Review: “Inventing Improv” (A documentary about Viola Spolin)

If you’re a regular follower of my work here, you’ll know about my appreciation for Viola Spolin. She’s known as “The Mother of Improv” for her many contributions to our art form. Here’s my quick review of the PBS documentary Inventing Improv, which recaps Viola’s life and career.

Improv history buffs and fans of The Second City. (Although if you’re familiar with either, you may not find much new here).

What it is:

A documentary for Chicago PBS station WTTW as part of their “Chicago Stories” series.

What it’s about:

Inventing Improv covers Viola Spolin’s upbringing as a child of Russian immigrants, her early days at Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago where she met the social worker Neva Boyd, and how she developed Boyd’s ideas about children’s games into training exercises for the theatre. From there, she developed unique training methods that have expanded into worldwide use.

The film also tracks her son Paul Sills’s career as a performer and director. Among other theatre companies in Chicago, he founded (with David Shepherd) The Second City, which soon became a dominant force in American satire.

This documentary is rich with background material, including archive footage from The Second City (though not of Viola) and an old interview with Paul Sills. There are also interviews with well-known improv celebrities and past Second City performers.

The Good about Inventing Improv:

Interviews with Aretha Sills (Viola’s granddaughter) and Anne Libera (Second City) explain the context and importance of Spolin’s work. There are video examples of Libera leading improvisers through several Spolin games. An unexpected bonus is the collection of resource pages on the WTTW website. They include full videos of the Spolin games, interviews with local Chicago improvisers, a map of Chicago’s improv theatres, and more history.

The Not-so-Good:

The Viola story disappears for a long time as the film focuses on the creation and rise of The Second City. It says Second City brought Viola in to train actors, but doesn’t elaborate on what she did or how she did it. Also, anyone with a fair knowledge of Spolin or Second City history already won’t find much new here.

Where to find Inventing Improv:

At the time of posting, Inventing Improv is available to watch online here. There are also several pages of resource material well worth checking out.


Further reading:

Viola Spolin image courtesy of WTTW.

David Raitt - Headshot

Hi, I'm David Raitt. I've been performing and teaching improv and sketch comedy for over 25 years.
MY MISSION: To help improvisers everywhere (re-)learn the power of environment, object work, and physicality in character and performance.

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