The Language of Authority

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

Do this, don’t do that! Like this! Here’s how I want it! That’s better! That’s rotten! That’s not funny! Now that was FUNNY! That’s what I want! – spoken by a director at a recent improv workshop I attended.

If you teach or direct, you must be mindful of your role as leader and work to be a fellow player rather than the Authority, Know-it-all, etc.

There is great power in words. Choice of words can influence how relationships are determined. The use of some words to represent direction by improv teachers and coaches can be very destructive. Spolin was highly conscious of this vocabulary of authority and strove to counteract the unconscious use of such words often replacing “don’t” (a command from outside) with “avoid” (self-responsibility); “critique” (subjective opinion) with “evaluation” (objective reality).

A side-coach of “Help your fellow player play the game!” encourages mutual trust and attention by each individual to the group as a whole. It also breaks dependency on the teacher by the students and vice versa. These phrases are used consciously, to create a language of peerage and trust rather than a dependency on authority by “those who know.” i.e., teachers and directors or even senior members of a troupe of players. It is a very subtle point, but one of enormous consequence.

Show! Don’t Tell!

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

Interpretation and assumption keep the player from direct communication. This is why we say “show, don’t tell”. Telling is verbally or in some other indirect way indicating what one is doing. This then puts the work upon the audience or the fellow actor, and the student learns nothing. Showing means direct contact and direct communication. It does not mean passively pointing to something. – from Tips and Pointers, Improvisation for the Theater 3rd Edition, Viola Spolin Northwestern University Press.

When you don’t see where you are, all you can do is talk about it.

You get a suggestion for a scene:
Who – A husband and wife.   Where – at Disneyland.   What – waiting to get on a ride.

Most players will begin the scene with dialogue something like this.

Husband:  Well, well, dear isn’t this nice. Look! There’s the Matterhorn. Hi Mickey!

Wife:  Sweetie, Let’s go on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride after this.

Husband: Do we have to? I’m tired honey, can we sit down?

What’s wrong with that, you ask? Nothing really. Except they told in dialogue what they should have been seeing (and didn’t) and they also told their relationship by calling each other honey and dear. After all, that’s what indicates to the audience that there is a husband and wife relationship, right? Where do you go from here? It is likely you’ll use Yes, And… and add more information. Maybe there’s an earthquake or Mickey starts hitting on the wife – and you’d have a pretty funny scene.

But what if you showed where you were and showed you were married rather than telling the audience what they just told you?

Commentary on Spolin’s Tips and Pointers

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

Viola wrote a collection of thoughts and musings on teaching that were developed for the text of her book, “Improvisation for the Theater”, but were to be left out of the final edit. She kept these ideas in a shoe box for insertion and elucidation at a later date. Rather than keep them on the cutting room floor, she considered them valuable enough to include in the book simply as ‘tips and pointers’.

I repeat them here with of my own commentary in the hope that teachers may get more fully involved in the teaching and coaching of Spolin’s games.

  1. Do not rush student-actors. Some students particularly need to feel unhurried. When necessary, quietly coach. “Take your time.” “We all have lots of time.” “We are with you.”

This deals with the common problem of urgency. Many students panic in an improvised scene because they get overwhelmed; they feel the need to move the scene forward; they feel nervous and judged (in their own mind or for real, as many directors make opinions on a player’s ability and that is picked up by the student).

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.

Beginner’s Mind

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

Beginner’s Mind

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities,
but in the expert’s there are few… Zen master Shunryu Suzuki

Beginner’s mind is experiencing a thing for the first time. “Firsts” are always memorable. Improvisation is a constant search for ‘first times’.

I once did a wonderful improv scene in Viola’s class using the game of “What’s Beyond?”

What’s Beyond is a game where you keep some event, past or the future, alive (in No-Motion[1]) without ever bringing it on stage or referring to it directly in dialogue. Yet, the holding of the “What’s Beyond” colors the scene and produces a very dramatic, dynamic scene.

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 Genius of Preoccupation

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

Spolin’s pathway to the Unknown

The [Spolin’s Theater Games] exercises are artifices against artificiality, structures designed to almost fool spontaneity into being–or perhaps a frame carefully built to keep out interferences in which the player waits. Important in the game is the ‘ball’ — the FOCUS, a technical problem, sometimes a double technical problem which keeps the mind (a censoring device) so busy rubbing its stomach and its head in opposite directions, so to speak, the genius [spontaneity], unguarded ‘happens’.
–Tung, in Film Quarterly

Viola Spolin intuited an important principle while developing her ideas of improvisation — Preoccupation.  Preoccupation games involve paying attention to more than one focus.  By integrating two or more disparate activities in a game the whole self is activated and a doorway to the intuition or X-area[i] opens up.

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?

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.