Viola Spolin (November 7, 1906 - November 22, 1994) was an American acting teacher and author. She is regarded by many as America's grandmother of improvisation.

She influenced the first generation of impro actors in "The Second City" (impro theater stage in Chicago) in the late 50's. Spolin developed new games with a focus on creativity and adaptation. Their concept of acting was that through acting, all individual abilities are set free for creative self-expression. Viola Spolin's use of recreational games in the theater had its origins in her work with the Works Progress Administration (was a project to get people into work as part of the "New Deal" during the Great Depression in the USA). Spolin published a large number of texts/books on the subject of improvisation.

Table of Contents

early works

Spolin was a trained settlement worker and studied at Neva Boyd's Group Work School in Chicago. Boyd's innovative training in group leadership, recreation and social work greatly influenced Spolin. As well as using traditional game structures to influence the social behavior of immigrant and lower class children.

While working as an assistant director for the Chicago branch of the Works Progress Administration Recreational Project (1939-1941), Spolin identified a need for easier access to theater training that crossed cultural and ethnic boundaries in the EPA project.

According to Spolin, Boyd's training provides "exceptional training in the use of games, story-telling, folk dance and drama as a tool to stimulate the creative expression of children and adults through self-discovery and personal experience. Building on her experience with Boyd's work, she applied Boyd's concept of play as a means of revealing individual possibilities for creative self-expression in her development of new games, which focused on individual creativity, adaptation and concentration. These techniques were later formally referred to as "theatre games".

Birth of the American Impro Theater

In 1946 Spolin founded the "Young Actors Company" in Hollywood. Children from the age of 6 years were trained so that they could then take part in theatre and film productions, using the "theatre games" system still in development. The work of the "Young Actors Company" lasted until 1955. In 1955 Spolin went back to Chicago. There she directed the Playwright's Theater Club and led irregular play workshops with the Compass Theatre. Compass Theatre was the first professional improv theatre in the USA and made history. It began in a small theatre near the campus of the University of Chicago in the summer of 1955 and from this group a new form of theatre emerged: improvisational theatre. They created a new form of comedy. "It was not their intention to be funny or to give comedy a new direction. But they did," wrote Coleman.

From 1960-1965, still in Chicago, she worked with her son Paul Sills as a workshop leader on his theatre stage "The Second City". And she continued her work in teaching and further developing theatre play theory. This work resulted in her book "Improvisation for the Theater" with a total of 220 games and exercises. It became one of the most important sources for drama teachers and also for trainers in other areas of life.

In 1965 Spolin founded together with Sills and others the "Game Theatre" in Chicago. At the same time, together with Sills and local families, she also founded a small school (initially called "playroom school", later "parents school"). The theater and school classes encouraged their audiences to participate directly in the theater plays that were performed. This broke down the classic division between (improv) actors and audience. This theatre experiment had only limited success and was terminated after only a few months, but the school continued to work with these theatre performance techniques, in addition to regular lessons, until 1970.

Late years

In 1970/71 Spolin worked as a consultant for individual productions for her son Paul Sills at his "Story Theater" in Los Angeles, New York and also for television. On the West Coast she led workshops for the teams of the series "Rhoda" and "Friends and Lovers". She also appeared as an actress in Paul Mazursky's film "Alex in Wonderland" (MGM, 1970). In November 1975 her book "The Theater Game File" was published. This made her unique methods of teaching and learning available to every school teacher. In 1976 she established her "Spolin Theater Game Center" in Hollywood as artistic director. She continued this work until the 90s. In 1979 she received an honorary doctorate from Eastern Michigan University. 1985 she published her book "Theater Games for Rehearsal: A Director's Handbook".


Spolin's theater games are simple. They are structures that transform complicated theatre conventions and techniques into simple forms of play. Each game involves a special attention or technical problem and is an exercise for the actor. Because he can concentrate on something specific and create something new. The intention and the experience is that you create something spontaneous in the moment and not judge in your mind what you could play. The exercises are, as one critic wrote, "structures that are built in such a way that spontaneity is transferred into being". Spolin was convinced that every actor can learn to act and express himself creatively.


  • First Viola Spolin: "Improvisation for the theatre"
  • Second Viola Spolin: "Theater Games for Rehearsal: A Director's Handbook"
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last update: 2020-07-31
by Guido Boyke

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