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Viola Spolin

The high priestess of improvisational theatre

Viola Spolin, “the high priestess of improvisational theatre,” is best known as the creator of Theater Games.

During the 1920s and 30s, Spolin was working as a social worker at Jane Addams Hull House in Chicago, where her job was 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.

Spolin’s son, Paul Sills, was enamored with the games and taught them to his University of Chicago friends, where their true potential to develop material and entertain audiences was uncovered. He used the new techniques in productions for the Playwrights Theater Club and with the Compass Players. In 1960, Spolin began running improvisation workshops for the cast of The Second City, a still-new theater company Paul co-founded.

As an outgrowth of her work with The Second City, Spolin published Improvisation for the Theater in 1963, resulting in much critical acclaim and solidifying her reputation in improvisational theater. She continued writing and teaching throughout her life.

Spolin died in 1994 at age 88.

For more information about Viola Spolin, read her biography at The Northwestern University Library also holds the collection of Viola Spolin’s papers, donated by her family.