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Gary Schwartz

Gary Schwartz

Gary Schwartz is a former student of Viola Spolin and the only teacher to earn an endorsement from both her and her son, Paul Sills. He is the founder of Intuitive Learning Systems and Improv Odyssey devoted to exploring, and expanding the work of his Mentor,

The Art of Sidecoaching

Written by Gary Schwartz on . Posted in Gary Schwartz, Improvisation, Spolin Games, Team Building, Theater Games, Viola Spolin

The most subtle and essential element in Spolin Games is sidecoaching. The sidecoach is at once a fellow player, a grounded teacher and a canny director.

Sidecoaching is as much a skill as it is an art. It therefore requires the same intuitive ability evoked by playing. In addition, the sidecoach has to also be familiar with the advanced levels of playing. This means a good sidecoach must have a substantial amount of experience playing most of the Games in Spolin’s canon, hopefully with a good sidecoach to help you make the most of them. I was lucky. I had Viola Spolin herself as a coach and mentor.

Where can a teacher gain this experience?

What Does it Mean to Improvise?

Written by Gary Schwartz on . Posted in Improvisation, Spolin Games, Team Building, Theater Games, Viola Spolin

“Creativity is not the clever rearranging of the known.” – Viola Spolin

Creativity is a state that allows us to touch the unknown and to bring it into the phenomenal world: To make the invisible visible.

The unknown is a territory that holds all possibilities, until it is revealed. The act of revealing – that is creativity.

Unknown areas are full of lure, yet, like deepest, darkest Africa once upon a time, it appears as a fearful place; a place of mystery, full of danger, mythologized into a place where one is destroyed, devoured, and never heard from again. Many fear the unknown. Ah, but once opened up to the light of day and fully explored, Africa is a wondrous, exotic place and part of the known world. Bravo to the brave explorers. Are you among them? Dr. Livingston, I presume?

Does Teaching Mean you have to be Mean?

Written by Gary Schwartz on . Posted in Gary Schwartz, Improvisation, Viola Spolin

Michael wrote as a comment to another post:

Is it my imagination or did a lot of the famous improv teachers yell at their students? Sounds like Viola did.
People said Del Close was often a huge dick to his students.
Keith Johnstone was famous for calling a student’s work horrible and telling them to get off the stage. I’ve heard other stories of popular teachers being mean.
Am I missing something? I would never yell at my students and I think even the worst scenes usually have some crumb of quality that can be noted.

Should I start being meaner?

My answer:

I took Viola’s yelling to be her passion. She never once used the word good  or bad  or horrible  or any other judgmental word.    She was all about what you did – Objectively, not subjectively, albeit with a raised voice sometimes.

Paul Sills on the other hand could be more scathing. He had Viola’s temper but not the same awareness that evaluation in a loud voice is meant to help rather than hurt.

I once asked Paul why he did that. He told me “I don’t know what to tell them. I’m a director, not a teacher. I want to shake them up and maybe something will happen.”

He was indeed a teacher but his manner had some anger in it.  I took that to mean ‘you are trespassing on the sacred’ and it angered him more than prompted him to solve the problem of the unaware student.

The Trouble With “Yes, And…”

Written by Gary Schwartz on . Posted in Gary Schwartz, Improvisation, Spolin Games, Theater Games, Viola Spolin

“Information is a very weak form of communication” – Spolin

I have been working with Spolin Games for the last thirty years. I first began in an improv comedy class learning how to be fast and funny with a group of very talented actors, who are still playing today (Off the Wall LA). Then, by happy accident, I encountered Viola Spolin and her genius for improvisation. Since then I have been exploring the ideas that she used to create the first improvisational technique to create Improv Theater.

I have studied other forms of Improv styles over the years. I’ve taken classes from many improv teachers since Viola Spolin and even performed for several years in a group that use Keith Johnstone’s Impro formats and ideas. I have also met and worked briefly with Keith Johnstone and watched the master of Impro at work.

What I am about to discuss, comes not from any condescension or blind loyalty to Spolin’s work, but a considered opinion based on all my experiences in the world of Improvisation as teacher and student.

Improvisation has swept the world since Spolin and Sills introduced the form in the 1950’s. Since then, it has changed and been adapted and shaped by other thinkers, teachers, and students. Among them Del Close, Johnstone, Dudley Riggs, and Second City.

Playing Creates Community

Written by Gary Schwartz on . Posted in Gary Schwartz, Improvisation, Spolin Games, Team Building, Theater Games, Viola Spolin

In our ever more complex and technological era, true person to person interaction is lost as we interact with each other via technology instead. (witness this blog) The technological revolution has brought us closer in one respect, but the need to interact in a wholesome way within our local community, person to person, is still vital.

Viola Spolin called her work Kindergarten for the 21st century. What she meant is that her work represents the fundamental skills needed for both actor and audience to meet and interact in a new and basic way.

We meet as fellow players and learn from and depend on each other to create meaningful play. The audience plays too. Nobody is a passive player in Spolin’s theater. This essence of play creates true community.

Her work transcends the theater in this regard. Her work is way to become ‘part of the whole’. It is a way to shed the ills of the 20th Century; Ills such as authoritarian teaching and rote learning. Spolin called this the Approval/Disapproval Syndrome and classified it as the basic obstacle to a true relation with ourselves, our environment, and each other.

How I Met Viola Spolin

Written by Gary Schwartz on . Posted in Gary Schwartz, Improvisation, Spolin Games, Theater Games, Viola Spolin

Posted by: 


My First Encounter with the Mother of Improvisation

I was living in Hollywood, tending bar, performing comedy and mime in local cafes and trying to break into show business like thousands of other hopefuls from all over the country.

A dear friend of mine called from Potsdam University. He told me he was doing a paper on Viola Spolin, the author of “Improvisation for the Theater” the basic handbook of improvisation. He said that Viola Spolin had a center in Hollywood and would I go and check it out and get him some information.

Why I had never heard of this woman? Her name was never mentioned in any of the professional improv workshops I attended in LA. If she invented this form why don’t people involved in the profession give her credit?

I began studying improv in 1976. I came to LA and began workshopping with a group called “Off the Wall” (still performing). They were a very funny and quick bunch. It was fun, fast paced and very nerve wracking for me. We did Freeze Tag and other funny character scenes. I’d try my damndest to wing it and look for opportunities to insert my humor and wit. Although I had fun and felt it was worthwhile, it was very much like taking a fencing class filled with tension. All the players in this workshop viewed each other with a sort-of friendly competition. We were a group of people who had developed various ways of being funny and sort of sparred with each other. To my credit, I was able to hold my own among these very fast witted and funny people.

I found myself outside the Pilot Theater onSanta Monica Blvd., asking if there was any information on this Viola Spolin. A former student of hers was conducting the workshops on her behalf and told me I’d get more information by taking a workshop with him. I agreed and began attending this workshop.

A Sense of Urgency

Written by Gary Schwartz on . Posted in Gary Schwartz, Improvisation, Spolin Games, Theater Games, Viola Spolin

Using Slow Motion to counteract Urgency

This happened to me in an early workshop with Viola when we were working on The Where:

The scene is a spaceship. I’m the navigator. Andy is the captain, and we have two prisoners from another planet on board. I sit placidly at my controls downstage. The captain yells a heading like a pirate.

“Sou.. by SouWest!”

I say, “Sou by sou west, aye!”  I think to myself that’s what he wanted me to say – but shouldn’t it sound like a numbers and degrees and bearing call? Now I’m thinking of how to add to that in when one of the prisoners says “There’s no south in space!” I think ‘is that a denial?’ I at least know enough at this point in my training to not deny.

I continue to think to myself, ‘Who do I support? What does Captain Andy say to that? Should I say something?’  I think if I support the prisoner – the scene could go into a mutiny, which would be funny. Or do I defend my captain and create an opportunity for doing a captured prisoner scene? I’m so busy thinking to myself, I disconnect. Andy says something I miss.

The prisoner then shouts, “My people are coming for us!”

I don’t know what to do so I say “What should I do Captain?”

Viola yells out a side coach. “No Questions!!”

Tales of Viola Spolin

Written by Gary Schwartz on . Posted in Uncategorized

How Viola Spolin Helped Me Overcome Self-Pity

“Poor me. Nobody loves me.” Underneath my cheerful façade, underneath my very well developed sense of humor, I walked aroundHollywoodwith that deeply embedded in my soul. I was working as a bartender, ministering to and medicating others’ pain with banter and booze while chasing the dream of being an actor in LA along with thousands of others.

My story is typical: I was the product of a childhood filled with family dysfunction – family chaos: Parents who did their best, but were totally unequipped to bring up a child with love and kindness. Instead, they were angry, spiteful and self-involved children themselves, who had created a family before they knew what they were doing. They resented the fact that they were now saddled with children and responsibility. They raised me and my brother and sisters with anger and resentment. How could they not? My childhood sucked. They loved me in their own way I guess, but as a child, I couldn’t see it. Poor me.