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.

One of my pet peeves is when I hear people talk about the principles of Improvisation is “Get used to failure” or “Celebrate failure” or “Expect to fail quite a lot”.  We all fear failing because we are conditioned in our culture to respond to what Viola called the Approval/Disapproval Syndrome. To some degree we all seek the praise and approval of others and wish to be seen as ‘good’. That means on some level we all fear the disapproval of others and want to avoid being bad.

When you lay in fear, you cripple people. – Viola Spolin.

This ‘Get used to failure’ principle is meant to allay people’s fear of failure.  You say “Don’t worry about it. Feel that fear and do it anyway.”  By mentioning failure you make it part of the premise of improv training. In a way, you make fear an important prerequisite. Tony Robbins refers to this idea of misplaced attention in one of his talks. He says “Ask a race car driver to drive as fast as he can and keep his eyes on the track, but tell him also to watch out for that wall at the quarter mile turn. What does he look at?  – The wall!”  Bringing up the notion of failure is like mentioning the wall.  It keeps students focused on it and makes it an unnecessary hurdle.

Success/Failure is a paradigm that Spolin avoids. This one idea distracts us from joy of the process, and lays in fear. It also sets us up for becoming competitive and seeking a successful result. This can affect the teacher/director who, with the best of intentions, will try to steer students towards their idea of success, praising students for successful scenes and criticizing (or critiquing) the failures. In doing so the teacher unwittingly sets up the students to be mindful of success and failure.

Spolin Games is not about Success or Failure. It’s about fun. Playing creates shared energy and a psychological and social condition that activate our intuition, and makes us part of the whole in a dynamic way that needs no explanation other than the rules.

When you play the game of Tag, you try not to be it, but if you are tagged, you become ‘It’ – you respond happily to being tagged by quickly tagging someone else and making them  ‘it’. Everyone enjoys the game in this way. In presenting the game of Tag you simply start out by saying “Not it!” and the last person to say “not it” is “it” and bam! – the game starts.  Everyone runs around and enjoys the chase and the challenge. We don’t judge it: “It” or “Not it” – it’s all part of the game. Someone has to be “it” and is happy to be “it” and equally happy to make someone else “it”.  The whole game is fun and we play until we tire of it. Not when there’s a looser and a winner. We play Tag for the fun of it.

But if you introduce the game by saying, “Now we are going to play Tag. Some of you will be caught and have to be “it”. Don’t be so concerned with your failure at remaining free, but seek to make someone else ‘it’. You were not good enough to avoid it. Go with it. Accept it. Try hard to tag someone else.”

Now when you are tagged, you think “Oh, shit! I’m it! Dammit! I don’t want to be it! How stupid of me to be caught. I’m not very good at this am I? I failed. Oh, well, I should get used to it. It’s all part of the game.”

The physical action is the same in both cases, but the focus is different. Somehow it’s not as much fun.  Of course Tag is fun. It’s just fun – Period.  You cannot succeed or fail at Tag unless you don’t play.  It sounds silly, but it is an important point.

Can you imagine a workshop where you have Tag – level 1, Intermediate Tag and Advanced Tagging? Play is democratic.  This is one reason why Viola allowed players with varying levels of skill in her workshops. Evaluating someone on their merits as ‘talented’ was not her aim. Her goal was to get everybody playing to the fullest. In that state, everyone has what it takes.

Fun is the key

A fundamental premise in workshop is to have as much fun as possible. It is essential for optimal learning.  Viola knew that games are intrinsically fun and therefore the perfect form to address the problems of working on stage.

When she talks in her books about creating a good workshop atmosphere, she refers to creating the conditions all games require.

  • Freedom to play with enthusiasm and joy
  • A willingness to play by the rules
  • An eagerness to accept the challenge
  • To enjoy playing for the sheer fun of it

The goal is having fun!  She never dealt in terms of success and failure – only with questions of focus. Were you able to play or were you in your head?  If you were in your head, alright, so be it.

“I don’t want to know why you were in your head!” she’d often say. “There’s always a reason. I’m sure you’ve got very good reasons. I’m not interested in them.” Her focus was to get you out of your head.

When you were in the space, the zone, and really playing, there was no need to do anything but celebrate it and shout hooray!  Nothing more is needed. No analysis or deconstructing or debriefing. On to the next game!

When you don’t have time to consider the risks or introspect on the value of the activity, you’ll have more fun. The stakes are what they are (very low) but because the nature of game playing is such that everyone takes them seriously in order for the game to work. The act of playing shuts off the valuing aspect in our head. There simply is no time for it as our entire being is caught up in the organic response to the playing and the enjoyment of the activity.

My two cents…

As a teacher, strive to make every game presented and played in this way.  Coach accordingly. Avoid telling your students they’ve done well and don’t tell them why you think they’ve done poorly. You are reinforcing Approval/Disapproval in yourself and in them. Some students will literally beg you for it. They want that ‘pat on the head’. They are conditioned to work for it and value it more than the fun they’ve had. Don’t be tempted. It can make you feel important to hold their worth in your hands and you will even feel good about your dispensing your praise and critique, but you are trapped in the same syndrome.  Beware of it. “Don’t do anything about it, but don’t not do anything about it.” as Viola would say.

Begin every workshop with a warm-up game like Tag or Kitty wants a Corner or Red Light-Green Light – any game that is completely fun for its own sake.
When introducing any subsequent game or exercise, do so with the same goal. Present it as another fun experience, regardless.  Your players will all enjoy solving the problem if it is presented to them as another opportunity to have fun.  They won’t feel the pressure of facing their fear.  Or if they do, that’s between them and them. At least you didn’t address it and add to the pressure.  Eventually, having enough fun will dissipate the fear. Also, there’s no need to deconstruct or debrief the game if it works. That is just gilding the lily. Let the game teach. You stay out of it.

A penny lecture comforts the teacher more than the student. – Viola Spolin

If a game doesn’t work, don’t belabor the point. You may have overestimated their readiness for a particular game, or maybe the game was not so much fun for reasons you should be aware of. I.e., presentation, poor coaching, you chose a game that is not appropriate for the workshop.  That’s your job as a teacher.  Are your students working for the fun of the game or for your approval?  I know for me, I want every student to ‘get it’ so much, I sometimes over coach. It is my desire for a successful outcome that gets in the way.  It spoils the fun.  Avoid using the word “risk” for the same reason. Risk implies sacrificing something and thus engenders a level of fear.

Omit the words ‘failure’ and ‘risk’ from your workshops and you increase the likelihood of creative growth for both you and your students.

Have fun.

That’s my advice for what it’s worth.

Gary Schwartz

Trackback from your site.

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,

Leave a comment