Yes and…Remembering Viola Spolin—the “mother of modern improvisation”

by Zoë Lourey-Christianson

On a frigid Chicago night in 1959, comedy history was made when The Second City theater opened its doors. To this day, the venue is considered the mecca of improv, renowned for its groundbreaking revue-style shows and, most notably, for being the pad from which countless comedic giants have launched their careers. (Tina Fey, Gilda Radner, Amy Poehler, Bill Murray, and Stephen Colbert, just to name a few.) But the tremendous legacy of this institution can be traced back to one woman whose name even sketch fans may not be familiar with—Viola Spolin.

Born in Chicago in 1906, Spolin studied under renowned sociologist Neva Boyd at Hull House, a school where Boyd taught educational programs in group games, dramatic arts, and play theory as a way to teach primarily immigrant children essential social skills. Spolin utilized Boyd’s philosophy to form her own methods of improvisation, applying the spontaneity of play to the art of theater and creating what we know today as improv. 

Improv relies on performers to construct narratives, characters, settings, and props on the fly—often directed by suggestions from the audience. As Spolin recognized, the ability to improvise is an important life skill as well as a powerful tool for creating dynamic theater.  

After studying under Boyd, Spolin traveled throughout the U.S. to work and teach before eventually returning to Chicago. She and a group of other young working mothers rented a mansion they nicknamed “the Educational Playroom,” where they lived and raised their children together. By this time, Spolin had two children of her own, including her son Paul Sills.

Spolin eventually rented space at the Hull House herself, teaching classes and workshops to children. It was there that Paul learned the theater games his mother invented. In college, he would follow in his mother’s footsteps, hosting workshops and teaching her theater games to his peers. Then, in 1959, Sills and two friends opened The Second City theater. 

Sills asked Spolin to teach at the theater, so she did, bringing her revolutionary methods with her. And the rest, as they say, is comedy history.

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