Hunter McMillian Honors Theatre III November 30th, 2008

Improvisation: Not Limited to Games
Considered the mother of modern improvisation, Viola Spolin has lived a career worth addressing including the implementation of her own teaching styles. While improvisation is not limited typical classroom games as shown by outside organizations and occurrences throughout the national media, it is also an art that elicits authentic qualities from not only actors but anyone who strives to grow as person. The late Viola Spolin (1906 - 1994) has had many years of experience in the world of theatre and specifically improvisation. At the transitional age of 18, Spolin studied at Neva Boyd’s Group Work School in Chicago in hopes to become a settlement worker. At that very school she learned the importance of communication, group work, and also leadership. These qualities would essentially result in Viola’s inspiration for her games. With a continued interest in a field with these qualities, Spolin eventually became the drama supervisor in the Chicago branch of the Works Progress Administration. With the experience that she gained through her job as a drama supervisor and the knowledge that she had gained from Neva Boyd, Spolin took the initiative to create games based on qualities that she had learned over the years. Spolin’s theatre games are what she was truly known for. (Master Acting Teacher Biographies: Viola Spolin) Five years

after Spolin’s job as a drama supervisor in the Chicago branch of the Works Progress Administration, Spolin found herself in Hollywood where she founded the Young Actors Company. At the “Young Actors Company in Hollywood”, Spolin would train potential actors over the age of six using her truly innovative games and some games that she was still in the process of developing. Nine years later, the “Young Actors Company” came to end in 1995. Although her company had come to an end, Spolin was not out of work for long. She left her home in Hollywood to go back to the familiar Chicago to take part in two jobs. One job was directing for the Playwright’s Theatre Club and the other was to teach workshops of her theatre games at the first professional improvisational acting company known by the name of Compass. At the age of 54, Spolin worked as a workshop director for Second City; a company owned by her son, Paul Sills (1927 - 2008). Second City’s success has been proven by its existence even today with locations in Chicago, Toronto, Detroit, and Los Angeles. (The Second
City) Without

Paul Sills, no “Saturday Night Live” would even exist says a Chicago

Tribune writer. Perhaps that is true, but I say Viola Spolin should receive most credit as she was the foundation for American improvisation to begin with. Soon after, while working with her son Paul at Second City, Spolin wrote a book with the title, “Improvisation for the Theatre” which consisted of over 200 games. While it appears that everything was going quite swell for Spolin, there were moments in her career that were not as bright as others. In 1965, she worked with her son again and co-founded Game Theatre in Chicago. It wasn’t very successful as shown by its closing only after a few months. However, that was

hardly a hindrance to Spolin’s success. At the age of 64, Spolin worked as a consultant for productions for the Sill’s Story Theatre. The Sill’s Story Theatre launched not only in Los Angeles and New York but also on television. Preceding her efforts as part of the Sill’s Story Theatre, Spolin held improvisation workshops in California. In 1970, Spolin showed her work as an actress playing a mother in a movie called Alex in Wonderland. This movie garnered generally unfavorable reviews. In 1975, Spolin published another work entitled, “Theatre Game File”. This is hard to find today as prices start from $66.95 on (Amazon) At the age of 70, Spolin was still working hard. She created the Spolin Theatre Game Center in Hollywood, California and had continued working there for a long while. In 1978, Spolin was awarded with an honorary Doctor of Arts degree from the Eastern Michigan University. In addition she has also received the Monte Meacham Award for Life Time Achievement from the Children’s Theatre in 1983. Spolin even got some praise from President Regan for her work. (Spolin Biography
Page) Unfortunately,

not long after, it was the end for Spolin.Viola Spolin was

found dead in her Los Angeles home on November 22nd, 1994. She was 88 years old. We know Viola Spolin, but something that everyone may not know about her is her methods or her techniques behind her games. (Master Acting Teacher
Biographies: Viola Spolin)

What makes them special or even worth noticing? The simplest answer is that they were innovative. These games were created for the actor to get out of the conventional ways of thinking about things. They were created to think outside the box. They often focused on thinking about technical things and required concentration. Communication was another vital factor in her games

and this goes back to what she had learned under Neva Boyd and her job as a drama supervisor. Her games required energy, passion, communication, leadership, and thinking. They where not just to be played for fun and Spolin took them very seriously. Spolin was actually once quoted for saying, “I don’t sit home and dream them up. When I had a problem [directing], I made up a game. When another problem came up, I just made up a new game.” This shows that she views these games as necessary tools to overcome a problem in theatre in an enjoyable but yet an effective way. Her games were designed to release any tension that the actor is feeling so that they can become fully engaged in it. Spolin does not want the actors to respond with answers and solutions that they have thought of before hand but rather with spontaneity. Another key factor is physicalization. Spolin wanted these games to evoke physical responses out of you that even you didn’t know you were capable of. Spolin has taught these games not only to students of theatre; she has spread them to classes in English, Physcology, centers to rehabilitate delinquents, and various other places. Spolin believes that the things gained from these games go beyond the typical classroom setting and she could not be more right. (Master Acting Teacher
Biographies: Viola Spolin)

There are various outside organizations that practice the art of improvisation and one of them is Second City that I had mentioned. Like mentioned, Second City is located in Chicago, Toronto, Detroit, and Los Angeles. It helped start the careers of comedians such as Bill Murray and the very funny, Mike Myers. When it started in 1959, people knew that it was going to be a place to be known. A comedy troupe from Second City still tours today, delivering

laughs and laughs again. (The Second City) Other Improvisation clubs are a little closer in region. One that comes to mind is, “The Idiot Box” located in Greensboro, North Carolina. A group of Idiot Boxers as they call themselves perform shows on Friday and Saturday night. On Friday there is a 10:00 PM showing and on Saturday, there is as an 8:00 and 10:00 PM showing. The 8:00 PM show is not necessarily geared towards a certain audience but it contains less suggestive tones, vulgarity, etc. (The Idiot Box) Another improvisation club in the region is the Charlotte Comedy Theater, located in Charlotte, North Carolina. Similar to “The Idiot Box”, the main improvisation shows on Fridays and Saturdays are available for viewing. However, their space also hosts local comedians and improv classes. (Charlotte Comedy Theatre) The founder and director of improvisation at the club, Keli Semelsberger, was great enough to answer some questions I had on improvisation, including her familiarity with Viola Spolin among other things. On Spolin, Semelsberger said, “I use a lot of [Spolin’s] exercises, but I lead my students to conclusions more directly than [Spolin] does.” Semelsberger continued with, “She’s a hero of mine and I would not be doing any of this if it were not for her groundbreaking work.” (Semelsberger) On quite a larger scale improvisation group, “Improv Everywhere” uses long form improvisation to, “cause scenes of chaos and joy in public places.” (Todd) I would say that they accomplish that by proof of some of their bizarre stunts. One stunt in particular that has certainly garnered a lot of attention is the “Grand Central Station Freeze.” With almost 14,000,000 views on the popular video site, You Tube, Grand Central Station Freeze took 207 volunteers to hold a pose for five

minutes in Grand Central Station and then when the time was up, they would continue walking like nothing had happened. (Todd) Does it have a true purpose? That is questionable, but it was a lot of fun and got a lot of attention. It got Improv Everywhere’s name out more than it ever was before. The group actually filmed a pilot for the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) but it didn’t get picked up. Improv Everywhere started in August of 2001 and is still running strong. (Todd) A lot of its strength comes from the support of its fans and I think that it’s safe to say that Semelsberger is one saying, “I think [Improv Everywhere] is one of the greatest movements and we hope to start something similar here in Charlotte just for fun. I have not been involved but only recently found out about it. I think it's awesome and courageous.” In addition to groups and clubs that are dedicated to improvisation, improvisation is seen on a larger scale throughout the national media as well. When you put improvisation and television show in the same sentence, “Whose Line is it Anyway?” usually comes to mind. The show that lasted from 1998-2006, introduced the term, “improvisation” to homes across America that they otherwise were unfamiliar with. Appearing on almost every episode of the show hosted by Drew Carey, Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie, and Wayne Brady were the regular performers. ("Whose Line Is It Anyway -") Semelsberger enjoys Whose Line is it Anyway?, but would like to see more female improvisers on the show as she says that there are, “some brilliant ones out there.” (Semelsberger) On the Internet Movie Database, Whose Line is it Anyway? has an average rating of 9.2 out of ten from over 3,400 IMDB users which not only exemplifies its

popularity but also its level of enjoyment. Its popularity did not hold up forever though as it was canceled due to declining ratings. ("Whose Line Is It Anyway?") Another improvisation show hit prime time in 2007 with the show, Thank God You’re Here. The short lived U.S. version of the popular Australian show had a simple concept. There are four performers who walk into a live sketch with a unique setting with the absence of a script. When one of the performers walks in the door, the others say, “Thank God You’re Here!” and the improvised sketch continues. ("Thank God You're Here") However, “continue” is something that the show did not due for long. Due to poor ratings, the show ended after only seven episodes. (2007 Cancelled Shows: Several NBC Cancellations) It’s popularity was a weak point and so much so that my interviewee, Keli Semelsberger who has performed improv for over 13 years had never heard of it despite it airing on NBC.

Improvisation can appear in the national media without being the

focal point of a particular show such as the ones I have discussed. In fact, the “Amazing Race” on CBS has little to do with improv but it did capture a team using the art of improv in order to get closer to winning the $1 million dollar prize. During an episode of season 12 entitled, Let’s Name Our Chicken Phil, dating goths Kynt Cothran and Vyxsin Fiala had to impress a panel of local celebrities in Burkina Faso with a performance a local dance they had learned in order to be granted a clue so that they could proceed with the race. Before the dance began, Cothran told Fiala that he would improv a little bit and it certainly paid off. The panel as well as other locals responded with claps, laughter, and smiles. The judge who gave them the clue to proceed said, “Congratulations, you were

wonderful.” If the dance had been unsuccessful, they would have had to learn the moves again and perform until the panel was satisfied. Kynt’s improvisation certainly contributed in putting his team ahead of some of the others. (The Amazing
Race: Let's Name Our Chicken Phil (Episode 12.04))

I had the opportunity to talk with

Kynt via Facebook chat and regarding the race, Kynt said, “We live to race. The show is over but we are still racing… constantly traveling and having adventures and meeting as many people as possible. It’s not a TV show for us, it’s our actual lifestyle.” When I talked with Cothran, I could tell that moments through out the race such as the improvised dance were highlights that he and Vyxsin Fiala will never forget. “Sure, [the prize] is a nice thing, but we never compromised our values or friendship over it.” (Cothran) This quote from my conversation with Kynt Cothran exemplifies exactly what Spolin believed improvisation could elicit from a person. As already mentioned, Spolin believed that things learned from her games and improvisation in general could go beyond the class room setting. Spolin also believed that improvisation is not all fun and games. I agree with her. My interviewee, Keli Semelsberger does as well. Improvisation helped Semelsberger tremendously with a problem that anyone taking a stage should have to overcome. Semelsberger says, “I was a corporate trainer and had terrible problems with stage freight, though around my friends I was the life of the party. So I started improv classes in Chicago, and fell in love with the art form and the people it draws.” Improv helped Semelsberger open up and be able to go onstage without fear and she believes that this art can do even more than that.

When I asked why is good to be a part of improvisation, Semelsberger said, “Because it is a community of people that all play by the same rules. The main rules being to embrace and build on other people's ideas. Everyone is important, and needed and validated in improv. When you belong to a group where the social contract is about acceptance and making each other look good, and expanding on the ideas of others, you grow in ways that reach far beyond the art itself.” When Semelsberger said that “you can grow in ways that reach far beyond the art itself”, it was almost as if Spolin had asked her to say that due to how closely related their own philosophies are. Semelsberger continues with, “Improv is a living - breathing art form, you can learn the skills, but it will always be different, always be new and you never know what will happen. You will never have your worst show or your best. It will always be a challenge, and it will always bring you and others joy. You can't ever master it; there is no destination, just a journey in improvisation.” (Semelsberger) Learned with the wise thinking of Spolin and Semelsberger, we know that improvisation can help with anything from stage fright to self confidence. Hence the reason that Spolin took her games to Physcology and English classes as well as centers to rehabilitate deliquints and why Semelsberger decided to become involved with improvisation in the first place. However, a key component involved is that the individual who is participating in it has to put forth an effort. According to Semelsberger, one must have “the ability to be real, to surrender to the process, to other players, to the form.” (Semelsberger)

Improvisation is an art form that goes beyond the classroom. It has a genuine purpose as learned through research and experience; whether it be used strictly for entertainment such as in small comedy clubs and primetime television shows or even in an attempt to help individuals to grow as a person and discover aspects of themselves that had not before. With the importance that improvisation serves, its modern founder, Viola Spolin and her groundbreaking principles deserve more credit than the average person would ever think to give. “All improv techniques have some root in Spolin philosophy or practice, like all music has its roots in the blues.” (Semelsberger) Keli Semelsberger could not have said it better.

Research Citations Book Source
Spolin, Viola. Theater Games For The Classroom: A Teacher’s Handbook. Illinois: Northwest University Press, 1986.

Internet Sources
Schwartz, Gary. “Improv Training of Viola Spolin the Mother of Improvisation.” The Spolin Center. 14 June 2008. Intuitive Learning Systems. 5 Oct 2008 <>. Anonymous. ""Thank God You're Here" (2007) - Plot Summary." The Internet Movie Database. 2008. 30 Nov 2008 <>. Anonymous, "2007 Cancelled Shows: Several NBC Cancellations." TV Series Finale. 14 May 2007. 30 Nov 2008 <>. Todd, Charlie. “FAQ at Improv Everywhere” 20 Oct 2008. Improv Everwhere. 10 Nov 2008. <> Anonymous, "Whose Line Is It Anyway:Summary." 2008. 30 Nov 2008 <>. Anonymous, "Main Cast." Charlotte Comedy Theater. 2008. 25 Nov 2008 <>. Moffit, D.E.. "Master Acting Teacher Biographies: Viola Spolin." The Jason Bennett Actor's Workshop: Acting Classes in New York City. 2008. Jason Bennet Actor's Workshop. 16 Nov 2008 <>. Anonymous, ""Whose Line Is It Anyway (1998) - Trivia." Internet Movie Database. 2008. Internet Movie Database. 30 Nov 2008 <>. Anonymous, "The Second City." The Second City. 2008. The Second City. 16 Nov 2008 <>.

Interview Sources

Semelsberger, Keli. Email Interview. 24/November/2008

Cothran, Kynt. Facebook Chat. 25/November/2008

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