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An important innovator of 20th century theater, Viola Spolin is often called the “mother of modern improvisation.” She authored the bestselling book “Improvisation for the Theater,” which has been referred to as the Bible of improvisational theater. Spolin created directorial techniques to help actors focus on the present moment and make creative choices through improvisation. She called these exercises Theater Games, which her book details along with her philosophy.

Who was Viola Spolin?

In the 1930s, Spolin initially created her theater games on the South Side of Chicago while teaching drama to immigrant children of various cultural and ethnic backgrounds. The games served several purposes. They were designed to take the emphasis off of “acting,” and instead focus the students’ attention on the game itself, diminish their self-consciousness, unleash their creativity, and allow them to act more naturally on stage. Spolin could see the games breaking down barriers and bonding people closer together. Certainly, the games became the highlight on stage, as they frequently made for the most fresh and humorous moments.

In 1946, Spolin founded a children’s theater troupe called Young Actors Company in Hollywood. Her son, director Paul Sills, used his mother’s approach and expanded upon her work by forming Chicago’s Second City, which shaped comedians Tina Fey, Bill Murray, Whoopi Goldberg, John Belushi, Amy Poehler, and Steve Carell, among countless others. Viola later worked in Los Angeles directing children’s theater, and in addition to leading workshops for the screen and theater, she founded the Spolin Theater Game Center in 1976 to train professional instructors to teach her techniques. She passed away in 1994 at the age of 88.

Theater Games

Spolin prioritized what the students were doing on stage, rather than on the lines they were saying. Using open-ended, cooperative games, she never would tell students how to do something. Whatever creative choice a student made was never “right” or “wrong.” Rather, it was about expression, action, and taking the focus off of oneself, always with the goal of giving the students a new experience and an opportunity to listen to their intuition. As Spolin used to say, “I think that the creative act must transform the one who is in it—not what he produces but what happens to him or her?”

Here are three of Spolin’s Theater Games:

  • Contact

Actors may only speak when making physical contact with a scene partner, and they must continue to invent and initiate a new way of touching each time. This game serves as a reminder to express oneself physically, and to not just rely on saying the lines. Spolin’s granddaughter, Aretha Sills, recalls how the game came about: “[Viola] was working with teens who would never touch each other, so she created a game where if they needed to speak on stage … they had to make physical contact with the fellow player. So of course they do just hands or whatever.” But then Spolin would say, “No more hands, find a different way to make contact and incorporate it into the scene,” continuously restricting their contact options to increase creativity and intuition.

Two performers improvise a conversation in a made-up language, while a third, and sometimes a fourth, actor interprets their words, giving context about the story for the audience. This game cultivates a psychological and emotional bond between the actors, the interpreter(s), and the audience.

  • Mirror Speech

Two people, one designated the initiator and the other the mirror, stand face-to-face. The mirror exactly copies the words and movements of the initiator. This exercise requires keen focus on a partner. Spolin would then say, “Switch,” whereby the initiator and mirror would switch roles, seamlessly continuing with their momentum. See Mirror Speech in action in Spolin’s 1982 workshop. Regarding mirror games, Spolin insists, “[Participants] had a feeling of oneness. Now what’s nicer than having a feeling of oneness? When you’re standing all alone in a crowd, right? When you’re all alone in a school room. Or you’re all alone wherever. And following the follower does produce a unity and a union.”

Spolin said of her games, “The thing is if you had a problem, you can use a game. You’re taking us out of the head—we’ve got to think about it, and the boredom—and you’re getting it into the body—body, mind, intuition. That’s what we’re after: body, mind, intuition.”