13 Nov 2012

The Difference between Spolin Games and Popular Improv

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Over 60 years ago Viola Spolin, created a philosophy that is more relevant and needed today than it has ever been. She called it Theater Games. It created a movement in America and the world over that is now commonly called improvisation or Improv.

Her work deals in experiential learning. Where, with the support of a good sidecoach, playing the game becomes the teacher.  It is rooted in direct experience that lifts us out of our traditional roles and puts us in touch with our authentic self, each other and our circumstances.

Spolin’s improvisation training provides a way for people of different cultures, with different life experiences, to work together collaboratively to achieve productive outcomes.  It is a way for individuals to participate fully and authentically in the solving of problems. It is a path to innovation and inspiration and personal commitment[1]. That was how Spolin conceived of improvisation, but the word has come to mean something else.

There is a profundity in Spolin’s work that is hard to capture and commoditize. It cannot be learned intellectually, but must be experienced firsthand to really be understood. There are only a handful of teachers carrying on her tradition, myself being one of them.

Improvisation began with Spolin. But other styles and  forms have emerged/morphed and have become more popular. These new forms have swept the world and become synonymous with what most people think of as Improv.  I will try to explain the reason for this.

The Rise of Improv Comedy

What began as a form of training for the first improv company in the US, (The Compass cum Chicago’s Second City) was changed. Reinterpreted and modified for the purpose of creating comedy after Viola and her son Paul Sills, (the founder and original director of Second City) left.  Sadly, a lot of what Spolin taught is missing from their work nowadays.

Del Close, a former student of Spolin’s, had another take on improvisation, and based it on Spolin’s idea of group agreement. He called it Harold or what is now known as Long-Form Improv and for which he deserves credit. In its purest form, it is the closest to what Spolin was after – a group consciousness that comes together out of improvisation. Unfortunately, “Harold” is often misunderstood and deconstructed to a simpler form that for the most part produces pedestrian comedy masquerading as serious theater.

He also came up with an idea called Yes, and…. The idea that one must never deny what another brings up and always accept an offer from a fellow player by saying ‘yes’ to the premise and then adding some more information to further the scene.

Yes and… because it is easily understood does lay the foundation for what Spolin called group agreement.  It is now the primary basis of most improv training the world over. And it is useful in creating cooperation and information sharing. But it too is a deconstruction of one of Spolin’s ideas – that of Following the Follower.

Another popular form is TheaterSports, created by a British teacher and director, Keith Johnstone. It is uses judges and is based on a competition between two teams of improv players. The play is scored on its merits in such categories as entertainment value, narrative, comedy and originality. It has been deconstructed and spawned another competitive Improv form called ComedySportz.  I think the model of competitive sports is one that is easily grasped and that accounts for its popularity.  This approach has come to rely on competition as a primary focus, something that is antithetical to Spolin’s work.

Yes and…  along with Keith Johnstone’s theories of improvisation emphasizing narrative and status interactions, have become an easily grasped system. Yet it only touches on the work of Spolin.

It is true that Yes, and… allows people to share ideas and expand on them mostly to create comedy and funny scenes.  Yes, and… has come to be synonymous with the word Improv.

Spolin Improvisation vs. Johnstone’s Impro, Yes, and… & Improv Comedy

To understand Spolin Games you have to experience them and be transformed by them. This system opens you to having what Spolin called Direct Experience; the premise that the intuitive must be accessed which incorporate intelligence, integrates mind and body and produces spontaneous action and discovery in the act of doing.

Blocks or resistance to this state is what she called being in your head (subjectively perceiving and intellectualizing) It is how we are normally taught in our culture and what we adopt in our behavior. Other forms of Improv base their training on working with the head coping and compensating for the blocks that being in your head presents.

To understand Johnstone, you must understand, intellectually, the dos and don’ts to successful scene improv; i.e. status, narrative, character, blocks, offers, platforms and tilts; Then practice them individually or in combination. It does produce fun and funny scenes especially in the hands of naturally gifted performers.

Spolin’s initial application was to make a form of theatrical training for children. The focus was shift away from intellectual understanding of interactions and storytelling to one of creating an intuitive, holistic connection to fellow players in seeking to solve a particular problem presented in a game. In the solving of that problem a skill is acquired. In the hands of trained adult players in the early days of the Compass and later Second City, these same games sparked successful comedy satire in the 1960’s and fostered the talents of people like Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Alan Arkin, Barbara Harris, Mina Kolb, Dick Schaal, Valerie Harper, Avery Schrieber, Eugene Troobnick, Tony Holland, Stiller and Meara, Alan Alda and gave them a platform to develop sketches that eventually became the hallmark of Second City.

The process of seeing the solving many of Spolin’s games onstage is often highly entertaining and ‘show-worthy’. A successful theatrical format using Spolin Games was created by her son, Paul Sills in the early 1980’s. Sills & Company ran in Los Angeles for several years before going to Broadway. The group he left behind became The Spolin Players. (of which I was a member) And after 25 years, they are still performing Los Angeles.

Spolin’s philosophy does not stress the intellectual approach, (known and shared information) and instead aims for getting a direct experience (right now) and challenges the player to enter into a state of true play where the mind and body unite to become fully involved in solving the problem, thus accessing the intuition.

The result of this process creates something much more powerful and meaningful than clever and comedic scenes and narratives. It creates the possibility of something new coming into being in the wake of that process. It seeks to create inspiration – that ‘ah-ha!’ moment that leads to new insights and the exploration of the unknown.

Improvisation like this creates truly theatrical, exhilarating moments, spontaneously, without consciously relying on the sharing of individual information and clever manipulation of that information. (Yes, and…, and narrative) It is the crux of what Spolin was after.

Using Yes and… and the theories of Keith Johnstone

As much as it may seem I disparage other forms of Improv, I do not. I used to play in those formats as well and I want to state that there is a value in that system but my success in those forms are informed by my background in Spolin. What is commonly referred to as Improv bears little resemblance to Spolin, but it does foster cooperation and helps us get comfortable with failure and un-predictability. It is used for co-creating ideas and sharing them.  It establishes a method to interact with each other using ideas we are familiar with. And it does break you out of the traditional roles and creates novelty. It will create a sense of surprise and the unexpected. And it does teach alternate ways of handling information and relationships.

All these things are good and easily accessible and understood. This very fact is why this type Improv has become so popular.

Although it teaches a set of useful skills, it is only a clever rearranging of the known. And therefore does not have the potential to fundamentally transform the individual or the group as does Spolin Games because it works with the familiar paradigm of success and failure, approval/disapproval and therefore is limited. Yes, and… & other forms sometimes comes close to the transcendant, transformative moments, but not by design. More by accident.

The Value of Spolin’s approach – Theater Games

Spolin Improv applies to much more than theater training. It creates strong, unified, teams made up of dynamic individuals all working to achieve for the sake of staying present and excited and fully involved in any endeavor.

It requires us to be present, ready for full participation as part of a whole and offers us a chance to be truly authentic.

It erases fear of judgment (by self or others) and makes playing (true effort) an end in itself. It allows for different levels of skill and makes peers of you and your fellow players, directors, bosses and subordinates. It levels the playing field to see each other as fellow players all capable of playing full out whatever the role or title.

It transforms all those who participate. It lifts us out of our reward seeking, failure fearing, anxiety ridden, self-conscious culture to which we are all unfortunately conditioned. And to which we have adapted.

Spolin’s work operates from a different paradigm:  Non-authoritarian, non-intellectual, non-judgmental group agreement.  Where one is a part=of- a =whole; a fellow player in relation to others to your fullest capacity with the purpose of stepping into the unknown and exploring the possibilities:

And most of all, it is readily accessible because it is done using play!

Play is powerful because it is fun!


Comparing Spolin’s approach to other forms of Improv

Spolin Games

Johnstone & Yes, and…

Play: Extending one’s self fully in the pursuit of solving a problem. Competition: Succeeding above another. Winning. Using one’s skills better than another in the eyes of the audience.
Focus: Keeping your eye on the ball. Total involvement. The process of solving a problem, being ready to follow wherever it leads.. Making an Offer: Initiating an idea and selecting a direction. with a focus on narrative. Using past experience to develop material.
Spontaneity: The energy released when working with a problem.  A surprise which brings laughter. Comedy:  a surprise for the audience with jokes and unexpected outcomes that come from the head.
Direct Experience:  working in present time without filtering it through past experience. Status: Manipulating relationships between people. Used to create positive and negative behavior.
Following the Follower:  total involvement with each other without judgment.  Flowing in unison. Yes, and… accepting and adding information.
The Scene: what is left in the wake of process. Spontaneous interaction.
Story:  the result of this process
Narrative: The shape and form of a story with a beginning a middle and an end. Using information in clever and surprising ways and forming it into a cohesive story.
Allowing the scene to emerge. Going with what is going on and responding to it honestly. Playwriting: Coming up with offers.  Planning on how to work your offers into the narrative.


[1] The Huffington Post online: Ayn Rand vs Viola Spolin

Mike Bonifer, Posted: 11/05/2012