Archive for September, 2012

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.

Short Form and Long Form are the Same

Written by Gary Schwartz on . Posted in Uncategorized

The distinction between short form and long form is a development that stems from the going awry or misunderstanding the focus of a game. These terms get bandied about as if they are two separate disciplines. They are not.

Spolin used these games as exercises to help players enter into that space where who, what and where merge into spontaneous theater.

Once players are able to establish and maintain the focus, the game will take as long as it takes. All plays and short scenes are about solving of problems. Scenes have problems that combine to make a play. The play presents a larger canvas to house the individual scenes.

The short form, or simple game, if misunderstood, allows actors to resist the focus and use their heads to make something ‘stage-worthy’. Gimmicks, jokes and the other stuff people complain about in this work is just a simple avoiding of the true focus.

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.