The Evolution of the Theater Workshop: How Viola Spolin Changed Drama in Education — ESSAY
Submitted as M.A. coursework for NYU Steinhardt — 29 October 2007
Theater practitioner Gavin Bolton once wrote that the “first person to introduce the term ‘improvisation’ into education was Robert Newton (1937), and that later (in 1948) [Newton] expressed his regret that improvisation in the classroom was losing its connection with theatre”. It appears that both Bolton and Newton overlooked Viola Spolin. Today’s field of Drama in Education would not exist as it does without her contributions. Not only did Spolin emphasize improvisation in the classroom, but she also expanded its use to group work projects with the WPA and to rehearsals for theatrical productions at The Second City. Viola Spolin changed the way people viewed improvisation and ensemble work by reinventing the classroom workshop format. In addition to using theater games in her work, Spolin used a new teacher-in-role technique called side coaching. The advent of side coaching was a radical change in the way people viewed the teacher’s role in the classroom, and it is only one of many contributions Viola Spolin has made within the field of Drama in Education. A study of her training, work experience, and major publications will illustrate how Viola Spolin has influenced Drama-in-Education today.
Viola Spolin was born in Chicago, IL on November 7, 1906. Though we know little of Spolin’s childhood, we do know that she was raised in “a tradition of family theater amusements, operas and charades”. As a young adult, Spolin trained to be a settlement worker. From 1924–1926, Spolin worked at Neva Boyd’s Group Work School in Chicago, where she was introduced to “Boyd’s innovative teaching in the areas of group leadership, recreation, and social group work”. Boyd emphasized play and traditional games in her work, specifically with the inner-city and immigrant children. In her essay entitled The Theory of Play, Boyd wrote: “Activity in which reciprocal responsiveness via play is dominant provides a basis of unconsciously acquired understanding of self and others”. Boyd’s theory that play can bring a group together and create the basis for learning inspired Viola Spolin and influenced Spolin’s future work experience.
Ensemble building activities and group work were the emphases in Spolin’s teaching when she served as drama supervisor for the Chicago branch of the Works Progress Administration’s Recreational Project (1939–1941). During this time, Spolin added her own style and vocabulary to the teaching techniques of Neva Boyd. She took the idea of play and made it specific by connecting it to theater games:
Spolin perceived a need for an easily grasped system of theater training that could cross the cultural and ethnic barriers within the WPA Project. Building upon the experience of Boyd’s work, she responded by developing new games that focused upon the individual; creativity, adapting, and focusing the concept of play to unlock the individual’s capacity for creative self-expression.
After her years with the WPA, she took her expertise and her game technique to the stage.
The novice drama supervisor from Chicago soon became a recognized theater practitioner. Spolin moved to Hollywood where she founded the Young Actors Company (1946–1955), then returned to Chicago where she directed for the Playwright’s Theater Club (1955) and lead workshops for the Compass, the Second City Company, and Game Theater. Her workshops with the Compass and the Second City allowed Spolin to collaborate with her son Paul Sills, who founded both companies. The most notable results for Spolin from this collaboration were the development of theater game theory in her Second City workshops (1960–1965) and the publication of her first book Improvisation for the Theater (1963). The book contains over 200 games and workshop exercises and highlights Spolin’s criteria for a successful workshop. The three most important criteria focus on environment, appropriate game selection, and teacher responsibility.
The first criterion is a safe environment for group play. Spolin suggests that a workshop leader designate a space that provides physical safety for play and then create an environment within that space that provides creative safety during play. In the first pages of Improvisation for the Theater, Spolin writes:
If the environment permits it, anyone can learn whatever he chooses to learn; and if the individual permits it, the environment will teach him everything it has to teach. ‘Talent’ or ‘lack of talent’ has little to do with it.
In Spolin’s workshops, learning was far more important than performing. Student participation was more important than student talent, and “process [came] before end-result”. This theory appears again in her third publication, Theater Games for the Classroom, in which she explains that “the honest attempt, the seeking, is what is important”. If a child feels physically and creatively safe, he will be more likely to make an “honest attempt” to play the group game, and by doing so will be more likely to learn.
The second criterion for a successful workshop is the game itself. Spolin writes, “Any game worth playing is highly social and has a problem that needs solving within it — an objective point in which each individual must become involved, whether it be to reach a goal or to flip a chip into a glass”. The workshop leader needs to know his student group and to select a game that suits each particular ensemble. Each student — and each group of students — has his own personality, and a successful teacher must “work with the student where he is, not where you think he should be”. The age and background of a group must be taken into consideration when selecting games for a workshop.
Interestingly, this is a progression of a theory held by educationalist John Dewey in the 1920s. Dewey introduced the idea of experiential learning and supported the idea of differential learning, but he did not consider the idea of child-centered learning as Spolin did. Viola Spolin used theater games to promote learning through experience, she formatted her workshops with consideration to ensemble personality, yet she simultaneously focused on the individual child and the ensemble as a unit. The reason for her success in this progression is due to her theory on teacher responsibility, the third major criterion for a successful workshop.
Spolin writes, “The teacher-director should see to it that each individual participates in some facet of the activity at every moment, even if it means nothing more than standing by for curtain”. The teacher-director’s role is to guide the group toward success, which in Spolin’s evaluation means to guide the group toward full participation. Again, desire to play not talent is necessary for success. The teacher-director should establish “equality between student and teacher”, and consider himself a “guide” rather than an authority figure. Spolin adds that a teacher-director must remember that “treating children as equals is not the same thing as treating them as adults; and this fine delineation must be recognized if the teacher-director is to successfully guide his group”. That delineation for a teacher-director means a “difference in presentation”.
This difference in teacher presentation later earned the term side coaching and has become the biggest contribution Viola Spolin made to the world of improvisation, to the format of theater workshops, and ultimately to the field of Drama in Education. In her 1986 publication, Theater Games for the Classroom, Spolin wrote:
Side coaching alters the traditional relationship of teacher and student, creating a moving relation. It allows the teacher/director an opportunity to step into the excitement of playing (learning) in the same space, with the same focus as the player.
Side coaching, in Spolin’s terms, is “the calling out of just that word, that phrase or that sentence that keeps the players in focus”. Spolin provides numerous examples of side coaching along the margins of this publication, for example: “Let us see what you see!” and “Avoid planning your part!”. Side coaching allows a teacher-director to keep the ensemble’s attention towards the game objective (the focus) and to guide the ensemble through the process toward learning and the evaluation. An entire section of Theater Games in the Classroom is designated to this very idea: focus, side coaching, and evaluation are the Three Essentials of a Theater Game. Ultimately, the teacher-director can use side coaching to facilitate a workshop composed of theater games in a way that sets students up for self-discovery and experiential learning.
The emphasis in Spolin’s work was always process, and she dedicated her expansive career to developing a workshop style and a teacher-in-role technique that allowed the teacher-director to most affectively guide students toward learning during the process of play. She compared the teacher-director to a “host” of a party and acknowledged the importance of the host’s flexibility and willingness to improvise in order to accommodate and to challenge each student in the group. The role of the teacher had never been cast this way before.
Though some of Spolin’s contemporaries like Peter Slade and Winifred Ward focused on similar ideas of the students’ need for “space on their own” and emphasis on product over performance respectively, it was Viola Spolin whose name and techniques became most recognizable both in the classroom and on the stage because of the popularity of her books. Slade’s Child Drama (1955) became associated with the field of Dramatherapy and Ward’s Playmaking with Children (1957) with Drama in Education, while Spolin’s publications, on the other hand, made a crossover impact into the fields of Improvisation, Youth Theater, Acting, Directing, Drama in Education and beyond. Even Spolin’s contemporary Brian Way, whose work also emphasized improvisation and spontaneity in the classroom, would find his 1981 publication Audience Participation: Theatre for Young People out of print. Spolin’s publications continue to be found online and in local bookstores and have inspired numerous teachers, practitioners, and artists to use improvisation and dramatic play in their work with children and adults.
The combination of her training with Neva Boyd, her workshops at The Second City, her best-selling publications, and her invention of side coaching have made Viola Spolin a name to remember. Today’s practitioners continue to pay tribute to her ideas, often expanding and reshaping them to suit the changing field of Drama in Education. Practitioner Cecily O’Neill expands Spolin’s ideas in her 1979 essay Working from within: Teacher and the Group as Artists in the Process: “It is becoming clear that the teacher is likely to function most effectively in educational drama from within the creative process, as a co-artist with his pupils, rather than remaining on the outside of the work, as facilitator or manipulator”. O’Neill continues, “The teacher’s purpose will be to structure a learning experience for pupils, through which they may achieve a change in understanding about themselves in the world they live in”.
More change is certainly yet to come in teachers, in students, and in the field of Drama of Education, however, one thing will always remain: Viola Spolin evolved the theater workshop in her time and inspired all of us to keep the focus on the learning process.
Carolyn Marie Wright hails from upstate New York and is currently based in Phoenix where she serves as Theatre Director & English Teacher at Brophy Prep and Artistic Director of Humanity Play Project. Proud member of AEA, SAG-AFTRA, AATE, and Arizona Theatre Company’s Cohort Club.
Bolton, Gavin. Acting in Classroom Drama: a critical analysis. Staffordshire, England: Trentham Books, 1998.
Boyd, Neva. “The Theory of Play.” Oct 24, 2007, <http://www.spolin.com/boydplaytheory.htm>.
Montgomery, David. “Progressive Education.” Goddard Hall, New York University. 24 Sept. 2007.
Slade, Peter. Child Drama. London: University of London Press, 1954.
–– . Child Play: its importance for human development. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers Ltd., 1995.
Spolin, Viola. Improvisation for the Theater. Evanston, IL: Northwestern Unversity Press, 1963.
–– . Theater Games for Rehearsal: A Director’s Handbook. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1985.
–– . Theater Games for the Classroom: A Teacher’s Handbook. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1986.
Taylor, Philip and Christine D Warner, eds. Structure and Spontaneity: the process drama of Cecily O’Neill. Staffordshire, England: Trentham Books, 2006.
“Viola Spolin Biography” reprinted from Notable Women in the American Theatre, Greenwood Press, 1989. Oct 24, 2007, <http://www.spolin.com/violabio.html>.
Ward, Winifred. Theatre for Children. Anchorage, Kentucky: The Children’s Theatre Press, 1958.
––. Playmaking with Children. New York, NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1947.
Way, Brian. Audience Participation: Theatre for Young People. Boston, MA: Walter H. Baker Co, 1981.
 Bolton, Gavin. Acting in Classroom Drama, p.159.
 Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater, p.3.
 Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater, p.12.
 Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater, p.9.
 Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater, p.5.
 Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater, p.10.
 Montgomery, Lecture 9/24/07.
 Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater, p.279.
 Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater, p.8.
 Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater, p.9.
 Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater, p.279.
 Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater, p.278.
 Spolin, Theater Games for the Classroom, p.6.
 Spolin, Theater Games for the Classroom, p.5.
 Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater, p.10.
 Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater, pp.5–8.
 Spolin, Theater Games for the Classroom, p.22.
 O’Neill, Structure and Spontaneity, p.51.
 O’Neill, Structure and Spontaneity, p.56.