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

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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!!”