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).

When the student decides the scene is not working, the ‘head’ (judgement) takes over and the player withdraws from the problem, urgency is usually the first symptom.

Viola used to call, “No Urgency!” when she saw the players had something going on but the momentum of the scene verged on getting out of control. I know for myself, when I heard her coach “We have all the time in the world”, I felt relieved: In many situations, I felt the need to “make something happen.” Often I would be in a scene with other players who seemed to me to “not get it”. I would try to do more and more, give them more ‘offers’ to compensate. I realize now that I was in my head, (assuming they were not going to help the situation or make it worse). I didn’t trust them. I was disconnected from them, and so I abandoned them to serve my own need to make a good scene.

When Viola would call “Slow Motion!” or “No urgency!” or “Pause!”  I took my time.  I had more presence of mind to ‘help my fellow player’ by playing with them rather than helping the scene by playing for them. This was a common problem for me as a player.

When you see players speeding up in action or relying on a steady stream of dialogue, or not really seeing their fellow players, be aware that they are urgent – worried that nothing is happening and will try to move the scene forward by adding information. “Making offers” it is called in current improv-speak.  It will usually take the form of adding story points (narrative) or telling the players and the audience what’s going on.

Try using coaches to alert/divert them to ‘use your where!’  That may ground them and connect them to the environment. Once focused on the where, players usually reconnect with each other because they have something to share other than their ideas.

Be on the lookout for players talking about the place they are in rather than being in it and using it. Excessive dialogue is no substitute for a solid focus on the where.  If they continue to not see the space, then you could call the scene to an end and go back and work with more space and where exercises. Or you could have them play some other focus that will distract them from play-writing.

“Gibberish” for example breaks the dependency on telling. It forces players to communicate with their whole bodies.  Or “Pause! See your fellow player in the space! See them with your chest! See them with your feet!” It will all depend on your understanding of the players and your own feeling about what their resistance might be.

Calling “Freeze!” does not help. In fact it stops any energy there was in the scene. “Freeze! Now do this! Or “Don’t do that!” will reveal you to be the dictator! Even if done with the best of intentions, you are actually robbing the players of any opportunity to get out their heads and back in the space. This does nothing to connect the players. During “Freeze,” players are usually in their heads, play-writing and trying to think of clever offers and ways to implement their ideas. At this point everyone is a director and no one is a fellow player.

You as a director/sidecoach must be aware of the tendency to be urgent yourself. I know that is one of my issues. If you call “slow motion”,  go into slow motion with the players. It will help you both.

“Slowwww Motionnn!”is a great sidecoach. It usually reduces the sense of urgency and is more a direct solution than appealing to the intellectual sense of the player’s understanding that something is needed to make something happen.   Remember to release the player from Slow Motion when you see they are reconnected to the scene – or not… You might get an interesting scene out of a completely slow motion scene.

Everything is possible once the players are connected and in the space.

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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,

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