The Mother of Improv

Hi there!

This month’s issue is all about Viola Spolin, “The Mother of Improv.” I’m often surprised by how many improvisers don’t know who she is, even though almost everyone is exposed to her exercises and teaching methods. If you want to really master the skills of the improv illusion, you should at least skim her books and list of exercises.

If you’re new to Viola, skip down to the links sections to explore a bunch of different resources. This includes my review of a new documentary about her life and work that came out last month, with a link to the film.

Once you’re up to speed, you might be interested in some critical thoughts on the Spolin method…

Is Spolin really all that?

This is aimed mostly at improv teachers. But even if you’re a student, it helps to think about how your classes are taught. Improv training can be expensive, and you should be confident you’re getting value and the best learning possible.

Anyone who follows my work knows my appreciation for Viola Spolin. I use many of her exercises in my workshops, and her Improvisation for the Theater is a key book everyone should have in your library. I re-read it recently and had a few thoughts on the good and not-so-good of her methods.

Viola wrote that the only way to teach improvisation is to help the player figure things out for themselves. To do this, she developed a specific method that limits the teacher’s authority.

Each of her exercises presents an acting problem for the players (for example, showing a space object to the audience). Solving the problem forces players to make their own discoveries. After the exercise, her evaluation was simply to ask if they solved the problem and communicated successfully with the audience.

In this way, everyone in the class joins the discussion — teacher, student audience, and the players themselves. It shifts actors from working for the teacher’s approval to focusing on problems and learning what works for them.

What’s great about this is that the teacher becomes an advisor rather than a “guru” pushing a single idea. Their major responsibility is to program the exercises and suggest new ones to help with specific problems. It’s a useful method for team members who direct each other, or theatre companies where instructors often play in the same shows as the students. There’s much more of a peer relationship between teacher and student.

However, there are several nuances to the Spolin method that don’t work for everyone.

One common criticism of the “Spolin games” is that they’re too limiting. You have a problem to solve, and a scene may or may not develop from your focus on that problem. But how does this translate to open improv in a show? Are you supposed to look for problems to solve? Set problems for yourself?

Presumably, the discoveries a player makes carry over into open improv, but Viola never explains how that works. And because the method is so game-based, teachers tend to abandon it after a while, preferring to work on “real scenes.” If Spolin games are used, they’re often as warm-ups and not for deeper exploration.

(This may be why improvisers lose touch with their environment skills over time — they stop working on problems of the Where.)

A second issue is that the instructor must allow all students to engage in the evaluations. Many teachers don’t like discussion, preferring to give their opinion only. It may be appropriate to avoid over-analysis, but for students to grow it’s important they hear from all observers about what was seen.

I think the biggest concern is that a Spolin-style teacher must be really good at diagnosing students. Almost anyone can lead a group through games and evaluation, and this is how most improvisers start into teaching. But a workshop has to be more than running through a set list. A good instructor spots trouble and changes things up to give students problems that fit what they need to learn.

Without that skill, students don’t make the discoveries they need to grow. Worse, they can feel like failures if the teacher simply moves on to the next game without helping them solve the problem.

In my workshops, I use a combination of Spolin games and open scenes, including a few practical exercises of my own. It’s important to switch things up so you’re never reliant on one method. But I do try to stick to Viola’s evaluations, if only to stop me from lecturing at students. (And even then, I probably do it too much!)

3 Things to Try

This is a NEW monthly feature where I give you ideas for exercises or scenes to work out your physical improv skills.

  1. Find a list of Viola Spolin’s games (there are several on my exercises page) and try some in a workshop. Some games can even be used in short-form shows.
  2. Many countries celebrate the contribution of veterans during November. Try a scene around the theme of “war” or “remembrance”. Be careful of stage violence if it comes up — use slow motion to prevent injuries.
  3. Holiday sale season is around the corner! Try a scene involving shopping. Maybe characters competing with each other for the last item on the shelf?

More for the Improv Illusionist

Review: “Inventing Improv” (A documentary about Viola Spolin)
My quick review of the new PBS documentary which recaps Viola’s life and career. Includes a link to the film for viewing online.

Emotional Safety Resources

Improv Exercises for Physical Skills

Improv Books — Reviews & Recommendations

Improv Podcasts — Reviews & Recommendations

More info for Spolin enthusiasts…

Viola Spolin Official Website
Maintained by Sills/Spolin Theater Works and the Viola Spolin Estate. Along with Viola’s biography and links to her publications, you’ll find recent news and a schedule of upcoming workshops around the world.

Spolin Games Online
Gary Schwartz has compiled a large collection of demonstration videos. Excellent resource for improv teachers and performers.

Question(s) of the Month

What’s your take on Viola Spolin’s teaching methods? Do you use them in your classes, either as a teacher or student? What do you like/not like about them? Do you feel like they’re “just games”?

Hit Reply and share. I love to chat with readers, and it gives me ideas for future content to help the whole community.

Thanks for reading. Stay safe!

Do you have any feedback about Improv Illusionist, either these updates or the website? Send me a message or just reply to this email. I read and respond to everything.

Next update on December 2nd. (Note our new schedule, releasing on the FIRST Thursday of every month.) See you then!

Ex nihilo!

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.

Learning the Improv Illusion

A free series introducing the techniques of Physical Improv.