Imagine Viola Spolin (née Mills), the mother, the Jewish mother, Paul Sills’s mother, Tina Fey’s spiritual grandmother, the mother of theatrical improvisation. There was no radio in those days, in the early part of the century, and Viola’s parents, Russian immigrants, didn’t have a lot of money, so as kids Viola and her friends had to invent their own amusement. Instead of going to the theater, they played tag, jacks, marbles, hopscotch, changing the rules as it suited them, breaking the rules, inventing new ones, up and down the streets of Chicago and for as long as the day would let them. When it got dark, Viola joined her big, rollicking, Jewish socialist family ?— ?father, mother, and five siblings ?— ?for long and elaborate games of charades, dressing up together, falling down laughing, and singing impromptu, Yiddish-flavored operas.
Let’s jump ahead to 1924, when Viola, now a pretty and adventurous eighteen-year-old with an interest in social work, enrolled at Hull House, a community center offering educational and cultural enrichment programs to Chicago’s poor, immigrant populations. There she trained under sociologist Neva Boyd, a progressive educator and leading play theorist. Boyd’s Recreation Training School at Hull House instructed participants in group games and other communal activities including theater arts. Viola called Boyd, who envisioned play as essential to emotional and physical well-being, her “inspirator.” “Play means happiness,” Boyd wrote. “It is characterized by feelings of pleasure which tend to break out in laughter.” Boyd took her students out of the classroom to engage in “play behavior,” learn, and remember why, as children, playing felt so good. “When we find ourselves in situations in which we are free to act as our ‘feelings’ prompt,” Boyd wrote in “Play ?— ?A Unique Discipline,” “there is no emotional conflict in the functioning of the organism. This is what happens in spontaneous play.” When you play, you are free to be most you.
Viola began to think about play as a way into the unconscious, a means of unearthing, as she wrote to herself, “qualities which cannot be talked about.”
Some years later, talk was a problem for the multiethnic, multilingual youth of the recreational theater Viola directed at Hull House. Participants were intensely inhibited onstage. As long as these children ?— ?divided by culture and self-censored by fear ?— ?were unable to communicate, they would stay locked in, isolated from one another and ultimately from themselves. Getting them to play together, Viola believed, would loosen them up onstage and maybe light a flame under the melting pot. To provide them “a non-authoritarian climate” necessary for freedom, she had them extemporize together. Imagine a world where adults did not exist, she prompted. What would you do? “The unfolding of the scene was quite a revelation,” she wrote. “Never were boys and girls more charming, more courteous to one another. They were gentle and tender, they spoke in soft tones, they were concerned with each other’s simplest problems ?— ?they loved one another!”
They were improvising. That’s what happens when you improvise.
Now let’s go six hundred miles southwest, to Manhattan, Kansas, where, in 1942, nine-year-old Del Close ?— ?chubby, with big glasses and crooked teeth ?— ?was sitting in a movie theater.
“To be or not to be?”
This was the question Jack Benny was asking in a film of the same name, as Del sat watching, riveted to the movie screen. When it ended, he drifted from the theater high on the film’s title: To Be or Not to Be, “the first intelligent question,” he said, “I’d heard a human being ask himself.” Who was this Shakespeare and what was he up to and why would anyone not want to be? What did that mean, not to be? He needed more.
Had his father, Del Close senior, a depressive alcoholic jeweler, been at any way available to his son, instead of caught up in his work at Del Close Jewelers, or in his depression and his drinking, had Mr. Close been home the night Del discovered human beings had a choice, and therefore a very big problem, and therefore a lifelong pain no metaphoric tunnel of what-ifs could help them escape, Del would not have made the trip to his grandfather’s bar in nearby Abilene. “My grandfather,” Close would recall, “kind of caught on that I thought some kind of secret shit was going on.” Stepping around the bar, the old man led Del ?— ?the incipient mad scientist of improvisation ?— ?to his first lesson in freedom. From inside glass-door bookcase, Grandpa removed a leather-bound copy of Hamlet, and put it in the boy’s hands.
Back now to Viola, the teacher, the social worker, the bringer-together. She met and married Ed Spolin in 1940, while they were at work for the Chicago WPA; he was a set designer, she a theater director at the WPA’s Recreation Project, by that time divorced and with two teenage sons, Paul and William Sills (when they wed, her husband had taken her surname). Expanding on her earlier efforts at Hull House, Viola was formulating techniques to help disparate populations dramatize their shared problems. By then, she had developed a format. First she would split her players into two groups. The performing group would decide on a subject worthy of improvisation, play for two or three scenes for the second group, their audience, who in turn would respond to the scenes with feedback. Then they would improvise the scenes again. “Every few months, the cast would pick out the best scenes and perform them for an actual audience. There were about 150 people in [one] cast,” Viola would say, “Italians, Greeks, Mexicans, Negroes, and I don’t know of what other racial strains. They were of all ages and of both sexes.” And they all played together.
In 1940, in Chicago, Viola introduced the notion of audience suggestions.
On a trip out West several years later, Viola and Ed fell in love with the brown and purple wilds of the Santa Monica Mountains, and bought a patch of raw hillside on the edge of Mulholland. Ed built them a cabin in the hills over the city, and Viola bought herself a lime-green convertible, in which she would curl down the mountain to a big red barn at 1745 North La Brea, just north of Hollywood Boulevard, that she named the Young Actors Company.
From the bus stop on Hollywood and La Brea, her charges trekked up an old road that led them, just behind the Hollywood Women’s Club, to the clapping of a fountain and Viola’s big red barn, nestled in a ring of tall oaks. “It was like stepping into paradise,” said actor Paul Sand, who began studying improvisation with Viola at age nine. Kneeling to child height, Viola would hike up her sarong-like dress and meet her young actors face-to-face, booming with warmth. She gave off the homey scents of roast chicken, herbs, and cigarettes, and her skin was tan from being outside all day playing with children. But although she was always gentle, “Viola was a powerful woman with a very strong voice,” said her student Ronnie Austin. “You would have cast her as a labor organizer.”
Imagine them playing inside too, onstage, games Viola designed to release spontaneity. Games were for rehearsal, intended to help the players ?— ?Viola became weary of the ter...