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A look at Viola Spolin — ‘High Priestess of Improv’

ViolSpol1946. The late Spolis considered by many mother American improvisational theatre.

Viola Spolin in 1946. The late Spolin is considered by many the mother of American improvisational theatre.

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‘Viola Spolin: Improvisation
and Intuition’

♦ April 1-16

♦ Northwestern University Library, 1970 Campus Drive, Evanston

♦ “The Theatre of Viola Spolin and Paul Sills,” a lecture by Viola Spolin’s daughter-in-law and former editor, Carol Bleackley Sills, is 7 p.m. April 4 at McCormick Tribune Center Forum, 1870 Campus Drive, Evanston.

♦ Visit www.northwest

Updated: May 1, 2013 1:58PM

It’s no coincidence that Northwestern University’s exhibit on the famous drama teacher Viola Spolin will open on the same day as the start of the Chicago Improv Festival. Spolin, admiringly called the “High Priestess of Improv,” is acknowledged in the theater community and beyond as inventing the comedic form.

Dan Zellner, digital media specialist at the University Library, declares that Spolin’s theater games laid the groundwork for improvisational theaters such as Second City in Chicago, the ensemble comedy television show “30 Rock,” and even Christopher Guest’s approach to making movies.

“Viola Spolin: Improvisation and Intuition” displays a collection of Spolin’s papers, given to Northwestern as a gift from her son Paul Sills’s family. Sills, the first director of Second City, used his mother’s improvisational techniques in the establishment of the iconic institution.

Paul Sills’s widow, Carol Bleackley Sills, will speak about the late Spolin April 4. Bleackley Sills lives in California and worked with her husband in the creation and design of his theaters, including The Game Theater, Story Theater and Sills & Co.

“Your head just explodes with all the material in our collection,” Zellner continued. “The hardest part was choosing what to put in the exhibit and what to leave out.”

In 1963 Spolin wrote a book titled “Improvisation for the Theater,” published by Northwestern University Press, which included more than 200 theater games and exercises. It is informally called the Improv Bible and its three editions have been used in acting classes and have influenced teachers, directors and actors through the years.

The exhibit explores Spolin’s theater exercises and games with photos, writings, and audio and video clips. Actress Valerie Harper, a Story Theater and Second City alum, is providing the audio guide for the exhibit.

Born in Chicago in 1906, Spolin did not set out to change the landscape of contemporary theater. At the age of 18 she began working at Hull House and met Neva Boyd, who used dramatic group games to help immigrant children become accustomed to life in their new country. Boyd’s methods became the major influence on Spolin’s theater games.

According to Bleackley Sills, when Spolin’s son Paul was a child, he and his mother lived in a mansion on Lake Michigan, near the Edgewater Beach Hotel. “They were with a group of modern divorced mothers,” she said. “They called their home the Educational Playroom.”

During the Great Depression, Spolin directed the Chicago branch of the Works Progress Administration’s Recreational Project at Hull House. After World War II she bought a home on land in the Hollywood Hills, which is still occupied by members of the family. There, she formed a Young Actors Company for children, using her ever-expanding repertoire of theater games.

Meanwhile, her son Paul had enrolled in the University of Chicago, and joined a group called Playwrights Theater. From there he connected with college friend David Shepherd, who created the short-lived Compass Players.

After Compass dissolved in 1959, Sills, Howard Alk and Bernard Sahlins created Second City in Chicago, bringing with them many of the former Compass Players members.

From Second City sprung the talents of Alan Arkin, Severn Darden, Barbara Harris and Avery Schreiber, and in later years Second City alums moved on to the Saturday Night Live crowd, including Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Mike Myers, Gilda Radner and Tina Fey.

The Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston was established by two of Spolin’s disciples, Joyce and Byrne Piven, who were among those establishing Playwrights Theatre.

Zellner is keen to point out another Chicago connection. “When you think about this, it all goes back to Hull House, started by another extraordinary lady, Jane Addams,” he said, then tracing the line from Neva Boyd to Viola Spolin, to Paul Sills and now to Aretha Sills, one of Viola’s granddaughters, who conducts a workshop in Story Theatre in Door County, Wis. each summer.

Among Spolin’s many observations are her powerful words about why the theater exists. “The audience is the most revered member of the theater,” she wrote. “Without an audience, there is no theater. They are our guests, our evaluators. They make the performance meaningful.”~.

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