Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Spolin is Academic by Michael Golding

When it comes to improv, I consider myself an educational theatre specialist who is a Spolin purist at heart.  Viola Spolin’s work is at the core of everything I do, whether it’s conducting a workshop with college students, at-risk teens, professional actors, comedians, or directing a show that has social relevance.  Her work is utilized in numerous educational theatre disciplines, such as drama therapy, youth theatre, psycho drama, and creative dramatics.  Over the past ten years or so, I’ve noticed an increase in educational theatre practitioners acknowledging Spolin’s influence on their work. That was not always the case. In the past, I’ve encountered colleagues who have dismissed her work as just “games for children.” Ironically, they were practicing her games unknowingly, which I would sometimes point out. It's like having someone describe a game you've never heard of, only to realize you've played it before, under a different name.

Viola Spolin

I first became aware of Viola Spolin through David Shepherd, when working with him on the Improv Olympics in 1972.  The format itself was designed as a loving celebration of Viola’s work.  David was concerned that Viola might renounce it because of the competitive aspects.  After much debate between David and Viola, she eventually supported the format as long as the competition did not overwhelm the play.  According to David, “She saw good and bad features with the Improv Olympics and was willing to put it up with it.”  David was so convinced that playing Spolin games was the only way to prepare for the Improv Olympics that he eventually drew up a player's contract stipulating exactly that.

David Shepherd's Player's Contract

The Improv Olympics was the second time Viola Spolin was instrumental to David’s work.  He first became aware of her shortly after arriving in Chicago in 1953.  Attending a workshop directed by Paul Sills at the University of Chicago, David was startled and stunned by what he saw on stage.  Actors were creating wonderfully rich and active work without a script.  The concrete reality that magically appeared before David was accomplished via the games of Viola Spolin, Paul’s mother.  Two years later when David and Paul co-founded Compass, Viola’s games were integral to bringing their scenario plays (the hub of the Compass shows) to life.

Paul Sills directing.

Part of my duties as a college instructor is conducting a Student Learning Outcomes Assessment (SLO) on my Theatre Appreciation course.  The learning outcome of the course requires “that by completion, students will possess the knowledge of various theatre occupations including the actor, director, designer and playwright, within a cultural, relevant and historical context.”  For the assessment, I’m required to design a simple exercise, which asks the students to demonstrate a skill, task or concept that can be measured by me.  In other words, I need to measure a tangible demonstration of what the student does, not just what the student thinks.

Spolin’s Where with Set Pieces game, where two to three players create and perform a scene based on a list of set/prop pieces, came to mind immediately.  For the exercise, I augmented the game slightly to fit the parameters of the learning outcome.  On index cards, students listed three set pieces and returned the cards to me.  I broke the class up into groups of two to three. Each group was handed a card to design and perform a scene in a specific theatre style.   

From Viola Spolin's Improvisation for the Theater.

When it came time to compile and analyze the data from the exercise, I discovered that Spolin’s method of evaluation, fitted perfectly within the SLO’s guidelines of measurements.

SLO data results.

The implications of the data from the evaluation was, to me, “Spolin-esq.”  (1) When students had a tight structure, with a distinct relationship and style, they embraced the exercise as a problem that needed to be solved. (2) Several groups imbued their scenes with theatrical devices, tableau, pantomime, gibberish and stylized slow-motion movement.  (3) Students who were not committed or unsure of the assignment were distracted by the audience or would comment on the scene to the audience.  (4) Previous warm-up assignments covering staging/blocking made this aspect of the assignment successful for the majority of the students.

Under the SLO category “Future Directions” I recommended that my department switch to an educational theatre pedagogical approach, emphasizing learning by doing over lecturing – and utilizing students’ experiences, values and passions as a springboard for learning outcomes.  If students can connect on a personal and emotional level, it will keep them focused and motivated.

On my syllabus, Spolin’s Improvisation for the Theater is listed as a recommended textbook.  My final suggestion to the department was that it should be a required textbook, reasoning that her games provided the learning foundations for acting, writing, directing, set design and theatre terminology.

I heard nothing from my department chair or dean after submitting the SLO Assessment, leading me to wonder if it was collegial enough.  A colleague tipped me off about how it was received by asking if I had checked out the SLO Assessment Theatre Models on the faculty website.  I was pleasantly surprised when I did.  Listed as a model was my SLO Assessment.

Apparently, Spolin is academic.

Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at  Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games.  Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development.


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