Viola Spolin (November 7, 1906 — November 22, 1994) was an important innovator of the American theater in the 20th century. She created directorial techniques to help actors to be focused in the present moment and to find choices improvisationally, as if in real life. These acting exercises she later called Theater Games and formed the first body of work that enabled other directors and actors to create improvisational theater. Her book, “Improvisation for the Theater,” which published these techniques, includes her philosophy, as well as her teaching and coaching methods and is considered the “bible of improvisational theater.” Spolin’s contributions were seminal to the improvisational theater movement in the U.S. She is considered to be the mother of Improvisational theater. Her work has influenced American theater, television and film by providing new tools and techniques that are now used by actors, directors and writers.
Spolin influenced the first generation of improvisational actors at the Second City in Chicago in the late 1950s, through her son, Paul Sills. He was the founding director of the Compass Players which led to the formation of the Second City. He used her techniques in the training and direction of the company, which enabled them to create satirical improvisational theater about current social & political issues. Spolin also taught workshops for Second City actors, as well as for the general public. Paul Sills and the success of the Second City were largely responsible for the popularization of improvisational theater, which became best known as a comedy form called “improv.” Many actors, writers and directors, grew out of that school of theater and had formative experiences performing and being trained at the Second City. See below for a list of notable theater, television and film professionals who were influenced by Spolin & Sills.
Spolin developed acting exercises or "games" that unleashed creativity, adapting focused "play" to unlock the individual's capacity for creative self-expression. Viola Spolin's use of recreational games in theater came from her background with the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression where she studied with Neva Boyd starting in 1924. Spolin also taught classes at Jane Addams' Hull House in Chicago.
She authored a number of texts on improvisation. Her first and most famous was Improvisation for the Theater published by Northwestern University Press. This book has become a classic resource for improvisational actors, directors and teachers. It has been published in three editions in 1963, 1983 and 1999.