How I Met Viola Spolin


 My First Encounter with the Mother of Improvisation 

I was living in Hollywood, tending bar, performing comedy and mime in local cafes and trying to break into show business like thousands of other hopefuls from all over the country. 

A dear friend of mine called from Potsdam University. He told me he was doing a paper on Viola Spolin, the author of “Improvisation for the Theater” the basic handbook of improvisation. He said that Viola Spolin had a center in Hollywood and would I go and check it out and get him some information.

Why I had never heard of this woman? Her name was never mentioned in any of the professional improv workshops I attended in LA. If she invented this form why don’t people involved in the profession give her credit?

I began studying improv in 1976. I came to LA and began workshopping with a group called “Off the Wall” (still performing). They were a very funny and quick bunch. It was fun, fast paced and very nerve wracking for me. We did Freeze Tag and other funny character scenes. I’d try my damndest to wing it and look for opportunities to insert my humor and wit. Although I had fun and felt it was worthwhile, it was very much like taking a fencing class filled with tension. All the players in this workshop viewed each other with a sort-of friendly competition. We were a group of people who had developed various ways of being funny and sort of sparred with each other. To my credit, I was able to hold my own among these very fast witted and funny people.

I found myself outside the Pilot Theater onSanta Monica Blvd., asking if there was any information on this Viola Spolin. A former student of hers was conducting the workshops on her behalf and told me I’d get more information by taking a workshop with him. I agreed and began attending this workshop. The difference between this kind of improvising and the comedy improv I had been doing was amazing. The games we played were fun and challenging. It was so different than working at being funny in the other class. I had a great time playing with some wonderful people in that workshop. I enjoyed it a lot.

One day, Viola Spolin came by to watch this former student teach the workshop. She was in her late 60’s. She had steel gray curly hair, wore jade oriental earrings and some nice bohemian print dress. Her student led some exercises with us and before we got too far, Viola stood up and said to this guy, “Get out! You don’t know what you’re doing.” We were thunderstruck and totally ignorant of whatever she saw as the failure in his approach. In any event, she dismissed him on the spot and he left. She then turned and faced us and announced that she would take over and start from the beginning. 

So we began again, this time with Viola Spolin herself! 

The first exercise was the mirror – one that I had done many times before. However, she coached us into the mirror urging us to “follow the follower” – where no one is leading and both are following. I knew the sidecoach phrase ‘Follow the Follower” and I thought I had an understanding of it but, I had never been coached like this. Viola’s coaching seemed to keep me constantly off-balance. I didn’t seem to have a chance to copy the movements of my partner. Yet I was doing the movements. Viola’s timing and other comments began to have an effect on me that I had never experienced. I started to loose control. I began to tremble. The harder I fought to accomplish the mirror the more I trembled. Viola yelled into my ear, “Follow the follower!” “Let it flow!” “Let it Flow!”

I really was shaking now. It was a vibration like trying to hold a jet in flight while crashing. The harder I yanked on the stick to gain control, the more I shook. Eventually she called the exercise to an end and released me from this condition. I was ‘shaken’, literally. I sat there dazed. Viola came up behind me put her hand on my shoulder and addressed the class. “Now you see, this young man here had a direct experience[1]. He actually got to see Marty.” (The woman I did the mirror with). She went on “I would guess it was the first time he ever really saw anyone in his entire life.” Then she went on to other exercises.

I knew she was right. I had been in my head.[2] My life was dedicated to making quick judgments about everything and everybody. I had become very good at filtering quickly, all the behavior and awareness I needed to interact with people. I was good at it. I was quick. I had the ability to integrate all my opinions and judgments into funny lines and moves. I could assess situations in the blink of an eye. I felt safe and well protected with this ability. In fact I thought Improv was the perfecting of this talent.

This was different: As I beheld my partner, I had no opinion of Marty or saw her as pretty or talented or thought to myself anything while I was with her in this mirror game. I was just there and she was there. I had never been so exposed or exhilarated and I knew I had found something profound. I was on the verge of “follow the follower” and, although I tried with every fiber of my being to achieve the focus. This caused the ‘shaking’ I knew I needed to explore this.

At the end of the workshop, I hung around. Viola was standing at a table, sorting through her theater game cards and making some notes. I came up to her and respectfully said, “I want to thank you…”

“DON’T THANK ME!” she yelled. She whirled on me. “Don’t thank me! Don’t you see it’s not ME? It’s not me. It’s the work! I didn’t do anything… Oh, get out!” It appeared she was on the verge of a lecture and then thought better of it. She stopped; and as suddenly as this outburst emerged, it subsided. She turned back to her cards and notes.

Luckily, I was raised by parents who were ‘yellers’, so her outburst appeared to me as concern and a caring reaction. I somehow knew her don’t thank me response meant she didn’t want her ego stroked or to be treated like some guru. She was fearful of flattery and she shut it down whenever possible. Later she would tell me flattery is the tool of approval seekers, and the approval/disapproval syndrome[3], prevalent in our culture, was her constant nemesis.

“I want to be your apprentice.” I said. Well, that stopped her. She turned from her notes and looked at me with a kind smile. She took off her large gray glasses and looked at me with her watery blue eyes. “Oh honey, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” I stood there resolute.

“Let me tell you a story.” She began. “About the young monk and the master. A young monk came to the master and asked ‘how does one become a master?’ The master said he would allow the monk to stay and learn. On one condition – ask no questions except for once a year. Also, the monk had to agree to tend the master’s hearth and home. The monk agreed. One year passed and the monk tended the fire and cooked the meals. ‘Master it is time to ask the question.’ ‘Ask’ said the Master. ‘How does one become a master?’ The Master said ‘Be sure to wipe your feet after you clean the hearth.’ That was all the answer the young monk got. The years went by– Each year the same. ‘How does one become a master?’ ‘You missed a spot when you cleaned the wall, don’t let that happen again.’ Or ‘Make sure you get all the spots on the windows when you clean them.’ The monk had to be content with these answers.” she said.

“Ten years go by.” She continued. “The monk was walking up the stone steps carrying a yoke of water. You know, a bar with a bucket on each end. And he said it was time to ask the question. ‘Go ahead and ask’ said the Master. ‘How do I become a master?’ The Master said, ‘be careful not to dip your shoulder so low coming up the steps, you’ll spill the water.’ANDIN THAT INSTANT…” she snapped her fingers and leaned closer to me “He became the Master!”  Silence.  Then she said, “So you see honey, you don’t really know what you’re talking about.”  She gathered up her notes and left me to ponder that obtuse story.

I came to class every week and early on, I was by no means a very good player. I was in my head a lot of the time. I tried desperately to figure out what she wanted me to do. In fact, I left many times deflated and frustrated. She never said we were good or bad. She just pointed out that when a game doesn’t work it’s because we are in our head. We played hundreds of games. Our workshop group knitted into a wonderful bunch of players. She laughed a lot, yelled a lot and launched into occasional tirades that could be very stinging, but I knew that her frustration was in the fact that we did not get that fragile present-time, direct experience that she was always after.

Viola found out I lived only several blocks away from her. She asked if I could drive her to and from workshop. I did. She also found out I liked to cook. Her father was a wonderful cook and she told me stories of great family dinners where her father would serve up amazing dishes from the old country. I would get a call from her occasionally asking me if I was going shopping at Hughes Market, the local grocery, and would I mind getting her a cabbage or some such item. I did.

In workshop, she’d sometimes ask me to take down what games she played. I should note here, that Viola had a standing rule she made very clear to all her students. No note taking. “If you can’t walk out with it in your bones, it’s not going to do you a bit of good on a piece of paper.” She would say. Actually, her vehemence stemmed from other teachers coming in and observing her work, writing it down and calling it their own. She once told me when she was working on her transformation exercises; a well-known director came in to watch several sessions. Soon after he became very famous for using it as the basis of a theater style he claimed to have invented. He never gave any credit to Spolin’s work as the source material. This infuriated Viola and made her forever wary of what she called ‘predators’ in the theater.

By this time everyone in her workshop was well aware of her temper and most were, frankly, afraid of it.

During one class, I sat with a notebook dutifully making notes of what games she was using and referencing. She was on the stage, pacing around and lecturing when she looked up at me in the audience and saw me taking notes. “GARY!!” she yelled. “YOU! OF ALL PEOPLE! How dare you take notes in my workshop!”

The rest of the class visibly hunkered down, in a way, trying to duck her wrath. “Godammit, Viola, you told me to write down the games you’re doing!” I hollered back.

“Oh, yes. That’s right.” She said and went right back to her lecture.

That day, after workshop, I drove her home. She asked if I’d like to come in and have a glass of vodka with her. We came down a stairway into her hobbit-like house perched in the hillside of the Cahuenga pass in theHollywoodhills. It was originally a goat shed in the early thirties and had evolved, over time, into a wonderful pastiche of modern woodwork and beams and smacked of the bohemian 60’s with its patchwork of wood, wall hangings, blue glass and pottery.

I watched her go through the house looking under pillows, behind clocks and pictures until she found a Camel cigarette. “I’m trying to quit, so Kolmus (her husband) hides a few around the house, I have to find one if I want one so I’ll cut down. It works.” She invented a game to quit smoking! We had a glass of vodka and that was that. I made the leap from student to friend.

Thus began my apprenticeship. I brought her groceries, drove her to and from workshops, cooked many meals for her and her husband, catered several parties and sat by her side as she led workshops. I asked several times if I could begin teaching what I was learning. “No!” she snapped.  I felt her refusal was because she feared the ‘predator’ in me: That my request to teach was ego driven: That I would be like so many other students who hung out shingles as teachers after a few months in her workshop, before thoroughly understanding her philosophy. Somehow, I understood this. She would change the subject. “Say, if you go byHughesmarket, pick me up some potatoes.”

Back at workshop, she would call out sidecoaches during scenes and when they worked she’d lean over to me and say, “you see how that freed him up?” or “now he’s got the focus” or just plain, “There, you see?” Sometimes she would yell “NOOOOO! Not like that!” her temper often getting the better of her. Once, I watched as she yelled out some sidecoach very loudly to a young actor. He absolutely froze. He continued in the scene in a very herky-jerky fashion, totally stifled by her yelling. I pointed it out to Viola. She patted my arm and said “Thank you dear.” She went down onto the playing area and calmly announced that she is aware that her yelling has an adverse effect on some players.

“That’s your approval/disapproval syndrome. But it’s only my passion!” she boomed. “Still, I’ll find a way for you to work with me.” She did not want to stifle her instincts (and yelling was instinctive to her), so whenever she became aware that her raised voice frightened a player she would temper it with “NOOOO! Not like that!!!… She declared!” Or “Use your where! … She hollered!” This took the fear of her anger away and reminded us that it was her passion that caused her temper to flare. She was always looking for ways to be true to her own instincts but primary was her desire to get us to use her sidecoaches and get out of our heads and into the space.

After eight years, my desire to teach theater games was still strong. I was teaching and performing Mime during this time, but soon found it too mechanical and boring. I always enjoyed teaching. I’ll admit, originally, I taught for the sake of my ego. I taught by rote. I knew something you didn’t and I was special.  I liked being looked up to and respected and having some small power over others. Feeling smart. This was now so tedious to me.

“Teaching” Viola would say “is a cleansing. You have to solve a problem. Students give you problems in their resistance or lack of focus. You play every game and ask yourself, what will get them out of their heads?”  I understood sidecoaches are prompts and games are problems to solve problems. ‘Cleanse yourself of the past – rote way to do the game and be in the moment with your player.’ I adopted that attitude and ever since, teaching has been endlessly rejuvenating for me, and a source of great satisfaction.

Eventually, Viola permitted me to teach children’s classes and show the games using space object work to my fellow mimes. She would watch me teach and later, over a drink, ask me questions about my students and what problems they presented. She never gave me outright advice on how to teach, though, other than to say, “If you have a problem, there’s a game to solve it. And if there isn’t a game, invent one.”

I began to have many successes in my own acting and performance work. Sometimes in class, after I had achieved some focus that may have eluded me she would offhandedly ask, “Do you realize you had a breakthrough[4] there?” I would nod. There was never a comment like ‘well done’ or ‘good work’, and I knew enough never to say “Thank you” to her. My career as an actor and performer progressed. Viola’s coaching and the games were a major reason.

The years passed and I continued to associate with Viola and assist her in various workshops.  Our friendship grew. I met my wife, Tinaat Viola’s 75th birthday party (which I catered by the way). We married two years later on November 7th – Viola’s birthday. The next year we had a party celebrating Viola’s birthday and our anniversary. (My wife and I catered it, of course) The party was wonderful, as were all of Viola’s parties. Towards the end of the night, I was cleaning up dishes and ashtrays. Viola was sitting in the living room.Tina was in the kitchen washing dishes. I poured a brandy for Viola and myself and sat down. “Viola, do you remember the first day we met?”

“No.” She said

“I do.” I said. “You yelled at me for thanking you and then, when I asked if I could be your apprentice you told me a story.”

“Oh?” She smiled.

“You told me a story about a young monk.” I said. “Who went to the master to ask how to become a Master?”

“Yes, yes. I know that story.” She said.

“Well Viola, I’ve driven you back and forth to workshops for last ten years. I’ve gone shopping for you and cooked you meals. Here we are,Tinaand I, cleaning up your house after a great party. So I have only one question – How the hell does one become a Master?” Viola howled with laughter. “OK, you’re the Master.” She laughed.

Solving problems on your own with an experienced eye to support you develops your talent and personal genius. Viola knew this. Put your focus on simple things – like games. State the rules and play, and all life’s lessons can be learned.

But, how can we do it?

“Be sure to wipe your feet after you clean the hearth. –  You missed a spot there.’ — ‘Be careful not to dip your shoulder so low — you’ll spill the water.’

That is the way to mastery and when it comes to improvisation. Viola Spolin was the master and deserves the credit for it.


[1]Direct Experience: A space where [the] individual is awake and alive to what is going on; your whole self attentive; a space for intuition to emerge to assist in the ongoing event. – Improvisation for the Theater, 3rd edition; pg. 358

[2] “Out of the Head and Into the Space” a favorite Spolin sidecoach used to wean you away from the reliance on intellectual thought and premeditation to allow a direct/intuitive experience.

[3] Approval/Disapproval (False reinforcement) Opposite sides of the same coin, approval/disapproval bring about emotional response and dependency on authority, which obstructs or misleads a player from real work – from experiencing self and the problem. If we have to look to others to tell us where we are, who we are and what is happening, we are kept from our own nature. From the “Theater Game File Handbook”, Spolin, Northwestern University Press copyright 1989.

See Approval/Disapproval in  “Improvisation for the Theater” Page 6. Viola Spolin., Northwestern University Press. Copyright  1999

[4] Breakthrough: The point at which a student’s spontaneity arises to meet a crisis on stage: the moment of “letting go” resistances and static frames of reference; a moment of seeing things from a different point of view; a moment of insight into the focus; trusting the scheme; the moment of growth. –  Viola Spolin: “Improvisation for the Theater, 3rd Edition. Pg. 356.

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About the Author:

Gary’s 18-year association with world-renowned theater educator and author, Viola Spolin provides the foundation for his work today. He is the only master teacher to have ever earned an endorsement from both Viola Spolin and her son, the legendary original director of Second City, Paul Sills. Gary resides in North Bend WA. He is founder of The Valley Center Stage, North Bend’s Community Theater and teaches theater games locally and around the world.

One Comment

  1. Randy Brenner June 15, 2014 at 7:24 pm

    I, along with Gary, worked for many years with Viola Spolin. First in Sills and Co., the acclaimed Improv group that her son, Paul Sills created and then later when we morphed into “The Spolin Players”. If you watched the ‘mirror speech” clip , that’s me . Viola had a profound impact on my life as an artist and a person. She opened doors within my mind creatively that I did not think possible. As an actor she freed me to truly be “in the moment”, whether it be auditions ( and helped me LOVE the audition process, not loathe it) and as an actor in performance. Many years ago I also started directing many plays and musicals for stage and also TV. In both circumstances, Viola’s work is an essential part of the rehearsal process. I use various games to help with character, and having the actors feel more cohesive as a group. I also teach “space work” so that when in rehearsal where your props and costumes are not yet available, that if you see them in space, when they finally arrive they are not foreign to you. They fit like an old glove and feel very comfortable in your hand. I also use side coaching during the beginning stages of rehearsal, to guide the actors along. I along with Gary was chosen by Viola to teach her work which I did for many years, occasionally still do. She wanted to make sure that it was taught the way she intended. I think Viola chose me cause I was a bit of a rebel. Always questioning her methods, which she loved. As Viola always stressed, we are not teachers we are guides, we learn from each other. Viola made me aware of how we are raised to believe that the “teacher” knows all. She would often in a workshop ask a question, and listen to see who had an answer. After many answers would circle around the room, someone would invariably ask, “so, what’s the answer”? To which Viola would reply, “I don’t know, I was asking you”! I once asked her to autograph a copy of her book, ‘Improvisation to the Theatre” which I had a copy since college,She wrote, “To Randy, I really fine fellow player “and ‘fine’ is underlined several times. Please help Gary keep her work going! Learn more about it! Incorporate it into your life. You’ll be amazed at how much creativity you have locked up inside of you and much FUN it is to let it out!! Be a fine fellow player and keep Vioila’s work alive!!

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