Does Teaching Mean you have to be Mean?

Written by Gary Schwartz on . Posted in Gary Schwartz, Improvisation, Viola Spolin

Michael wrote as a comment to another post:

Is it my imagination or did a lot of the famous improv teachers yell at their students? Sounds like Viola did.
People said Del Close was often a huge dick to his students.
Keith Johnstone was famous for calling a student’s work horrible and telling them to get off the stage. I’ve heard other stories of popular teachers being mean.
Am I missing something? I would never yell at my students and I think even the worst scenes usually have some crumb of quality that can be noted.

Should I start being meaner?

My answer:

I took Viola’s yelling to be her passion. She never once used the word good  or bad  or horrible  or any other judgmental word.    She was all about what you did – Objectively, not subjectively, albeit with a raised voice sometimes.

Paul Sills on the other hand could be more scathing. He had Viola’s temper but not the same awareness that evaluation in a loud voice is meant to help rather than hurt.

I once asked Paul why he did that. He told me “I don’t know what to tell them. I’m a director, not a teacher. I want to shake them up and maybe something will happen.”

He was indeed a teacher but his manner had some anger in it.  I took that to mean ‘you are trespassing on the sacred’ and it angered him more than prompted him to solve the problem of the unaware student.

Keith Johnstone on the other hand, does use a lot of judgmental words which reinforces what Viola called the ‘Approval/Disapproval Syndrome’: The drive to please and to get it right.

My theory is that he comes from England where class (thus Status – his best game in my opinion) matters and it does not promote peerage as does Spolin.

I worked with Keith once in Canada and when I asked him what he thought of Theater Sports, he told me “Atrocious! They are pissing on the altar!” – The same thing that made Paul Sills so angry.

In my blog “How I met Viola Spolin” I tell the story of how one time I pointed out her yelling froze a young actor instead of helped him. She thanked me and addressed the problem.

She told us “It’s my passion that makes me raise my voice.” She told us she now realized it scared some of us. She couldn’t not yell, so she began (for a little while) hollering out things like “What are you DO-ing! – she shrieked!” or “Stop! – she declared!” reminding us that she knew she was yelling.

It worked and we all accepted her yelling as passion and did not take it personally.

We are all caught in Approval/Disapproval. It’s our culture! Actors, performers and other people who go on stage want to do work and be rewarded by audiences and directors use approval/disapproval as means of getting a result.

But if we work to get a good result, to be liked and get a pat on the head over the triumph of transcending into true improvisation, we are hobbled as artists.

If you aspire to the ‘art’ over being nice, you get geniuses like Viola Spolin and Paul Sills and you have honest and brilliant thinkers and teachers like Keith Johnstone and Del Close.

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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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