21 Jan 2014

The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away. – Pablo Picasso

Several months ago I was invited to be a presenter at the Seattle House of Genius. What I found out there has altered how I think about my mission to teach Spolin Games.

There are Houses of Genius in many cities around the world. It’s a volunteer organization. The goal of House of Genius is to assemble brilliant, diverse groups of people to focus their collective creativity and experience to explore, discuss and solve important problems for start-up entrepreneurs. They hold evening sessions once a month and convene a panel of businesspeople, entrepreneurial visionaries and other creative minds and entertain three start-up businesspeople. The three presenters each share their elevator speech and state a key problem they are facing in a short five minute presentation. The assembled members of this “round-table” listen and then advise. The presenter listens without comment to best advice from each of them. The advice is usually sage, wide-ranging and diverse and you get to pick you choose what advice if any to follow.

Also they only use first names at the start. That way the presenter won’t be intimidated or influenced by what advice comes from whom. They believe it is a crucial ingredient to gain real perspectives and listen to innovative solutions. Afterwards the participants reveal to you who they are and what companies or industries they represent.

It’s a pretty cool idea.

My Problem

My presentation consisted of a short PowerPoint giving some background on Viola Spolin was and what she created. I then went into a short history of what happened to Improvisation since then: How Second City uses various versions of her exercises only to generate comedic sketches. I told of how Keith Johnstone’s Theater Sports and theories have swept the world. So much so that many improvisers have never even heard of Viola Spolin or if they had, they considered it so basic in comparison to Johnstone’s theories that it was not worth their time to explore the original work.

I also went into how, the games have been copied without ever giving any credit to the source and how others have capitalized on her work, by misrepresenting and misinterpreting it. I also explained how playing altered versions of the games have little or no connection to the real purpose of the games. I complained that Spolin’s genius was given lip service, but the real magic was getting lost.  I told them I want to correct the situation.

I stated my problem and asked the House of Genius ‘how do I successfully create a resurgence of interest in the pure work and popularize it as successfully as Second City, Theater Sports, Comedy Sportz and other so-called comedy improv institutions have?


The Response was eye-opening.

The first four people out of the 19 prefaced their advice with the same observation and comments.

“Gee Gary, you sound angry.” “This really bothers you, doesn’t it? Not being respected or valued.”

“I guess I am a little bitter.” I admitted.

Before giving their advice each successive person said “Plus one” to my anger. Plus one means that they also concur with the previous observation.

“Have you ever heard of the law of attraction?” One of them asked.

“Yes.” I said.

“It’s a popular marketing concept. You need to look into it.”

I got a lot of very interesting and varied opinions. “Improv is a brand you no longer can use.” One person told me. “Others have made that their brand. You need to find a different marketing space to own. Maybe call it something else?”

Another told me that he saw me as a disciple, and that I had a religious undertone. Therefore I should position myself not so much as a business but more like a cult and suggested I use the disciple aspect to my advantage and follow a Scientology model. I nodded. (When hearing feedback you cannot argue, just take each opinion in. I very much disagreed.)

The various entrepreneurs all had an interesting takes on my problem. The takeaway for me was that my bitterness was my major stumbling block. That was valuable information.

The last person in the group had the greatest impact on me. She was a woman in her 50’s and I won’t use her real name here, so I’ll call her Deborah. Deborah sat next to me at the table and looked me square in the eyes.

“Gary, are you’re asking us how to make this a successful business or is this your life’s work?”

“Well, it’s my life’s work, but I want to make it lucrative at the same time. I am a teacher and I have something of great value.”

“Honey.” She said. “If this is your life’s work, you’ve got to give it away.”

I didn’t know how to respond so I just sat there. She went on. “You have to find a way to give it away in as big a way as you can think of. Invest your own money in it if you have to, but don’t sell it. It won’t work.”

I was taken aback.

“If you need a model to base it on, think of Yoga or even Zumba. It starts small and spreads because they began by giving it away and it caught on. A man with a mat and a few interested people practiced Yoga and now look at it. So my advice to you is to give it away.”

The reveal happened at the end of the evening and there were indeed some impressive people in the room. As it turned out Deborah was a recently retired senior vice president at Amazon.com.

And why behold thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but consider not the beam in thine own eye? – Biblical quote

The Mote in My Eye

I once spoke to Paul Sills when Viola had given me permission to use her name and likeness in association with her work as I set about promoting it. After setting up the websites, http://Spolin.com and Intuitive Learning Systems, I met Paul in New York. He warned me. “Don’t turn this into dog food.”

I understood exactly what he meant. That ‘dog food’ was already on the market and doing very well, thank you and his work and Viola’s was not to be treated in that way.

I thought about Paul Sills and his mother Viola. After creating this amazing work, they were cut loose from Second City. Second City packaged aspects of their work and created an empire of comedy but never really grasped the profundity of what she had created. Instead they used it for laughs. It would make anyone bitter to have their work taken, altered, re-purposed and re-packaged and then given little thanks for their genius.

Viola was not only my friend and mentor, she was my spiritual mother in a way. I loved her very much, and I guess that over the years I adopted that resentment too. She was a complicated woman who despised the ‘predators’ as she called them for building their reputations on her work without giving her due credit and once betrayed, she never forgave.

It was the mote in my eye. It has kept me focused on converting the ‘improv infidels’ and evangelizing Viola’s work all the while jealous of their success.

Giving it Away

So now I am not interested so much in being a business and proving some point. I have begun a new chapter in my life and part of that is sharing this work (as I know it) for free. I’ve created The Spolin Games Master Class online. It will be my contribution to this work.

Spolin’s work profoundly changed my life and it has become my life’s work. I want to share what Viola taught me and share it in a big way. This new project is one way. Another is keeping this blog.

Gary Schwartz