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. 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
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!
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