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Jeffery Sweet on Viola Spolin

Jeffery Sweet on Viola Spolin

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Published by Max Schafer

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Published by: Max Schafer on Aug 27, 2011
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08/09/2013

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By Jeffrey Sweet (Author of "Something Wonderful Right Away" an oral history ofimprovisation)"The Cambridge Guide to Theater" -- a large encyclopedic book which claims to be "themost comprehensive and up-to-date reference source on theater available today" --does not have an entry on Viola Spolin. This omission makes the book's claim palpablyridiculous. Viola's work has had a defining influence on American theater, film andtelevision. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, Cambridge is an ass.Her work certainly had a profound influence on me.I suspect that I am among many who first encountered her ideas in school. I rememberthe teacher of a creative dramatics class at Haven Junior High in Evanston, Illinoiscalled on me to play a game of "Contact" with a girl I probably would have been too shyto speak to under other circumstances.Growing up in Evanston and being interested in theater, of course I was introduced toSecond City in nearby Chicago. After college in New York, I decided to write an oralhistory of the Compass Players and Second City called "Something Wonderful RightAway." I decided to write it primarily -- I must confess -- in order to have an excuse tomeet these people who were my theatrical heroes. When I started work researching thebook and began meeting the community, everybody I talked to told me that it all startedwith Viola. The first chapter in the book -- the first interview -- had to be with her.Everybody told me this.But Viola wasn't everybody.My tape recorder and I visited her in I think it was '74 or '75. She said she would onlyconsent to be quoted in the book if she could review the chapter I wrote based on ourconversation. Which was fine by me. So I turned on the tape recorder. We talked forseveral hours. I learned a lot. I transcribed and edited our conversation. I sent it to her. Itcame back to me with many pencil marks and notes -- corrections and clarifications. Iincorporated these into the text and sent it to her. This came back to me with manypencil marks and notes. I incorporated these into the text and sent it to her.Then I got a letter. She had decided she didn't want to be quoted after all. So manypeople had made money from her work in the past without either sending her royaltiesor crediting her. I didn't see what that had to do with my project, but if she didn't want tobe in the book, she had the right not to be.Well, of course, she was in it. Not quoted directly, unfortunately, but how could I talk toPaul Sills, David Shepherd, Barbara Harris, Mike Nichols, Paul Sand, Valerie Harper,Alan Alda, Richard Schaal, Del Close, Sheldon Patinkin and all of the others who foundtheir artistic voices in a theater made possible by her work without her name beingbrought up again and again? And not just her name. Her spirit.

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