Tonight, WTTW’s Chicago Stories presents “Inventing Improv,” a one-hour special about “Chicago’s Biggest Export,” improvisation and its visionary creator, Viola Spolin. Writer / producer Jude Leak tells the story of Spolin, the daughter of Russian immigrants who landed in Chicago and started out as a social worker in the 1930s. Her family loved theater and games, so “Spark”, like he was called in his youth, saw the social benefits of imaginative play.
She also believed that democracy required educated citizens, including training in the arts. Spolin taught the immigrant children of Jane Addams Hull House to play theater games as a way to connect across cultural and language barriers, to carve out sacred ground as well as the “Big Bang” moment for it. American improvisation.
After her own theatrical training at DePaul University and New York City, she, her second husband, and two boys lived in Los Angeles for a time, continuing to evangelize the power of her acting plays. Brilliantly unmoved actor Bob Balaban, one of many notable alumni interviewed, said that Spolin’s games took actors away from intellect towards instinct and created a state of readiness, excitement and instinct. anticipation. Spolin’s son, Paul, returned to Windy City for high school and then the University of Chicago.
Paul Sills had watched his mother, friends, children and students play drama games all his life, so he started offering workshops in college because UofC did not have a drama program. People like Ed Asner, Mike Nichols and Elaine May were there and they opened the Playwrights Theater in 1953. The next iteration, the Compass Players, opened two years later and also explored the American value system. and the hypocrisy of mass culture. The guiding principle of the shows was truth, not comedy. But the ensemble exhausted themselves creating a whole new show every week, so started rehearsing certain scenes and themes. The Second City’s current sketch format developed through improvisation and improvisation itself debuted in 1959 and quickly became a national phenomenon.
But the content, whether scripted or improvised, was created from Spolin’s games, because “you clear up the mess by playing a game,” says Second City loyalist Anne Libera. Spolin’s book Improvisation for the theater, “200 games to navigate the world of the imagination”, was published in 1963. Its program was quickly incorporated into the educational system as a new way of doing theater, and also spawned new troupes with its encouragement to “refuse the judgmental part of your brain.”
Second City alumnus Angela Shelton adds that Spolin’s work instantly gets rid of racial, religious, gender, and other prejudices. The film notes that the original sets were boys’ clubs, and female performers had to fight for slots and material. The documentary is also sometimes more interested in the stories of Spolin’s son and other male co-creators. His influence deserves more attention, maybe even an hour longer, on Spolin’s own creativity and contributions.
Actor Alan Alda discusses how Spolin’s games influenced his roles as a “serious” actor and how his techniques continue to work in all aspects of society, including business, with neurodiverse and incarcerated populations.
All those interviewed, including those in the archive footage, agree that Viola Spolin is the source of a set of educational tools that will live into the future and continue to have tsunami effects.
“Inventing Improv” is a Chicago Stories special, premiering at 8:00 p.m. today, October 22, on WTTW Channel 11.
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