The Difference between Spolin Games and Popular Improv

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

Over 50 years ago Viola Spolin, created a philosophy that is more relevant and needed today than it has ever been. She called it Theater Games. It created a movement in America and the world over that is now commonly called improvisation or Improv.

Her work deals in experiential learning. Where, with the support of a good sidecoach, playing the game becomes the teacher.  It is rooted in direct experience that lifts us out of our traditional roles and puts us in touch with our authentic self, each other and our circumstances.

Spolin’s improvisation training provides a way for people of different cultures, with different life experiences, to work together collaboratively to achieve productive outcomes.  It is a way for individuals to participate fully and authentically in the solving of problems. It is a path to innovation and inspiration and personal commitment[1]. That was how Spolin conceived of improvisation, but the word has come to mean something else.

The Seduction of the Teacher

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

The Trap

“Students who regard an instructor highly will tend to adopt that instructor’s attitudes, orientations, and values.  This is a seductive phenomenon because it can lead to the ego-enhancement of instructors who have not reached full psychological maturity.  This ‘ego-stroking’ can then motivate instructor behaviors which do not have the personal development of participants as their primary aim.  This pitfall is even wider and deeper than might be initially suspected because the instructor may be only vaguely aware or not aware at all that this is happening.  Unknowingly acting for the sake of ego-enrichment instead of for educational reasons, is an insidious risk…” [1][GS1] 

Imagine twenty or thirty students all preoccupied with success or failure in a subject, bent on getting all the right answers in order to pass the subject, all wanting to please the teacher who knows all the right answers, who sits kindly or severely in judgment of all who face him/her. This could be you. It used to be me.

No Fail No Fear

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

This post was published to Improv Odyssey at 9:22:00 PM 7/25/2012


  I don’t believe in success and failure. – Viola Spolin.

We all approach new things with some trepidation. I’ve been told by new students that they are there in the workshop because Improv terrifies them and they want to face that fear. Bravo to them for their courage, but ‘sheesh!” I tell them that they need not worry. My workshop is not terrifying. In fact it is the opposite. It’s fun.

Fun is the antidote to fear. My goal is to get their mind completely off their fear by making the workshop more fun than fearful. Rather than talking about the value of the work or reassuring them that it’s not all that scary, I start by playing a game right away. Playing reveals that better than any lecture.

Dependency on authority obstructs players from directly experiencing self and the worldViola Spolin.

The Power of Play and the Need for Playing

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

The spirit of play develops social adaptability, ethics, mental and emotional control, and imagination. These are the more complex adjustments a child learns through play. In play there are adjustments to new situations constantly: Play experience can prepare the person for purposefulness in non-play activities, for true play creates the incentive to use one’s best ability:Ththrough play a person can develop a pattern of self-reliance and self-confidence. Neva L. Boyd, from the essay, A Theory of Play (Simon, 1971)

Something viewed as fun instead of a chore erases any expectation of judgment or the approval or disapproval of others.

Play creates a happy emotional condition of the organism-as-a-whole.
Play involves social values, as does no other behavior.

Viola Spolin said, “Acting requires presence. Playing produces this state.” She could have said living full and joyously requires presence — and playing produces this state because when people are at play, the physical and mental state merge into a unified whole. devoted only to the problem at hand — the playing of the game.

After all. a game is just a problem or set of problems) that needs solving. When playing, the intuitive ability engages and the mind becomes fully focused on the problem that the game requires. Action and thought merge into an integrated consciousness to attend solely to the play activity.

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?

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.