What’s In A Game?

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

What happens to us when we have fun?

Acting requires presence. Playing produces this state. – Viola Spolin

When I assisted in a workshop with Viola Spolin, author of Improvisation for the Theater, the very first thing we did was play a game of “Swat Tag”.

The game involves a group of people sitting in chairs, a ‘home base’ (a chair or stool set out in front of the group) where the swatter (a rolled up newspaper) is placed. The person who is ‘it’ takes the swatter and moves into the audience and tags someone with the swatter. That person must then jump up and chase the swatter back to home base where the swatter has to put down the rolled newspaper on the home base and try to run back to where the tagged person was sitting and sit down in their chair before the other person can pick up the swatter and tag them back. If the runner makes it back to the chair without being tagged, the tagged person is now ‘it’ and must tag someone else in the audience and take their chair in the same manner. If the original tagger is swatted before getting back to the seat, they both run back to home base and try again.

This game was a blast! Everyone was involved in it; the runners, and the rest of the audience too. Afterwards, Viola asked us what happened to us. What happened physically and psychologically? The answers came back. “We had fun!” “We laughed!” “Our hearts raced and we were in a high state of alert.”

“So your body had a physical reaction to it.” Viola asked. “Yes, what else? What were you thinking about?”

“Nothing. Just the game.”

“Would you say the game made you present? Stopped you thinking about your plans for the afternoon, or your past – what you did yesterday?”


“So a game brings you into the present moment.” She coaxed. “It made your blood circulate, heightened your attention, and so on.”

We all nodded.

“Did you enjoy it just because you were swatted or because you weren’t picked?”

“It’s because you were present to the unfolding of an unknown outcome. That’s part of it. Not knowing what would happen made it fun, right?”

Again we agreed.

“So not knowing caused the excitement and the involvement which caused us to laugh and enjoy it. Would you also say you dropped your judgment about it? In other words you weren’t saying to yourself ‘oh, that person is no good at this.’ Or ‘I’m no good at this.” Or thinking ‘what a stupid thing to do, to agree to jump up and chase someone just because you were tagged.’ And so on. You all agreed to the rules and once you did, you accepted it instantly WITHOUT JUDGEMENT and started playing.”

We paused to consider that. “Yes” we agreed.

“And” she went on, “You were using your whole self. Plotting who to tag, where to run, how to avoid being tagged, selecting the route to run – what to do to make it back to the chair in split seconds! No pre-planning! All this out of a little game of tag!”

She was showing us what was involved in the having of fun.

· Total involvement
· No judgment
· Heightened alertness
· Rise in energy and focus
· Being in present time
· Using our intuition
· Spontaneously accepting the stated rules without fear or worry.

We all felt able to participate fully in every aspect of the game no matter if we were fast, slow, good or bad at it. (Good or bad never entered into our thinking). Joyously participating in or watching the unfolding of an unknown outcome, cheering and laughing at every attempt successful or unsuccessful. We never for a second thought critically or self-consciously. We were too busy having fun.

We were all filled with a great energy and excitement in the four or five minutes we played.

“Now that we’re talking about it, now that the game is over, what has happened to your heart rate? What is going through your mind? You’re thinking to yourself. ‘Oh, this is interesting. Or maybe it isn’t.’ or ‘When is this class over? I have an appointment, etc.’ Right?”

It was true. In analyzing our experience, we lost the ‘fun’. Our pulses slowed. We went into our head to think critically about our experience. Analyzing our experience was a valuable thing to do too, but it was not as much fun as Swat Tag.

Then she took the swatter up and ran over to someone and swatted them again and began to run. In an instant we were back, laughing and excited again.

“You see how instantly we got it back?” she smiled. “It’s available to you whenever you want!”

This is the essence of fun and games. Playing creates this state. Viola saw this as the most direct way to creativity.

She applied this form to her theater games and not only taught acting and improvisation, but put everyone of us in touch with this area where art is born, inspiration is spawned, where our true nature is allowed to flourish, where we can explore, be curious, adventurous, free of fear and in a state of grace.

This is also where true community exists. Having fun is where we all meet as fellow players on a level playing field. For when we play as a group we are connected to each other as in no other way.

Play was Viola’s platform. From this starting point, she devised games that challenged us to grow as artists. Her teaching techniques were born out of a philosophy of spontaneity and the Tao with a little bit of physics thrown in.

Gary Schwartz
North Bend May 2012



Trackback from your site.

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,

Leave a comment