Tonight WTTW’s Chicago Stories premiers “Inventing Improv,” a one-hour special about “Chicago’s greatest export,” improvisation, and its visionary creator, Viola Spolin. Writer/producer Jude Leak chronicles the journey of Spolin, the daughter of Russian immigrants who landed in Chicago and started as a social worker in the 1930s. Her family loved theater and games, so “Spark,” as she was called in her youth, saw the social benefits of imaginative play.
She also believed that democracy required an educated citizenry, including training in the arts. Spolin taught immigrant kids at Jane Addams Hull House to play theater games as a way to connect across cultural and language barriers, carving out sacred ground as well as the “Big Bang” moment for American improv.
After her own theater training at DePaul University and in New York, she, her second husband and two boys lived for a time in Los Angeles, continuing to evangelize about the power of her theater games. Brilliantly deadpan actor Bob Balaban, one of several notable alumni interviewed, said Spolin’s games moved actors away from intellect into instinct, and created a state of readiness, excitement and anticipation. Spolin’s son Paul returned to the Windy City for high school then college at the University of Chicago.
Paul Sills had watched his mother, her female friends, their children and her students play theater games for his entire life, so he started offering workshops during college since UofC didn’t have a theater program. Folks like Ed Asner, Mike Nichols and Elaine May participated, and they opened the Playwrights Theatre in 1953. The subsequent iteration, the Compass Players, opened two years later, and also explored the American value system and the hypocrisy of mass culture. The guiding principle of the shows was truth, not comedy. But the ensemble became exhausted creating a brand-new show every week, so began repeating some scenes and themes. The Second City’s current format of sketch developed via improv and improv itself debuted in 1959, and soon became a national phenomenon.
But the content, whether scripted or improvised, was created from Spolin’s games, because “you clarify the mess by playing a game,” says Second City stalwart Anne Libera. Spolin’s book Improvisation for the Theater, “200 games to navigate the world of imagination,” was published in 1963. Her curriculum was quickly integrated into the educational system as a novel way to make theater, and also spawned new troupes with its encouragement to “turn down the judging part of your brain.”
Second City alum Angela Shelton adds that Spolin’s work instantly gets rid of racial, religious, gender and other biases. The film notes that the original ensembles were boys clubs, and that female performers had to fight for slots and material. The documentary also sometimes veers more into the stories of Spolin’s son and other male co-creators. Her influence warrants more focus, perhaps even another hour, on Spolin’s own creativity and contributions.
Actor Alan Alda talks about how Spolin’s games informed his “serious” acting roles, and how her techniques continue to work in every aspect of society, including in corporate settings, with neurodiverse and incarcerated populations.
All interviewees, including those in the archival footage, agree that Viola Spolin originated a set of teaching tools that will live into the future, and will continue to have tsunami effects.
“Inventing Improv” is a Chicago Stories special, premiering at 8pm today, October 22, on WTTW Channel 11.
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