Theater educator, director, and actress recognized internationally for her “Theater Games” system of actor training, was raised in a tradition of family theater amusements, operas, and charades. Viola Spolin trained initially (1924-26) to be a settlement worker, studying at Neva Boyd’s Group Work School in Chicago. Boyd’s innovative teaching in the areas of group leadership, recreation, and social group work strongly influenced Spolin, as did the use of traditional game structures to affect social behavior in inner-city and immigrant children.
While serving as drama supervisor for the Chicago branch of the Works Progress Administration’s Recreational Project (1939-1941), 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 individual; creativity, adapting and focusing the concept of play to unlock the individual’s capacity for creative self-expression. These techniques were later to be formalized under the rubric “Theater Games.” “The games emerged out of necessity,” she has said. “I didn’t sit at home and dream them up. When I had a problem [directing], I made up a game. When another problem came up, I just made up a new game. (Interview,Los Angeles Times, May 26 , 1974)
In 1946 Spolin founded the Young Actors Company in Hollywood. Children six years of age and older were trained, through the medium of the still developing Theater Games system, to perform in productions. This company continued until 1955, when Spolin returned to Chicago to direct for the Playwrights Theater Club and subsequently to conduct games workshops with the Compass, the country’s first professional, improvisational acting company. From 1960 to 1965, still in Chicago, she worked with Paul Sills (her son) as workshop director for his Second City Company and continued to teach and develop Theater Games theory. As an outgrowth of this work, she published Improvisation for the Theater (1963), consisting of approximately two hundred and twenty games/exercises. It has become a classic reference text for teachers of acting, as well as for educators in other fields. In 1965 she co-founded the Game Theater in Chicago, again working with Sills. Open only one evening a week, the theater sought to have its audiences participate directly in Theater Games, thus effectively eliminating the conventional separation between improvisational actors and audiences who watched them. The experiment achieved limited success, and the theater closed after only a few months.
In 1970 – 1971 Spolin served as special consultant for productions of Sills’s Story Theater in Los Angeles, New York, and on television. On the West Coast, she conducted workshops for the companies of the Rhoda and Friends and Lovers television series and appeared as an actress in the Paul Mazursky film Alex in Wonderland (MGM 1970).
In November 1975 the publication of the Theater Game File made her unique approaches to teaching and learning more readily available to classroom teachers; in 1976 she established the Spolin Theater Game Center in Hollywood, serving as its artistic director. In 1979 she was awarded an honorary doctorate by Eastern Michigan University, and until recently she has continued to teach at the Theater Game Center. In 1985 her new book, Theater Games for Rehearsal: A Director’s Handbook, was published.
Spolin’s Theater Games are simple, operational structures that transform complicated theater conventions and techniques into game forms. Each game is built upon a specific focus or technical problem and is an exercise that militates against the artifice of self-conscious acting.
The playing (acting) emerges naturally and spontaneously; age, background, and content are irrelevant. The exercises are, as on critic has written, “structures designed to almost fool spontaneity into being” (Review, Film Quarterly, Fall/Winter 1963) By themselves, the games have liberating effect (accounting for their wide application in self actualization contexts); within the theater context, each clearly fosters a facet of performance technique. There are games to free the actor’s tension, games to “cleanse” the actor of subjective preconceptions of the meaning of words, games of relationship and character, games of concentration – in short, games for each of the area with which the growing actor is concerned. Key to the rubric of Spolin games are the terms physicalization (“showing and not telling”), spontaneity (“a moment of explosion”), intuition (“unhampered knowledge beyond the sensory equipment – physical and mental”), audience (“part of the game, not the lonely looker – onners”), and transformation (“actors and audience alike receive .. the appearance of a new reality”) To achieve their purpose, Theater Games need only the rules of the game, the players both actors and audience are considered to be players), and a space in which to play. Beyond the very tangible pleasures of “playing” which the games encompass, they also heighten sensitivity, increase self-awareness, and effect group and interpersonal communication. As a result, Spolin’s games have developed currency beyond actor training, that is, in encountering techniques, self-awareness programs, and nonverbal communication studies. Viola Spolin’s systems are in use throughout the country not only in university, community, and professional theater training programs, but also in countless curricula concerned with educational interests not related specifically to theater.
The list of Spolin’s guest lectures, demonstrations, and workshops is extensive. She has introduced her work to students and professionals in theater, elementary and secondary education, schools for gifted and talented programs, curriculum studies in English, religion, mental health, psychology, and in centers for the rehabilitation of delinquent children. She notes that “Theater Games are a process applicable to any field, discipline, or subject matter which creates a place where full participation, communication, transformation can take place” (Los Angeles Times, May 26 1974) Exemplary of the broad recognition her work has received are a 1966 New England Theater Conference Award citing “contributions to theater, education, mental health, speech therapy, and religion,” and the 1976 award by the Secondary School Theater Association of its highest honor; the Founders Award. In her devotion to the development and application of Theater Games, Spolin has made a unique contribution to American theater.
Written by D.E. Moffit
Ege Maltepe is an actress, playwright, director and educator. Her work as a theatre artist includes; “Variations After Joe” (2009, Cave Arts Space), “TEA for 3, A Trilogy on the multicultural face of New York” written and directed by Ege Maltepe (2012, LaGuardia Performing Arts Center), “Drama in Beethoven” (2010-2014 Caffe Vivaldi & Greenwich House), “Talking to Schubert” (2014), “Genius #CHOPIN”, “TITS by Prof G” A Lecture Comedy (2013, WiredArts Festival, New York) and “Women of New York” (2016, 4thU Artivists), The Tempest – Story Theater adaptation (2019, İş Sanat, Istanbul.
Ege Maltepe was born in Istanbul. Her journey of theater started when she was 14 years old after she got accepted to Nöbetçi Theater School of Turkish Theater legend Ferhan Şensoy. Later her love for theater brought her to New York where she became the student of Oscar winning celebrated director Mike Nichols. During her early years in New York she got interested in improvisation, writing, directing and producing. Her first stage project Variations After Joe, she combined improvisation, movement and classical music and took a the attention of New York audience. After deciding to bring Spolin Improvisation Method to Turkey, she started to translate Viola Spolin’s seminal book Improvisation for the Theater into Turkish and founded Spolin-ist in 2009. Since then she trained and continues to train actors, writers and teachers in Turkey and US. Together with Emir Gamsız they created interdisciplinary projects like Drama in Beethoven, Talking to Schubert, Genius: Chopin. From 2010-15 the duo became the residence artists in West Village’s cultural institution, Caffe Vivaldi. They performed and produced classical music and theatrical events there, which made the place number one classical cafe in New York City in a short time. Chatty Pianist concerts which she produced later continued in Lincoln Center.
Ege Maltepe’s acting credits include “Hermia” in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by W. Shakespeare, and “Marta” (lead) in “Misunderstanding” by Albert Camus with Bilkent Theatre, “Leslie” (lead) in “The Letter” by Somerset Maugham and “Arsinoe” in “The Hip Hop Misantrophe” with Hudson Guild Theatre Company. As an “artivist” Ege Maltepe directed 4thU -Day’s production of “The Vagina Monologues” three times with different women ensembles. In 2014, she curated and directed “Women’s Voices”. The company later produced Maltepe’s play “Women of New York” in 2016. With the theater productions over the years, the artivists raised over $80.000 for different nonprofit organizations supporting women & girls.
Ege Maltepe is a graduate of The New Actors Workshops/Antioch McGregor‘s Master of Arts program where she worked with legendary directors and teachers; Mike Nichols and George Morrison. After a monologue she performed in school, Mike Nichols commented on her acting as “Excellent!” . Viola Spolin’s son, Paul Sills was one of the founders of the school. She came to New York on a Fulbright Scholarship after finishing her Bachelor of Arts in Bilkent University’s Acting Department.
In 2018 Maltepe returned to her home country and started a performance space called Bach Café, and the two-year Spolin Theater Games School (Oyun Okulu) in Istanbul. In 2019-20 season Gamsız and Maltepe crated a stage show for children Chatty Pianist and Story Theater: Beethoven and Shakespeare’s Tempest at İş Sanat Concert Hall. The show became a big success, however the performances stopped due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Maltepe is independent filmmaker. Her films Chekhov in New York, Transformism, Greatest Classic and Chatty Pianist (animation film) and mini series Talking Heads are all in progress. Their cultural venue Bach Café has now become a digital platform where music, stories, articles audiobooks and various independent films can be found: bachcafe.com
For more information please visit Maltepe’s website: www.egemaltepe.com
THE NEW ACTORS WORKSHOP
The New Actors Workshop was a two-year acting conservatory in New York City founded by Master Teachers Mike Nichols, George Morrison and Viola Spolin’s son Paul Sills in 1988. The school offered a unique, dual-track curriculum combining Stanislavski-based technique with Viola Spolin Theater Games. Please see below to read about the founders.
Mike Nichols (1931-2014) is a German-born American television, stage and film director, writer, producer and comedian. He began his career in the 1950s with the improvisation troupe, the Compass Players, predecessor of the Second City in Chicago and as one half of the comedy duo Nichols and May, along with Elaine May. May was also in the Compass. In 1968 he won the Academy Award for Best Director for the film The Graduate. His other noteworthy films include Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Carnal Knowledge, Silkwood, Working Girl,Closer and the TV mini-series Angels in America. He also staged the original theatrical productions of Barefoot in the Park, Luv, The Odd Couple and Spamalot.
Nichols is one of a small group of people who have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award. His other honors include the Lincoln Center Gala Tribute in 1999, the National Medal of Arts in 2001, the Kennedy Center Honors in 2003 and the AFI Life Achievement Award in 2010.
George Morrison (1928 – 2014) Born in Evanston, Illinois, he attended the public schools there and started acting in the pioneering children’s theater headed by Winifred Ward. By age 13 he was playing Tom Sawyer in an elaborate production with the adult roles being played by Northwestern University students. On graduation from high school he spent three summers in a Pennsylvania on-week stock company directed by the legendary Alvina Krause, where he played parts ranging from Ernest in The Importance of Being Earnest to Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. He served two years in the United States Army, and graduated with a Ph.B. from the University of Chicago. It was here that he began a lifelong friendship with Mike Nichols and Paul Sills. He also attended the Yale Drama School as a director and came to New York City in 1953 where he studied in Lee Strasberg’s private class and then for a number of years at the Actors Studio.
His first New York production was Epitaph for George Dillon by John Osborne and Anthony Creighton, which he co-produced and directed. He went on to direct improvisation-based revues off Broadway at The Premise with a company that included Gene Hackman, George Furth, Cynthia Harris and Ron Leibman, and at Upstairs at the Downstairs – a cabaret revue that included Mary Louise Wilson and Jane Alexander. For the American Place Theater, he directed Harry, Noon and Night by Ronald Ribman, with Dustin Hoffman and Joel Grey and in Chicago a long-running production of Pinter’s The Caretaker. On Broadway, he directed Jack Klugman in The Sudden & Accidental Re-Education of Horse Johnson by Douglas Taylor, and for ABC-TV two musical revue scripts by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
He also created the George Morrison Studio where he offered acting classes for over 20 years and his students included Hackman and Barbara Harris. In 1972 he became one of the founding faculty of a new Actor Training Program along with Norris Houghton and Joseph Anthony at the State University of New York at Purchase where he taught for 18 years and was awarded the Chancellor’s Citation for Outstanding Teaching and is now Professor Emeritus of Theater Arts. His students at Purchase included Edie Falco, Ving Rhames and Stanley Tucci. He retired in 1988 to found, with Paul Sills and Mike Nichols, his classmates from the University of Chicago, a two-year independent conservatory for professional actor training, The New Actors Workshop, in New York City where he served as the president and primary instructor of acting.
Paul Sills (1927 – 2008) Sills was born in Chicago, Illinois, his mother was teacher and writer Viola Spolin, who authored the first book on improvisation techniques, Improvisation for the Theater. Spolin in turn was the student of play therapy theorist Neva Boyd.
In 1948, Sills enrolled in the University of Chicago, where he established himself as a director, co-founding Playwright’s Theater Club. There, with fellow actors Edward Asner, Byrne Piven and Zohra Lampert, they blended Spolin technique with established theater training.
In 1955, Sills and David Shepherd (producer) founded the Compass Players, the first improvisational theater in the US, where he directed Shelley Berman, Mike Nichols and Elaine May. In 1959, Sills, along with partners Howard Alk and Bernie Sahlins, opened a theatre called The Second City where revues developed improvisationally were presented under Sills’s direction. With early cast members Alan Arkin, Barbara Harris, Severn Darden, Mina Kolb and Paul Sand, success led to New York (a brief run on Broadway and a long one off-Broadway), London and world recognition.
Sills left Second City in 1965 to form the Game Theater, where he coached his mother’s improvisational techniques in performance and audience participation was encouraged. His mother and other community friends were partners. The Parents School was co-founded there, with wife Carol and others, with a children’s curriculum based on group art forms and play. It operated for almost two decades. At the Game Theater, he also discovered a new form, which he called Story Theater, which debuted at 1848 N. Wells Street, during the summer of 1968, which was the location of the Second City, before it was torn down and the company moved to a new location. Story Theatre went on to play at Yale University, inLos Angeles and on Broadway, remaining the form Sills explored for the rest of his life. His book, Paul Sills’ Story Theater: Four Shows, was published by Applause Books.
Sills launched a further excursion into coaching Spolin theater games for performance, called Sills & Co. in the 1980s when he gathered many early Second City players to appear in Los Angeles and New York.
He started the New Actors Workshop, an acting school in midtown Manhattan with Mike Nichols and George Morrison where he led guest workshops, lectures, and directed once a year. He also founded the Wisconsin Theater Game Center with his wife Carol at his rural home in Baileys Harbor. For many years he and Carol produced annual original productions in Door County, working with a local troupe. Summer classes in Spolin theater games and Story Theatre continue to be taught there by his wife Carol Sills and two of their daughters, Aretha Sills and Neva Sills. Visit: www.violaspolin.org for more information.