Tales of Viola Spolin

Written by Gary Schwartz on . Posted in Uncategorized

How Viola Spolin Helped Me Overcome Self-Pity

“Poor me. Nobody loves me.” Underneath my cheerful façade, underneath my very well developed sense of humor, I walked aroundHollywoodwith that deeply embedded in my soul. I was working as a bartender, ministering to and medicating others’ pain with banter and booze while chasing the dream of being an actor in LA along with thousands of others.

My story is typical: I was the product of a childhood filled with family dysfunction – family chaos: Parents who did their best, but were totally unequipped to bring up a child with love and kindness. Instead, they were angry, spiteful and self-involved children themselves, who had created a family before they knew what they were doing. They resented the fact that they were now saddled with children and responsibility. They raised me and my brother and sisters with anger and resentment. How could they not? My childhood sucked. They loved me in their own way I guess, but as a child, I couldn’t see it. Poor me.

As I grew up, I wanted to be an actor. I wanted to get out of my own life and into another, more interesting life. I wanted to be someone else and be rewarded for it with fame and love. That was my goal. A misguided motive for the theater, but there you have it.

When I arrived in Hollywood, I took acting classes and improv workshops – the usual regimen beginners do when starting out. I was a terrible actor. I was amateur and awkward and had no clue what the art of acting was really all about. Still, I was determined to make myself an Actor – capital “A”.

Things changed when I found myself in Viola Spolin’s ongoing Wednesday afternoon theater games workshop. (See the article: How I met Viola Spolin)

We went through many hours of different kinds of games and exercises in that first year. I did my best, but felt frustrated by much of it. I looked at the others in the workshop who seemed to do good work and envied their talent. They are really good actors, I thought. I am not.

“You’re trying to act,” Viola said to me. “You’re acting your head off! Don’t you see that? – It’s not about acting out or imitating. It’s about YOU being there! YOU! Not some idea of how you should be. That’s in your head!”

Intellectually, I knew what she was talking about, but had no clue how to avoid it. I reflexively had to ‘act’. I was in my head. I was not about to analyze my underlying problems (of which I was hardly aware anyway). Nor was Viola. She would often say, “This is not psycho-drama. I’m not interested in your personal emotions. I want to see the emotions and actions of the scene. Don’t work out your personal problems on my stage.”

No, my personal problems were my own cross to bear. I was busy covering up my feelings of inadequacy with humor and charm. (I’m sure I was not alone in this. If this rings a bell with you, dear reader, read on.) I thought, “That’s what you do in improv – use wit, humor and charm. Try to act like those others you see and admire.” Fake it, in other words.

We met once a week at the Cast Theater onEl Centro StreetnearMelrose. It was a small 99-seat theater a few blocks away fromParamountstudios. Ah, Paramount – it seemed to me a monolithic ivory tower of success that I would never penetrate, acting-wise. Maybe I could get a job there in the cafeteria or something. Poor me.

Week after week Viola witnessed my struggle to do good work in her class. Sometimes she would yell at me “What am I going to do with you?” I was tempted to ask ‘what should I do, then?’ But I knew better. You never asked “how to” in Viola Spolin’s workshop. Viola was all about you figuring it out. If you asked ‘how do you want me to do it?’ she would blow up at you. “I DON’T KNOW! I’m not the answer book!” she would shout. No, with Viola, it was all about getting out of your head and into the body, into the space and making these discoveries on your own. All she would do is point out when you weren’t doing it and when you were in your head. I did scene after scene, exercise after exercise but could not understand what was in my way. If Viola knew, she wasn’t telling me.

I’d leave class some days so frustrated. I can’t act. Who am I kidding?

Over the year, Viola and I had become friends. (See “How I met Viola Spolin”) and I usually sat next to her while she coached. She could get such incredible scenes out of so many of us. My work was still pedestrian – nothing special, nothing to write home about, but I was there, man. –

We did an exercise called Intensify Emotion, a game where the sidecoach, in this case Viola, watches a scene between two players and calls on them to heighten and intensify the emotions that emerge for each player out of the playing. If one actor is feeling happy and the other is doubtful, she would coach each respectively to heighten that feeling. Viola would call out to the players, “More Happy!” “More! Even more happiness!” “ Feel happy in your chest!” – (to the other actor) “More doubt!” “More!” “Put the doubt in your face! In your fingers!” “More! – Heighten it!”

What began to happen to the players onstage was amazing, funny, exciting and wonderful. Happy turned to joy. Heightening joy became hysteria, hysteria morphed into giddiness and so on. Doubt turned to concern, to worry, to panic, to fear, to terror, etc. Intensifying Emotions created transformation. It was absolutely astounding to see such emotional energy move the players in such surprising ways. Great theater.

Now it was my turn. I was paired with a very attractive, sweet woman namedSusan. We chose a scene (who, what and where) that had a good emotional starting point. A scene we knew had built-in emotional potential for both of us. We were in a prison meeting room, separated by a glass window, with phones on either side. I was the prisoner andSusanwas my wife coming to break the news that she had fallen in love with someone else. Oh, this was juicy.

The scene began:

Me: Hi honey. (with love) Gee, I missed you.

Susan: (tentative) Hi Gary.

Viola: (to me) Heighten glad to see her!

Me: (sensing something wrong) What is it, darling?

Susan: (eyes downcast) I… I…

Viola: (toSusan) Heighten that feeling! Put it in your shoulders!

Susan: (Crying)

Me: What’s wrong?

Viola: Concern! Heighten concern!

Me: What is it, honey? What’s happened? (deeply concerned)

Susan: I’m in love (still crying) with someone else. I don’t love you any more.

Me: What?? (I have a look on my face of bewilderment and shock. I get a sinking feeling in my stomach.)

Susan: I’m so sorry, honey. I’m so, so sorry. It just happened. I’ve been seeing him for months now… We fell in love.

Me: (crestfallen) Oh.

Viola: (to me) Heighten that feeling! Put it in your stomach, throat, face!

Me: I see… (Completely numb, shocked, sad)

Now I almost stop hearingSusanand what she is saying. All I begin to hear is Viola’s coaching to me.

Viola: (to me) Intensify it! Put it in your chest!

My shoulders slump. I look down at my feet. I bow my head. I think to myself, ‘No one loves me. Poor me.’

Me: Of course, this is what I get, what I deserve. Shit, why does it always have to be me?’

Viola: More! MORE!

I begin to feel sick to my stomach. “Poor me” is coursing through my whole body. I can’t even look atSusanwho, I imagine, Viola must be coaching too, but I am too involved now with my own pity to notice.

Viola: More! EVEN MORE! Put it in your nose! Your eyes, your legs!

I am covered in self-pity.

Viola: Heighten the self-pity! Poor me! Say it in your feet! Put it in your spine! C’mon, even more! Heighten it!

I am revulsed by self-loathing. I begin to feel exposed. Naked. The whole class is watching this. Seeing me – the real me. I am no longer playing a prisoner in a cell talking to his wife. I’m me and I’m the only one who feels sorry for myself in the whole wide world. I am so sorry for myself I could puke – literally.

I feel so ashamed. Everyone is seeing me like this. My true self – Oh, god, I am so ashamed. I can’t stay here. What am I doing here? I can’t act. Now everyone knows it. I slowly get up. I don’t look up; my eyes are glued to the floor.

The cell window is gone. The phone is gone. The scene has dissolved. I am not in the scene anymore.Susan, I think, is still in the scene playing my wife, I don’t know. Maybe she’s just gawking at me like everyone else.

I have to get out of here. I begin to walk across the stage floor, slowly, deliberately. If I run I am a coward, but if I walk I might be able take the last shred of dignity I possess with me. “Don’t work out your personal problems out on my stage!” Viola’s words echo in my head. I make it to the door. I walk out.

Viola: COME BACK! Come back!

I open the door into the bright, sunny afternoon. It is such a contrast to the dark little theater space, but it is a dull, lifeless bright. The sun cannot penetrate my despair. I get in my car and drive home. I have no thought; I just drive like a zombie. I get home. I lie on my bed. I am a husk; dried up, empty. I have no feeling anymore – maybe a little residual of shame, but it’s hardly worth mentioning.

Time passes, I couldn’t say how long, but it was the same day.

The phone rings. It is Viola.

Me: Hello.

Viola:Gary! What were doing!?

Me: Viola, I had to leave. I couldn’t stay.

Viola: Oh, honey. If you had only stayed…if you had only stayed—I’d have cleaned you out of it!

Me: (listless) Yeah.

I hang up. I lie back on my bed. Soon, I begin to feel unexpectedly better. I put my hands behind my head, look up at the ceiling. I am pensive.

Lying there on the bed, I feel my body, my feet, my legs, stomach and hands. They feel good. They feel new.

I have the distinct image that if I were being filmed, the camera would be above me on a crane, slowly pulling back ever further to see me; me on the bed; me on the bed in the room; me on the bed in the room in the apartment; in the apartment in the building; in the city – in the world.

I feel good. I inspect my emotional self, still lying there on the bed. I feel pretty good. No self-pity; No shame; No embarrassment, even.

Hey! I feel pretty damn good! In fact, I feel terrific. What is going on?

I’m hungry. I get up and go out.

I am going out to get something to eat. I’m alive and I am hungry. I am an actor inHollywoodgoing out to get something to eat, because I’m famished. I’ve got a career to go after. Hey, life is good!


Ever since that day I have never ever felt sorry for myself. Viola’s coaching and the game itself banished that unproductive emotion from my psyche forever.

Self-pity, many acting teachers will tell you, is the poorest choice you can make for a character. It is an unpleasant emotion to witness, an excuse for the self to stay hidden, a paralyzing emotion. Self-pity keeps you from having any contact with the outside world and useless in real drama. Useless in life.

Soon afterward I began connecting with my acting; going on auditions and getting callbacks and some acting jobs. I still had a lot of other emotional problems (who doesn’t?)  but self-pity was not among them.


Postscript: Viola did not intend her work to be psycho-drama. She used to say “Never use your own tears! Use the character’s tears!”

That her work did help me out psychologically was only a side-benefit of her connecting me with my real talent and the beauty and profundity of her philosophy. Yet her work, at a deep level cannot help but be transformative.


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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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