A Woman to Know: Viola Spolin

We learn through experience and experiencing. — Viola Spolin

(image via Viola Spolin)


They called her "The High Priestess of Improv." As the creator of now-ubiquitous theater games and drama exercises, Viola set the template for the "yes, and" model of improvisational acting, now familiar to audiences around the world.

But she originally developed her games through social work. In the 1930s, as a WPA worker, Viola taught immigrant children her series of exercises, developed as a way to help them adapt to city life in Chicago. She described her work as "accessing intuition," and she designed role-playing games to help players tap into their innate sense of spontaneity and playfulness.

From there, Viola shared her techniques with her son, who played the games with his friends at the University of Chicago. Soon, local companies like Second City and Story Theater followed the "Spolin Games" as near-Biblical guidelines.

When Viola started her own theater company, the Young Actors Company, in 1945, aspiring comics flocked to it, hoping to learn from the "high priestess of improv."

The Second City remembrance says it best: "There would be no Second City, and likely, no school of modern improvisation, were it not for the work of Viola Spolin."

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