Mother of Improv

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In honor of the Mother’s Day holiday [May 8th, 2016] this edition will highlight the mother of improvisation; Viola Spolin. Viola Spolin, who lived until 88, passing in 1994, was a distinguished educator and acting coach influencing what many today refer to as improv [improvisational theater/improvisational comedy]. Her legacy has continued to thrive through live performance, theory advancement and theater education.
Spolin - Source: Robert Loerzel
Viola Spolin and her contagious spirit.³


Viola Spolin was a major force in the early 1900s inspiring modern-day improvisation. Referred to as the “high priestess of improvisation,” Spolin was influential creating and catapulting improv to the mainstream. Her reach was far beyond the theater community. It is safe to assume anyone involved in either the arts and/or education has heard of the mother of improv. Spolin’s theater theory was and is far beyond the stage.

“The techniques of the theater are the techniques of communicating.”


The mother of improv was well-respected in theater, sure, but Viola Spolin was also passionate about using the tools of improvisational comedy to inspire generations of children. She taught to established [adult] theater ensembles, but her heart always directed her instruction to the younger folks. Spolin used her invented games for outreach education with delinquent teens, who also may be suffering with mental health afflictions – all the way to furthering the talents of ‘gifted and talented’ students. Her work spans decades and shaped many minds.

According to the Northwestern University Library’s analysis, known as the Guide to the Viola Spolin Papers¹ , Spolin has been influential in improv in Chicago and beyond: “Born in Chicago in 1906, Spolin is best known as the creator of theater games, originally created as a series of exercises to aid students in the study of drama. In 1955, Spolin conducted workshops for the Playwrights Theater Club, and later at the Compass Theater. In 1960 she began running improvisation workshops for the cast of Second City. As an outgrowth of her work with Second City, Spolin published Improvisation for the Theater in 1963, which resulted in much critical acclaim and solidified her reputation in improvisational theater. Her papers include writings, transcriptions, interviews, journals, drafts of theater games, and other materials that chronicle her work in improvisation and educational theater.” For an in-depth breakdown of the Viola Spolin Papers, please click here to be redirected to the Northwestern University Library archive.

“Through spontaneity we are re-formed into ourselves.”


Spolin didn’t just teach, she also wrote. Her teachings can be found in many of her in-depth books- including Improvisation for the Theater; Theater for the Classroom; Theater Games for the Lone Actor; Theater Games for Rehearsal; Theater Game File. Improvisation for the Theater is arguably the best book she wrote. Even today, the book sits at number one on the Amazon Performing Arts book category.

The Spolin non-profit website² indicates Spolin’s, “teaching methods [are] non-authoritarian, non-verbal, and non-psychological.” Viola Spolin had a heart of gold and a true knack for instruction. The biography for the “high priestess of improvisational theater” can be found here. The family continues to keep Viola Spolin’s legacy alive by continuing to teach her theater technique and philosophies through the down-to-earth [Paul Sills’] Wisconsin Theater Game Center in Bailey’s Harbor, WI, the youth programs in Los Angeles, CA & Chicago, IL along with nationwide tours of The Spolin Workshop. For more information on the Viola Spolin outreach programs, please click here.

The best gift Viola Spolin could have asked for on Mother’s Day is to have her message and love for the art of improvisational theater spread by her literal and figurative children. What a gift. Whereas many people must still learn about Spolin and her influence, there are a bounty of souls – performers, educators, and students – that have the mother of improv to thank.

Happy Mother’s Day, Viola!


Jon Jon Lannen chibi headshot
Jon Jon Lannen is the best-selling author of the Giraffe children’s book series. He is an instructor, performer and writer for the RISE Comedy Playhouse. More on him here.

¹ Northwestern University Library (1925-2003). Guide to the Viola Spolin Papers. Retrieved from the NULIB website.
² Viola Spolin (2016). Viola Spolin Biography. Retrieved from the Viola Spolin website.
³ Robert Loerzel (2012). Viola Spolin; Pioneer of Chicago Improv. Retrieved from the RL website.