The high priestess of improvisational theatre
Wrote the seminal improv text Improvisation for the Theater
Mother of Second City co-founder Paul Sills
There would be no Second City and, likely, no school of modern improvisation if it were not for the work of Viola Spolin.
Born in Chicago in 1906, Spolin originally trained to be a settlement worker, studying at Neva Boyd’s Group Work School. While serving as a drama supervisor for the WPA’s Recreational Project, Spolin developed techniques that would be formalized under the rubric of “Theatre Games.” These games were designed to help immigrant children better assimilate into their new surroundings. She created a number of easily-grasped theatrical games that could cross cultural and ethnic barriers and gave the children hands-on experience at behaving collaboratively and empathetically.
In 1955, Spolin taught those games to actors working with her son, Paul Sills, at the University of Chicago, where their true potential to develop material and entertain audiences was uncovered. Sills used the new techniques in productions for the Playwrights Theater Club and with the Compass Players, the first improvisational theatre in America. 1960, Spolin began running improvisation workshops for the cast of The Second City, a still-new theater company Paul co-founded.
Spolin’s book, Improvisation for the Theatre, has become a classic reference text for teachers of acting and improvisation, as well as across a variety of other fields.
Spolin continued writing and teaching throughout her life until her passing in 1994.