Birth of Viola Spolin, creator of Theater Games
Viola Spolin is considered the godmother of improvisation for her development of Theater Games, a series of techniques to stimulate creativity in children that became popular with comedy, theater and film artists and were later developed for people of all ages and walks of life. The evolution of improvisational groups such as Chicago’s Second City, Los Angeles’ the Groundlings, and Boston’s The Proposition can be directly traced to her work. These groups are the fertile training grounds that spawned comic talents such as Gilda Radner, Elaine May, Lisa Kudrow, and Tina Fey. Though only Elaine May worked with Spolin directly with the Compass players, all were thoroughly trained in her precepts.
But the work of Viola Spolin has applications anywhere people need to interact: in religion, mental health, schools for both troubled and gifted children, and elsewhere. As Spolin told the Los Angeles Times in 1974, “Theater Games are a process applicable to any field, discipline, or subject matter which creates a place where full participation, communication and transformation can take place."
In 1963, she published Improvisation for the Theater, a collection of more than 200 exercises and games that she had developed over her years of work. This work popularized her philosophy not only in the world of theater, but also in sensitivity training, group therapy, and social sciences.
Key to the rubric of Spolin games are the terms physicalization ("showing and not telling"), spontaneity ("a moment of explosion"), intuition ("unhampered knowledge beyond the sensory equipment - physical and mental"), audience ("part of the game, not the lonely looker-onners"), and transformation ("actors and audience alike receive ... the appearance of a new reality").
Born November 7, 1906 in Chicago, Spolin began her career as a settlement worker with immigrant and inner-city children. Working with Neva Boyd (an innovator in the formal use of play and games as forces of social, psychological, and educational development), she discovered the value of games in cultivating self-expression and breaking down barriers of cultural and ethnic differences. While serving as drama supervisor for the Chicago branch of the Works Progress Administration's Recreational Project (1939-1941), Spolin developed the building blocks for what she called “Theater Games.” In 1946, she founded the Young Actors Company in Hollywood, working with actors as young as 6. She returned to Chicago in 1955 to direct for the Playwright's Theater Club and subsequently to conduct games workshops with the Compass, the country's first professional, improvisational acting company. She became a workshop director with the Second City Company, which was formed by her son, Paul Sills.
After the publication of Improvisation for the Theater, Spolin continued working in theater, film, and television. She published Theater Game File as a resource for teachers to utilize her techniques. Later works included versions of theater games for directors and elementary school teachers. In 1976, she established the Spolin Theater Game Center in Hollywood, serving as its artistic director and teaching into the 1990s. She died November 22, 1994 in Los Angeles.
In Improvisation for the Theater, Spolin wrote, “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’ have little to do with it.”
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Birth of Viola Spolin, creator of Theater Games." (Viewed on February 9, 2023) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/nov/07/1906/this-week-in-history-birth-of-viola-spolin-creator-of-theater-games>.