mike Myers
- Bob Odenkirk
- Gilda Radner
- Harold Ramis
- Fred Willard
Spolin’s Theater Games continue to shape how performers approach their craft. There’s a reason her teachings continue to resonate with actors, so study up—and start playing!