Mindfulness and Play: the teachings of Viola Spolin

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Mindfulness and Play: the teachings of Viola Spolin

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Huzzah. People are finally waking up to the serious business of silliness. Like yoga, improv classes are now hot stuff.

Even the corporate sector recognizes that playfulness, improvisation and teamwork affect the bottom line within everyday operations. It is not uncommon for institutions to offer workshops and retreats that focus on theater games and improv skills.

Viola Spolin, enviably remembered as “the mother of improvisation”, understood the gravity of play from the get go.

“Play touches and stimulates vitality, awakening the whole person – mind, body, intelligence and creativity.” -Viola Spolin

Born in 1906, Spolin started her career as a WPA social worker for immigrants. As “drama coordinator” for this community, she wanted to address some of the very real struggles of being an outsider- isolation, insecurity and hesitance. Spolin had the vision and courage to recognize something profound: the fact that there is agency in child’s play.

When children play, one of their advantages is the focus and commitment that they bring to a given game. Viola Spolin saw the power in such a suspension of disbelief.  She also saw this quality as a muscle that could be exercised and developed.  Her pedagogy was in a sense, a metaphoric practice for being fully present to life itself.

“Play allows a person to respond with ‘his total organism, in a total environment’” -Viola Spolin

Taking inspiration from the form of traditional children’s games, she sought transformation through her play and improvisation based curriculum. She went on to become a seminal thinker in 20th century American theater and is responsible for popularizing the “theater games” that  have become an indispensable part of the actor/director/creator toolkit.

The genius of theater games is that they set up a particular alchemy of play and objective which makes way for spectacular results.  For one thing, the game premise mandates “group agreement” and strengthens collaborative bonds.  The imperative of the game can also circumvent habitual personal blockages, and simultaneously clear the path of access towards one’s authentic trove of experience and instinct.

“Playing a game is psychologically different in degree but not in kind from dramatic acting. The ability to create a situation imaginatively and to play a role in it is a tremendous experience, a sort of vacation from one’s everyday self and the routine of everyday living. We observe that this psychological freedom creates a condition in which strain and conflict are dissolved and potentialities are released in the spontaneous effort to meet the demands of the situation.” -Viola Spolin

If the visionary Spolin were alive today, I imagine that she would not only be recognized as a theater guru, but also as a spiritual leader. She saw the disconnected plight of grown-up life, and wished for a world in which the rational mind could be quieted, and in which intuition could be readily accessed.

“When student-actors see people and the way they behave when together, see the color of the sky, hear the sounds in the air, feel the ground beneath them and the wind on their faces, they get a wider view of their personal world and development in the theater is quickened. The world provides the material for the theater and artistic growth develops hand-in-hand with one’s recognition of it and one’s self within it.”

For Spolin, improvisation was not just a tool for performance, but a democratic vehicle for empowerment, enlightenment and vitality. It seems appropriate that improv is having a heyday.  What Viola Spolin pioneered was a mindfulness practice- one that happened to take root in the context of the performing arts.

In addition to popularizing “theater games”,  Spolin authored several books, including the famous “Improvisation for the Theater”.  She played a key role in shaping the pedagogy of Chicago’s Second City, and in establishing comedy improv as thriving art form.

Hats off to Viola Spolin.


This is a sensory exercise from “Improvisation for the Theater”. It can be done alone, standing, laying down or even sitting at a desk.  A great warm up for ANY creative practice, it fosters mindfulness, and is grounding.

Feeling Self with Self a mindfulness practice

  1. Spend a few minutes with yourself taking inventory of your body.
  2. Feel your feet with your feet
  3. Feel the socks around your ankles
  4. Feel the length of your calves, the shape and angle of your knees
  5. Feel the space behind your thighs.  Let one thigh feel the other thigh
  6. Keep reviewing every part of your body.  Checking in.
  7. Have your breath say hello to your breath
  8. Let your shoulders sense your shoulders, and feel their weight, their tension, their shape
  9. Feel your face with all the muscles in your face
  10. Feel the top of your head and every hair follicle
  11. End with feeling the weight of your whole body, and an awareness of the space that you are occupying.

Further reading:
Improvisation for the Theater by Viola Spolin.  Widely considered the bible of improvisational theater,  Spolin explains her philosophy and method in this phenomenal book.  Her improvisational techniques changed the very nature and practice of modern theater. These techniques have also influenced the fields of education, mental health, social work, and psychology.

This content was originally published here.

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