The Difference between Spolin Games and Popular Improv

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

Over 50 years ago Viola Spolin, created a philosophy that is more relevant and needed today than it has ever been. She called it Theater Games. It created a movement in America and the world over that is now commonly called improvisation or Improv.

Her work deals in experiential learning. Where, with the support of a good sidecoach, playing the game becomes the teacher.  It is rooted in direct experience that lifts us out of our traditional roles and puts us in touch with our authentic self, each other and our circumstances.

Spolin’s improvisation training provides a way for people of different cultures, with different life experiences, to work together collaboratively to achieve productive outcomes.  It is a way for individuals to participate fully and authentically in the solving of problems. It is a path to innovation and inspiration and personal commitment[1]. That was how Spolin conceived of improvisation, but the word has come to mean something else.

There is a profundity in Spolin’s work that is hard to capture and commoditize. It cannot be learned intellectually, but must be experienced firsthand to really be understood. Since Spolin’s death in the mid-nineties, there are only a handful of teachers carrying on her tradition, myself being one of them.

Improvisation began with Spolin. But other popular forms have emerged as more popular and have swept the world.  I will try to explain the reason for this.

The Rise of Improv Comedy

What began as a form of training for the first improv company in the US, (Chicago’s Second City) was changed. Reinterpreted and modified for the purpose of creating comedy after Viola and her son Paul Sills, (the founder and original director of Second City) left.  Sadly, a lot of what Spolin taught is missing from their work nowadays.

Del Close, a former student of Spolin’s, had another take on improvisation, and based it on Spolin’s idea of group agreement. He called it “Harold” or what is now known as Long-Form Improv and for which he deserves credit. In its purest form, it is the closest to what Spolin was after – a group consciousness that comes together out of improvisation. Unfortunately, “Harold” is often misunderstood and deconstructed to a simpler form that for the most part produces pedestrian comedy masquerading as serious theater.

He also came up with an idea called Yes, and…. The idea that one must never deny what another brings up and always accept an offer from a fellow player by saying ‘yes’ to the premise and then adding some more information to further the scene.

Yes and… because it is easily understood does lay the foundation for what Spolin called group agreement.  It is now the primary basis of most improv training the world over. And it is useful in creating cooperation and information sharing. But it too is a deconstruction of one of Spolin’s ideas – that of Following the Follower.

Another popular form is TheaterSports, created by a British teacher and director, Keith Johnstone. It is uses judges and is based on a competition between two teams of improv players. The play is scored on its merits in such categories as entertainment value, narrative, comedy and originality. It has been deconstructed and spawned another competitive Improv form called ComedySportz.  I think the model of competitive sports is one that is easily grasped and that accounts for its popularity.  This approach has come to rely on competition as a primary focus, something that is antithetical to Spolin’s work.

Yes and…  along with Keith Johnstone’s theories of improvisation emphasizing narrative and status interactions, have become an easily grasped system. Yet it only touches on the work of Spolin.

It is true that Yes, and… allows people to share ideas and expand on them mostly to create comedy and funny scenes.  Yes, and… has come to be synonymous with the word Improv.

Spolin Improvisation vs. Johnstone’s Impro, Yes, and… & Improv Comedy

To understand Spolin Games you have to experience them and be transformed by them. This system opens you to having what Spolin called Direct Experience; the premise that the intuitive must be accessed to incorporate intelligence, integrates mind and body and produces spontaneous action and discovery in the act of doing.

Blocks or resistance to this state is what she called being in your head (subjectively perceiving and intellectualizing) It is how we are normally taught in our culture and what we adopt in our behavior. Other forms of Improv base their training on working with the head coping and compensating for the blocks that being in your head presents.

To understand Johnstone, you must understand, intellectually, the dos and don’ts to successful scene improv; i.e. status, narrative, character, blocks, offers, platforms and tilts; Then practice them individually or in combination often criticized by a director who has an understanding of what the results should be.

Spolin’s focus was shift away from intellectual understanding of interactions and storytelling to one of creating an intuitive, holistic connection to fellow players in seeking to solve a particular problem presented in a game. In the solving of that problem a skill is acquired. The process of seeing the solving of that problem onstage is often highly entertaining and ‘show-worthy’. A successful theatrical format using Spolin Games was created by her son, Paul Sills. Sills & Company ran in Los Angeles for several years before going to Broadway. The group he left behind became The Spolin Players. They still perform an evening of Spolin Games in Los Angeles.

Spolin’s philosophy does not stress the intellectual approach, (known and shared information) and instead aims for getting a direct experience (right now) and challenges the player to enter into a state of true play where the mind and body unite to become fully involved in solving the problem, thus accessing the intuition.

The result of this process creates something much more powerful and meaningful than clever and comedic scenes and narratives. It creates the possibility of something new coming into being in the wake of that process. It seeks to create inspiration – that ‘ah-ha!’ moment that leads to new insights and the exploration of the unknown using intuition.

Improvisation like this creates truly theatrical, exhilarating moments, spontaneously, without consciously relying on the sharing of individual information and clever manipulation of that information. (Yes, and…, and narrative) It is the crux of what Spolin was after.

Comparing Spolin’s approach to other forms of Improv

Spolin Games

Johnstone & Yes, and…

Play: Extending one’s self fully in the pursuit of solving a problem. Competition: Succeeding above another. Winning. Using one’s skills better than another in the eyes of the audience.
Focus: Keeping your eye on the ball. Total involvement. The process of solving a problem, being ready to follow wherever it leads.. Making an Offer: Initiating an idea and selecting a direction. Judging, analysis, opinions on narrative. Using past experience to develop material.
Spontaneity: The energy released when working with a problem.  A surprise which brings laughter. Comedy:  a surprise for the audience with jokes and unexpected outcomes that come from the head.
Direct Experience:  working in present time without filtering it through past experience. Status: Manipulating the relationships between people. Used to create positive and negative behavior.  A path that leads to interesting albeit stereotypical relationships.
Following the Follower:  total involvement with each other without judgment.  Flowing in unison. Yes, and… accepting and adding information.
The Scene: what is left in the wake of process. Spontaneous interaction.Story:  the result of this process Narrative: The shape and form of a story with a beginning a middle and an end. Using information in clever and surprising ways and forming it into a cohesive story.
Allowing the scene to emerge. Going with what is going on and responding to it honestly. Playwriting: Coming up with offers.  Planning on how to work your offers into the narrative.


Using Yes and… and the theories of Keith Johnstone

As much as it seems I disparage other forms of Improv, I want to state that there is some value in their systems and some of their thinking and  principles resemble Spolin’s thinking.

Improv fosters cooperation and helps us get comfortable with failure and un-predictability. It is used for co-creating ideas and sharing them.  It establishes a method to interact with each other using ideas we are familiar with.

It does break you out of the traditional roles and creates novelty. It will create a sense of surprise and the unexpected. And it does teach alternate ways of handling information and relationships.

All these things are good and easily accessible and understood. It is this very fact that shows why this type Improv has become so popular.

Although it teaches a set of useful skills, it is only a clever rearranging of the known. And therefore does not have the potential to fundamentally transform the individual or the group as does Spolin Games.  It works with the existing paradigm of success and failure, approval/disapproval and is limited.

The Value of Spolin’s approach – Theater Games

Spolin Improv applies to much more than theater training. It creates strong, unified, teams made up of dynamic individuals all working to achieve for the sake of staying present and excited and fully involved in any endeavor.

It requires us to be present, ready for full participation as part of a whole and offers us a chance to be truly authentic.

It erases fear of judgment (by self or others) and makes playing (true effort) an end in itself. It allows for different levels of skill and makes peers of you and your fellow players, directors, bosses and subordinates. It levels the playing field to see each other as fellow players all capable of playing full out whatever the role or title.

It transforms all those who participate. It lifts us out of our reward seeking, failure fearing, anxiety ridden, self-conscious culture to which we are all unfortunately conditioned. And to which we have adapted.

Spolin’s work operates from a different paradigm:  Non-authoritarian, non-intellectual, non-judgmental group agreement.  Where one is a part=of- a =whole; a fellow player in relation to others to your fullest capacity with the purpose of stepping into the unknown and exploring the possibilities:

And most of all, it is readily accessible because it is done using play!

Play is powerful because it is fun!


[1] The Huffington Post online: Ayn Rand vs Viola Spolin

Mike Bonifer, Posted: 11/05/2012

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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,

Comments (12)

  • N Welch


    Reading the Spolin Games column it looks to me almost identical to Keith Johnstone’s teachings. Have you read Impro? I think you have the wrong idea about Keith Johnstone, perhaps because his TheaterSports has been severely corrupted in many places in the world. It is encouraging to see Spolin’s teachings are very much in the same vein as Johnstone’s – it means there’s something fundamental there…


  • Gary Schwartz

    Gary Schwartz


    I’ve met Keith Johnstone and have read Impro. Yes, he and Viola are after the same thing. Both approaches suffer from people misunderstanding or missing the real point.
    I once asked Keith what he thought of Theater Sports and he said “Terrible, awful. They’re pissing on the altar. I can’t bear it.”

    His work does approach what Spolin called being out of the head. The method he uses is sometimes less action directed. Or appeals to the head first.

    For example “Tilting” or taking the unexpected in a scenario can more readily be done from the head, rather than organically arising out the action of connected players. I’ve seen brilliant “Tilts” fielded by great players already connected and that is indeed fun and exciting. More often than not though, tilting is playwriting and tilts only used for novelty vs. connection.
    “Don’t try to be interesting” for example is his way of saying “No playwriting” or “stay out of your head”.

    I think that Spolin’s sidecoaches and game focuses are more effective for the average person.

    Theater Sports or any Comedy Improv for that matter tend to reveal the already intuitive player.

    Spolin gives you a way to reach the player separated from his treasure house of creativity through games that can provide a direct experience.
    My point is Theater Sports although not meant for true competition does appeal to the competitive side of our nature and more easily turned into the opposite of Johnstone’s aims.

    Having done both styles I have come to the conclusion Spolin is a more direct path.

    Thanks for commenting. Continue. This dialogue may be helpful.


  • Duncan McKenzie


    I agree with N Welch that the Johnstone approach is misrepresented here. It certainly does not focus on jokes that come from the head, nor on “planning how to work your offers into the narrative” – indeed, these are usually considered beginner level mistakes. Rather, the story emerges organically, and the main narrative emerges not through planning but through reincorporation. As for the “jokes” – audiences frequently laugh, but, if you looked at the transcript of what was said, it would be hard to pin down anything recognizable as a joke or gag. Rather, audiences seem to enjoy the naturalness and spontaneity of the response – something that is true of all good improv.

    Spolin places more emphasis on physical skills. Johnstone gets at this by limiting dialogue in various ways. The goal is the same – to stop people from being “talking heads”.

    Clearly, both methods work. If someone were trying to learn what improv is all about from a book, I’d recommend Impro every time – it’s highly readable, funny, philosophical, and well written, and does a fine job of explaining the deep ideas inherent in improvisation.


  • Tordy


    I think it’s good to remember that Gary was Viola’s friend and mentee. She showed him over many years exactly what it was all about. Therefore, Gary might be in the position to notice the differences which, although small, really do make a vast difference when performing and acting out this work. As a student in many groups reading from many books, Johnston’s being one, I have found the literal storytelling in the “yes..and”/Johnston approach, much less free. It’s scriptwriting. Spolin has none of that pressure to finalize or create a literal story, when doing Spolin. For me Spolin is freedom. I love it. Things aren’t supposed to make sense. This is especially true with teh physical kinaesthetic games in Spolin. What did she say, logic is the enemy of creativity? God I love that.

    Of course the teacher matters. One can have bad teachers in either field.
    As this article mentions, there are practically NO SPOLIN teachers! I think the very nature of improv lends itself to morphosis one teacher to the next, and this could be the reason so many students of Spolin end up “making it their own”.

    Both methods do work, but it’s often a grey area when watching improv players. Some talk a lot, with no space work at all, or very little. They’re saying “yes and”. They might think it’s working?

    A constant scrubbing out of all linear storytelling, need to be explanatory, focus on having it all make sense- is what Spolin work is all about. ANd it’s the reason I will appreciate Gary’s approach and pure Spolin above all other forms. If you don’t have the Spolin as your base level, you will end up with talking heads on stage every time.


  • Steve


    This by in large is a piece worth reading but the work of Johnstone is severely misrepresented to the point of being unrepresentative (i.e., false representation).

    The table of comparisons is either a distortion or dumbing down of Keith’s teaching. It’s also a misunderstanding of how Theatresports is taught by Keith, as competition is for the audience not the players.

    To paraphrase someone who worked with both Keith and Del Close (how lucky is that!), they have/had the same core values but approach them in different ways. If one connects more with one particular approach, it does not devalue or invalidate the other. It is a personal journey – much like a spiritual path is different for different individuals.

    Having said that, I love the Follow the Follower game and the principles underpinning it. It is one of the most powerful theatre games I have learned and use it outside of the context of theatre.


    • Gary Schwartz

      Gary Schwartz


      I agree Keith and Viola are after the same thing. The approach differs dramatically. As founders of two different schools, their work immediately becomes subject to adulteration and Keith’s has too. Luckily he is still around to set people straight. Even Keith states that he cannot bear to see TheaterSports.
      What Improvisation is according to the likes of Keith and Spolin and Spolin’s disciples like Del Close, has been interpreted and often are deconstructions. i.e., oversimplifications to achieve a certain result, neither Spolin or Johnstone desires. I point it out in this list. Keith and his disciples, I’m sure work to correct it as best they can. I too am trying via I freely admit this is my interpretation of Spolin’s ideas, but I worked with her the longest and do my best to be faithful to the principles she taught me.

      I admire Keith’s honesty and vision. Johnstone’s path to the source of spontaneity is different than Spolin’s. It relies on a different concept of intuitive response, a different theatricality and understanding of the profundity of things like The Space. Competition is addressed in TheaterSports as a convention for the audience, but it’s often misunderstood and results in incorporating conventions like judging, picking apart narrative, and creating theater. Other Johnstone constructions address this. TheaterSports is to Johnstone as Second City, IO and UCB are to Spolin.
      Since I am not a disciple of Keith’s my understanding is limited to reading his books, taking one day-long workshop with him and being in a TheaterSports based troupe for eight years.

      I maintain that Spolin’s approach to the intuition and the unknown as applied to theater is more direct, albeit less understood in its practice.
      I will admit to simplifying both Johnstone’s ideas as I know them and Spolin’s to create a provocative discussion.

      Much light needs to shed on both philosophies to arrive at the elusive, evanescent thing that is at the core of Improvisation.
      I would love to have you write more on what you believe Keith Johnstone is after, philosophically and practically.
      Thank you for your post.


  • Steve



    Thanks for your thoughtful response. When writing such a blog piece or responding with comments it is hard to find the right prose to convey a clear and complete message without writing a novel. I guess that is a weakness or limitation of written language as a communication medium, particularly when it is not the length of a novel (even then, I’m sure “Truth in Comedy” is not a great reflection of Del Close’s work and talents). It’s the same as in an office environment – emails are a tawdry replacement for a conversation.

    The problem with me expanding on Keith’s teaching is that it is like taking a masterpiece of Rembrandt and making a black-and-white photocopy. You may get the idea but you’ll lose a lot of the detail, and some of it is important. I have had the opportunity to work with Keith a number of times but am more influenced through extensive teaching with his protege, Patti Stiles – herself a brilliant teacher. It’s also been several years since I performed on stage so detail can be lost over time. And I have never had training with someone who worked with Spolin – the closest to that type of lineage was via Randy Dixon (another great teacher). It’s also difficult to know what kind of improvised theatre Keith likes as I got the impression he only liked it when he was directing. 🙂

    So with that in mind…

    Theatresports is an example of the ‘Chinese Whispers’ effect of imitating Keith’s work without understanding the context of why he created the format. He wanted people to be as passionate about theatre as they were at a sporting event. Hence, theatre sports was born. But the competition is for the audience, not the players. It is to provide those watching to have an emotional investment in the scenes, in the show, in the players. The players themselves are only playing competition – not actually competing against each other. Devices such as judges and horns were created for specific reasons. For example, one benefit of having judges was the ability for them to draw heat/emotion from the audience; one benefit of having a horn is to ‘kill the scene before it dies’. If people are concerned about ‘winning’ or ‘stage time’ then it goes completely against what Johnstone was trying to create (and teach). Other formats such Gorilla Theatre and Micetro have ‘playing competition’ but were created to address different needs/desires. I assume you already have some understanding of this given your previous post.

    The training game ‘Yes and…’ is again an example of ‘Chinese Whispers’ if not taken in the right context. Keith identified several ways in which actors reacted out of fear/self-censorship. Fear is a killer of spontaneity and being present in the moment. He used words such as blocking, wimping and shelving to to describe these behaviours. The ‘No’,’Yes but’, ‘Yes and’ constructs are essentially beginner games to demonstrate such behaviours. Once the principles are understood one can then move to ‘yes lets’, ‘happy nopes’, ‘dolphin training’ (the latter two I learned via Patti Stiles) and other games. It’s easy to pick up “Impro for Storytellers” and play games he has created, but if you don’t understand WHY he created them then you don’t receive the insights he was trying to teach. Many were all about addressing fear and helping actors be in the present/moment.

    I get the impression that Johnstone, given he was a theatre director and playwright, had more focus on storytelling (in comparison to Spolin). Hence, his work related to the ‘circle of expectations’ and ‘platforms and tilts’ helps to provide mechanisms for an improvisor to create a cohesive narrative; once learned they can become second nature (or intuitive). Even his work on status is relevant to narrative. But much of his training, particularly for the beginner, is focused on spontaneity – being in the moment. This should not be forgotten.

    An example of this (not applied on stage), Keith was once interviewed over the phone. While being asked questions on the telephone he was filling out a crossword puzzle so as to provide a more spontaneous and honest response to questions. About half way through the interview a sound technician commented on some scratching sounds – due the pencil he was using – so he stopped filling out the crossword. According to Keith’s account the second half of the interview was not nearly as strong as the first half.

    Although I have done very limited mask work, it’s also important to consider Johnstone’s work and thinking in this area. Perhaps it is an area where Spolin and Johnstone converge in their thinking (even if not obvious), as mask work touches on a more primordial form of improvisation – something that tribes/pre-industrial cultures have been using for millenia. For example, taken from Psychology for Performing Artists (Glenn D. Wilson):

    “Many drama theorists (for example, Cole 1975) maintain that shamanism is the central ingredient to theatre. The essence of true drama, they say, is not just the reproduction of mundane social reality, but the presentation of a different order – one that is supernatural, surreal, or ‘marvellous’.”

    To me the format of a Harold lends itself closer to this type of experience more than a format like Theatresports – but the difference lies more in the show format than in the teaching methods or intentions. Maybe after all that rambling I have finally discovered a point to this post; perhaps the two are compared more by show formats they inspired rather than their teaching methods?

    It’s also worth keeping in mind that Jacob Moreno was working in Vienna decades before both Spolin and Johnstone, so there are other ‘schools of improvisation’, methods and thinking to explore.


  • Irene


    I had recently discover this wonderful and helpful website. As a theater lover Im sure it will teach me tons of things.




    Hi everyone, I just came across this website and Viola Spolin’s book “Theater Games for the Lone Actor”. I am NOT an actor, but a musician. And since both acting and music have a “performing” aspect, I am curious to see what types of practice strategies are in common, and perhaps what new ideas can be gained.

    Alas, I’m not too well versed in the process of acting techniques. Are there any “remedial sources” for laymen?



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