Viola Spolin

Viola Spolin (1906-1994) was born in Chicago to Russian Jewish immigrants. She had a lively childhood playing with her friends in her Humboldt Park neighborhood and performing plays with members of her extended family. After high school, Spolin studied drama at DePaul University and at the Goodman Theater. On Saturday nights with friends, she incorporated concepts of play therapy theory with games and improvisation sessions.

In the 1930’s, Spolin and a group of other divorcees rented a North Side mansion where they lived communally. She worked for the Works Progress Administration teaching creative dramatics to recreational leaders and to children. Her talents and passion for improvisational theater began to emerge during this time.

After moving to California where she founded the Young Actors Company in Hollywood, Spolin returned to Chicago at the request of her son, Paul Sills. Sills, who with a group of University of Chicago students had formed a theater troupe called the Compass Players, knew that his fellow actors would benefit from his mother’s improvisation training. They did and the Compass Players evolved into The Second City. Spolin worked again with her son at the Game Theater and the Story Theater.

Returning to California, Spolin held drama games and improvisation workshops at colleges, theaters, mental health facilities, prisons and for the casts of various television shows. She founded an acting school and published three books on theater games and improvisation. Though she died in 1994, her imprint on the theater world remains strong and all agree that Viola Spolin is the “Mother of Improvisational Theater.”

Why this stop? The Sedgwick Brown Line stop is two blocks from The Second City theater and four blocks from where the Story Theater had been located.

Learn more about Viola Spolin in this short video. If you have an hour to spare, you will love this WTTW/PBS program about Viola Spolin and Improv.

Connect—Play theater games and learn improvisation at a Spolin online workshop.

Women’s L Project Connections—Spolin studied play therapy theory and led drama workshops at Hull House, the settlement house founded by Women’s L Project Honorees Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr.

Photo—Courtesy of the Estate of Viola Spolin,