The Real History Of Improvisation: Part II

“It is highly possible that what is called talented behavior is simply a greater capacity for experiencing.” – Viola Spolin

It all began with Viola… So, as you know, Viola Spolin’s revolutionary approach to acting grew out of a combination of theatrical work and social work, using games to help release the actor into their full selves. So how did comedy improv emerge from those beginnings?

Runs in the family. Viola’s son, Paul Sills, grew up immersed in his mother’s work. As an adult, he co-founded The Playwrights Theater and The Compass, the first ever improvisational revue-style theater. His mother ran ongoing workshops with both of these companies.

The Second City. Sills co-founded The Second City in 1959 as a smart, satirical revue, and Viola ran workshops to train company members including, Alan Arkin, Alan Alda, Ed Asner, Valerie Harper, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Avery Schreiber, Paul Sands and Del Close.

That’s how comedy improv was born, and it could not have happened without Viola Spolin.

Beyond the theater. Viola’s work continues to have far-reaching influences, across modalities and with a wide variety of communities including therapy patients, women’s groups, teenagers in recovery, disadvantaged youth, incarcerated individuals, and future police officers in university criminal justice courses.

And, of course, to this day…actors.

Today. Paul Sills’ daughter, Aretha Sills, continues her grandmother’s work, running workshops all over the world. I had the privilege to train and learn from the source myself, and am one of 12 people in her first ever Teacher Training, completed in 2021.

When you truly play, you are free. Viola’s work is an essential element to an actor’s process: each actor already brings something special to their work because everyone is unique. But that authenticity can be stifled when the actor is striving to impress agents or casting directors, worried about their lines, and doing it “right”. Viola’s games liberate the actor into themselves, the unknown, and the world around them, freeing them up to have full experiences in the here and now.

For more information on Improvisation Workshops, please click here.