By Jeffrey Sweet (Author of “Something Wonderful Right Away” an oral history of improvisation)
“The Cambridge Guide to Theater” — a large encyclopedic book which claims to be “the most comprehensive and up-to-date reference source on theater available today” — does not have an entry on Viola Spolin. This omission makes the book’s claim palpably ridiculous. Viola’s work has had a defining influence on American theater, film and television. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, Cambridge is an ass.
Her work certainly had a profound influence on me.
I suspect that I am among many who first encountered her ideas in school. I remember the teacher of a creative dramatics class at Haven Junior High in Evanston, Illinois called on me to play a game of “Contact” with a girl I probably would have been too shy to speak to under other circumstances.
Growing up in Evanston and being interested in theater, of course I was introduced to Second City in nearby Chicago. After college in New York, I decided to write an oral history of the Compass Players and Second City called “Something Wonderful Right Away.” I decided to write it primarily — I must confess — in order to have an excuse to meet these people who were my theatrical heroes. When I started work researching the book and began meeting the community, everybody I talked to told me that it all started with Viola. The first chapter in the book — the first interview — had to be with her. Everybody told me this.
But Viola wasn’t everybody.
My tape recorder and I visited her in I think it was ’74 or ’75. She said she would only consent to be quoted in the book if she could review the chapter I wrote based on our conversation. Which was fine by me. So I turned on the tape recorder. We talked for several hours. I learned a lot. I transcribed and edited our conversation. I sent it to her. It came back to me with many pencil marks and notes — corrections and clarifications. I incorporated these into the text and sent it to her. This came back to me with many pencil marks and notes. I incorporated these into the text and sent it to her.
Then I got a letter. She had decided she didn’t want to be quoted after all. So many people had made money from her work in the past without either sending her royalties or crediting her. I didn’t see what that had to do with my project, but if she didn’t want to be in the book, she had the right not to be.
Well, of course, she was in it. Not quoted directly, unfortunately, but how could I talk to Paul Sills, David Shepherd, Barbara Harris, Mike Nichols, Paul Sand, Valerie Harper, Alan Alda, Richard Schaal, Del Close, Sheldon Patinkin and all of the others who found their artistic voices in a theater made possible by her work without her name being brought up again and again? And not just her name. Her spirit.
Before I started working on “Something Wonderful,” I had thought that the theater existed primarily for the glory of the playwright. Being a playwright might have something to with my holding this view.
After talking with Viola and Paul, I realized that theater is about what happens when members of the community meet and make connection through playing. The only two necessary elements of the theater are actors and audience, and the writer’s part in this is to help set up the circumstances under which the actor may create compelling behavior. This is profoundly different from my original idea of playwriting as a literary pursuit. I learned this from Viola and I think I am a better playwright for it. So, though I doubt she saw any of my plays, I am now the sort of writer I am because of her.
Sometime later, I saw Viola at a performance of “Sills and Company” in Los Angeles. By then, “Something Wonderful Right Away” had been in print for several years. She said she hoped I wasn’t angry about her decision not to be in the book. I told her of course I wasn’t. Disappointed, but never angry. There was a hug, and that was the last time I saw her.
She had chosen not to speak to me for the record. But she did speak to me. And I continue to listen and, I hope, learn from her. And sometimes I get the feeling she and I are playing “Contact.”
Jeffrey Sweet is the author of The Dramatist’s Toolkit. His e-mail address isDGSweet@aol.com.