16 Sep 2012

Michael wrote as a comment to me regarding another post:

Is it my imagination or did a lot of the famous improv teachers yell at their students? Sounds like Viola did. People said Del Close was often a huge dick to his students. Keith Johnstone was famous for calling a student’s work horrible and telling them to get off the stage. I’ve heard other stories of popular teachers being mean.

Am I missing something? I would never yell at my students and I think even the worst scenes usually have some crumb of quality that can be noted.

Should I start being meaner?

My answer:

I took Viola’s yelling to be her passion. She never once used the word good or bad or horrible or any other judgmental word. She was all about what you did.

Paul Sills on the other hand could be more scathing. He had Viola’s temper but not the same talent for evaluation. He would often yell at students in anger. I knew that like his mother, it was not meant personally, but it often hurt rather than helped. Those who could not withstand it left. It was a natural weeding out process that always left him with brilliant people.

I once asked Paul why he did that. He told me “I don’t know what to tell them. I’m a director, not a teacher. I want to shake them up and maybe something will happen.”

He was indeed a teacher but his manner had some anger in it. Again I took that to mean ‘you are trespassing on the sacred! How dare you!”

Keith Johnstone on the other hand, does use a lot of judgmental words  like ‘terrible’ and ‘horrible’, which reinforces what Viola called the ‘Approval/Disapproval Syndrome’: The drive to please and to get it right.

My theory is that’s because he comes from England where class (thus Status – his best game in my opinion) matters and does not promote peerage (as in “We are all fellow players – even the director/teacher”) as does Spolin.

I worked with Keith once in Canada and when I asked him what he thought of Theater Sports, he told me “Atrocious! They are pissing on the altar!” – The same thing that made Paul Sills so angry.

In my blog “How I met Viola Spolin” I tell the story of how one time I pointed out to Viola that her yelling froze a young actor instead of helped him. She thanked me and addressed the problem.

She told us “It’s my passion that makes me yell.” She told us she now realized it scared some of us. She couldn’t not yell, so she began (for a little while) hollering out things like “What are you DO-ing! – she shrieked!” or “Stop! – she declared!” reminding us that she knew she was yelling.

It worked and we all accepted her yelling as her passion and did not take it personally.

We are all caught in Approval/Disapproval. It’s our culture! Especially actors, performers and other people who go on the stage and want be rewarded by audiences. Many teachers and directors use approval/disapproval as means of getting a result. It’s expedient, but limiting.

If we work to get a good result – to be liked and get a pat on the head instead of going for the triumph of transcending into true improvisation for its own sake, we are hobbled as artists.

If you aspire to the ‘art’ over being nice, you get geniuses like Viola Spolin and Paul Sills and you have honest and brilliant thinkers and teachers like Keith Johnstone and Del Close.

Post Script: I myself do not yell at my students. I try not to use words like good/bad, horrible, awful, etc. which hurt and does not help. Instead I try to figure out what’s missing – Something I did or something they did that can be corrected by another game or just repeating it at different times. I try to use whatever works without being mean.  I admit some of that comes from my wanting to be ‘nice guy’. I’m caught in Approval/Disapproval too.

Gary Schwartz, North Bend WA