Viola Spolin

Artform: Theatre

by Mary Moynihan

Viola Spolin (1906-1994) was an actor, director, educator and internationally recognised author of a range of theatre books including Improvisation for the Theatre: A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques, published by Northwestern University Press. Viola Spolin, along with her son Paul Sills, ‘created the techniques utilised by the cast of Chicago’s Second City… as well as every other improvisation comedy troupe ever since’ [1].

Viola Spolin said that theatre games could invoke ‘genius: ‘If you have a problem, you can use a game, you are taking it out of the head where you think about it . . and you are getting it into the body, body-mind intuition, that is what we are after, body-mind intuition’.

Originally, she created games to enable students to feel more natural and convincing on stage. At the heart of Spolin’s work is the idea of using theatre games and exercise to encourage experiential learning. The work is about moving away from thinking or planning on stage to be in a space where you are vulnerable and open and letting things happen rather than making them happen, to get people out of their heads and into the space, to get people in touch with their ‘authentic selves’ and with each other. Playing a game throws people off-balance so that they are encouraged to be more in the moment, to go to a place of ‘not-knowing’ and in that space, according to Sills, ‘out comes stuff that you don’t know is coming and that you could not even possibly say where it comes from’. This is the place ‘where magic happens’ as ‘intuition is where true genius lies’.

Spolin’s exercises for actor training and directing were executed in the format of a game where the participants or ‘players’ have a specific focus or ‘technical problem’ to overcome as the game was being played. The players have to focus on the aim of the game like ‘keeping your eye on the ball’. Because the players have something to focus their attention on, they have less time for self-consciousness, pre-planning, judging and other intellectual methods that keep them from being spontaneous and so are able to stay in the moment more, enabling a more spontaneous playing of the game that comes from an instinctive or intuitive space.

Through the use of games, exercises and improvisation, the focus is on learning through ‘experience and experiencing’ which is ‘penetration into the environment’, having a total organic involvement on all levels ‘intellectual, physical, intuitive’. The environment in the workshop space is one where everyone is equal and people learn together through doing and through active engagement in the game or exercise, rather than through direct competition. The players focus on group expression and are an active part of an organic ‘whole’. Spolin wrote that ‘Individual freedom (expressing self) while respecting community responsibility (group agreement) is our goal’.

As with Stanislavski, there is a focus on developing one’s ‘sensory equipment’. Developing one’s sensory equipment enables the player to ‘be able to make direct and fresh contact with the created environment and the objects and people within in it’. To physicalise and have a complete freedom of physical expression was a key part of the work. According to Spolin:

‘Reality as far as we know can only be physical, in that it is received and communicated through the sensory equipment. Through physical relationships all life springs, whether it be a spark of fire from a flint, the roar of the surf hitting the beach or a child born of man and woman. The physical is the known and through it we may find our way to the unknown, the intuitive and perhaps beyond to the human spirit itself.[2]

Spolin believed that it was important to let go of what she referred to as ‘approval/disapproval’. The player learns to let go of any fear of rejection or getting it wrong, to avoid trying to be ‘good’, ‘right’ or the ‘best’, and instead to fully immerse themselves in the relationships, the environment and in the solving of the problem (the game). Spolin said that ‘in judging we keep ourselves from fresh moments of experience and rarely go beyond what we already know’[3].

If an actor committed to playing a game fully, he or she discovers there is no right or wrong way, only a ‘truthful way’ that involves the player giving themselves over fully to the game at hand. Apart from the actual structure, nothing is pre-planned as ‘no-one knows the outcome of a game until one plays it’. The emphasis is on being open and available and being fully present in the body and with each other, as opposed to thinking or planning.

According to the American actor Valerie Harper, Spolin’s work is about enabling the actor to be at their most convincing and has been described as opening an ‘ancient door’. The work focuses on generating a form of improvisation that springs from the intuition, a deeper source of creativity: ‘we need to open, to allow the muse to flow’.

Spolin’s work has relevance for the arts and human rights as she believed that games could play a part in breaking down barriers. She believed that her improvisation training ‘provides a way for people of different cultures, with different life experiences, to work together collaboratively to achieve productive outcomes. It is a way for individuals to participate fully and authentically in the solving of problems. It is a path to innovation and inspiration and personal commitment.’ That was how Spolin conceived of improvisation [4].

From 1924 to 1927, Spolin trained to be a settlement worker with Neva Boyd’s Group Work school in Chicago. Boyd used games and other creative techniques to affect ‘social behaviour in inner city and immigrant children’[5]. Artists were employed to work on ‘large arts, drama, media and literacy projects’.[6] Spolin then worked for the Works Progress Administration, a range of large scale public works programmes implemented across the United States. From 1938 to 1941, Spolin worked under the Works Progress Administration as a drama supervisor in Chicago where she used drama and theatre games and exercises when working with children from different ethnic communities.

Spolin then set up a Young Actor’s Company in Hollywood for children aged six years of age and up, where she trained children to perform in production using her ‘theatre games’ programme. In 1955 Spolin went back to Chicago to direct for the Playwright’s Theatre Club, and then to conduct theatre games workshops for The Compass Players, an improvisational cabaret ensemble set up in 1955 by David Shepherd and Viola’s son Paul Sills. The Compass Player’s ‘experiments with improvisation opened a nearly limitless source of creative energy that continues to fuel every level of the American entertainment industry – television to theater, cabaret to commercials to film’.[7] Paul Sills, along with Bernie Sahlins and Howard Alk opened The Second City in 1959, a renowned improvisation company, and from 1960 to 1965 Spolin worked with the company as workshop director, teaching and developing her theatre games work.

Viola Spolin’s inspirational book Improvisation for the Theatre: A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques was published in 1963 and contains over 200 theatre-based games and exercises inspiring ‘actors, directors, teachers, and writers in theater, television, film. These techniques have also influenced the fields of education, mental health, social work, and psychology’.[8]

From the 1960’s on Spolin continued to teach workshops and to publish, and was involved in a range of theatre and education based projects. In 1976 she set up the Spolin Theatre Game Centre in Hollywood to train professional theatre games coaches, and in 1985 she published Theatre Games for Rehearsals: A Director’s Handbook.

Spolin believed that everybody can learn to act and express themselves creatively. Spolin wrote that ‘everyone can act. Everyone can improvise… 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’ have little to do with it’.[9]

Viola Spolin was a powerful artist and educator who created an important body of work for artists and activists for the future.

Quotes from Viola Spolin

‘We are working on two levels; the obvious, the story, the scenarios, the characters. The other is the invisible, the luminous, the spirit-world.’

‘Break through the walls that keep us from the unknown, ourselves and each other.’

‘The intuitive can only respond in immediacy – right now. It comes bearing its gifts in the moment of spontaneity, the moment when we are free to relate and act, involving ourselves in the moving, changing world around us.’

‘The fear is not of the unknown but of not knowing.’

‘Be thrown off-balance and blank out the intellect (the known).’

‘That which is not yet known comes out of that which is not yet here.’

‘We learn through experiencing… experiencing is penetration into the environment, total organic involvement with it . . on all levels; intellectual, physical and intuitive.’

‘My vision is a world of accessible intuition.’

‘Theatre games do not inspire “proper” moral behavior (good/bad), but rather seek to free each person to feel his or her own true nature, out of which a felt, experienced, actual love of neighbor will appear.’

‘The heart of improvisation is transformation.’

‘The audience is the most revered member of the theater. Without an audience, there is no theater. Everything done is ultimately for the enjoyment of the audience. They are our guests, fellow players, and the last spoke in the wheel which can then begin to roll. They make the performance meaningful.’

Mary Moynihan is a writer, director, and theatre and film maker. Mary is Artistic Director of the Smashing Times International Centre for the Arts and Human Rights, incorporating Smashing Times Theatre and Film Company and Smashing Times Youth Arts Ensemble. Mary is also a Drama Lecturer at the DIT Conservatory of music and Drama, Dublin, Ireland.


[2] Improvisation for the Theatre A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques, Viola Spolin, Northwestern University Press

[3] Improvisation for the Theatre A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques, Viola Spolin, Northwestern University Press

[4] The Difference between Spolin Games and Comedy Improv by Gary Schwartz.





[9] Improvisation for the Theatre by Viola Spolin.


Improvisation for the Theatre A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques, Viola Spolin, Northwestern University Press

Theatre Games for the Classroom: A Teacher’s Handbook, Viola Spolin, Northwestern University Press

Theatre Games for the Lone Actor: A Handbook, Viola Spolin, Northwestern University Press

Theatre Games for Rehearsal: A Director’s Handbook, Viola Spolin, Northwestern University Press