Improv: born of a woman

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As an improv teacher, I have been greatly inspired by Viola Spolin, a woman that is often deemed “The grandmother of improvisation.” For new improvisors, and/or those who need some education on their lineage, here’s our history:

Viola Spolin (1906-1994) initially trained to be a settlement worker, similar to our modern day social worker- a person who works with underprivileged people. She studied with Neva Boyd at Group Work School in Chicago, and was highly influenced by Boyd’s teaching on the areas of group leadership, recreation, and working with traditional game structures to create changes in social behavior for inner city youth and immigrant children. She later formalized her concepts into “Theater Games” that focused on tapping into each individual’s creativity, and on the concept of play for unlocking creative self-expression.

Spolin believed that every person can learn to act and express themselves creatively. In the beginning of her book, Improvisation for the Theater she wrote:”Everyone can act. Everyone can improvise. Anyone who wishes to can play in the theater and learn to become ‘stage-worthy.’ 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.”

With her maternal wisdom, Viola Spolin not only birthed improvisation, she literally birthed Paul Sills, her son. Paul enrolled at The University of Chicago and established himself as a theatre director, and co-founded the Playwright’s Theater Club. In 1955, he and David Shepherd founded The Compass Players- deemed the first improvisational theater in the US. In 1959, Sills and friends (Bernie Sahlins and Howard Alk) opened The Second City in Chicago. Revues were developed improvisationally under Sills’ direction. Bernie Sahlins later opened the Second City in Toronto in 1973 and was also one of the creators and producers of SCTV. Del Close and Charna Halpern, the next wave of great improvisation teachers in Chicago can be traced back to their early training at Second City.

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