The Roots of Improvisation
Ken Wilson is a teacher trainer and ELT materials writer, with more than 20 titles to his name. He writes both coursebook and supplementary material and his recent course material includes a Senior High course for China. He also wrote a book to accompany Channel 4 TV's first-ever ELT soap series. He also gives drama and music workshops and he was artistic director of the English Teaching Theatre until 2002. Ken’s book of drama and improvisation activities will be published by Oxford University Press.
The Comedy Store Players
Viola Spolin (1906-1994)
Second City Club, Chicago
As well as writing ELT material, I've also worked as a teacher, a trainer, an actor, a theatre director, an audio producer, a skit writer, a musician and a singer/songwriter. I have learnt a lot from all the people I worked with - actors, writers, musicians, studio technicians and particularly students and other teachers and trainers. Like all teachers, I have also attended some ground-breaking and mind-changing courses, talks and workshops, which left a lasting impression on me and affected the work that I do.
But the event which had more effect on the way I work than any other was a visit to a Central London comedy club in 1990. The club is called The Comedy Store and it has been one of London's most important comedy venues since 1979. It was there that I first saw the Comedy Store Players.
The Comedy Store Players
The Comedy Store Players are a group of improvisers - comedians and comedy actors - who first went on stage at the Store in 1985. They have performed twice a week since then. In 2007, the group is still going strong, with some of the original members still in the line-up. Some of them, like Paul Merton, are now household names on British TV and radio, but they still turn up on Wednesday and Sunday evening to entertain and amaze their fans.
The CSP improvise a series of sketches, songs and games. They have no script, no set and no idea what was going to happen at the beginning of the evening, beyond a series of game formats which require the audience to provide them with the raw materials for what they do.
For example, they might ask the audience for the name of a superhero, a household object and a location. If the audience gives them, for example, Superman, a frying pan and New York City, they then improvise a story from these simple ingredients. In this activity, one of the actors directs the other five, pointing rapidly from one to another. Each one has to continue the sentence the previous one started, sometimes they have to continue from half way through a word. To make it all more dramatic and exciting, the audience are encouraged to shout 'DIE!!!' if a speaker stumbles over his words - and he/she is out.
This is one of the activities that I have adapted for classroom use (see below). Encouraging students to shout 'DIE!' does NOT, of course, feature in the classroom adaptation.
When I first saw the Comedy Store Players, I was spellbound. The second time, I began to work out how it all worked. I still thought the six actors on stage were brilliantly talented, but I saw more clearly that the games are all based on rock-solid foundations and everyone, audience and performers, understands the rules completely. Moreover, I saw how they could work in the English classroom.
I discovered that the Comedy Store Players began when an American woman comedian, Kit Hollerbach, and a Canadian comedy actor, Mike Myers, arrived in London and taught some drama games that they had learnt in the US to English comedians and actors that they met. You may recognise the name Mike Myers. He is the actor who plays Austin Powers in the spoof spy movies.
Myers had learnt these games at a comedy club called Second City in Montreal, Canada. This club was an off-shoot of the original Second City Club in Chicago, one of whose founder members was a man called Paul Sills. I was delighted to discover that Sills was the son of legendary Theater Games creator Viola Spolin. It meant that all this fun and creativity had some serious educational roots.
Viola Spolin (1906-1994)
Chicago-born Viola Spolin is most famous as the theatre educator and director who devised the Theater Games system of actor training. However, long before she had anything to do with theatre, she had trained in the 1920s to be a settlement worker. A settlement worker's job was to help new Americans integrate into society when they re-located in the US.
She studied at the Recreational Training School (RTS) in Chicago, a revolutionary organization founded by a remarkable woman called Neva Boyd, who also deserves a special mention here. The RTS trained teachers in the art of group games, drama and play theory, with specific reference to dealing with young people from areas of social deprivation. Imagine - this was all happening in the 1920s.
Boyd's innovative teaching strongly influenced Spolin, as did the use of traditional game structures to influence social behavior in inner-city and immigrant children. Spolin put her training to work when she later worked as a drama supervisor for the Chicago branch of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA was an organization created in 1935 on the orders of President Franklin D Roosevelt as part of the New Deal to help millions of people affected by the Great Depression.
Spolin soon discovered that traditional methods of teaching and training were no use to her in these deprived urban surroundings. She realised that she needed to work out some kind of training that could cross the cultural and ethnic barriers within the WPA Project. And she had to do it quickly.
You have to remember that Spolin wasn't working with actors or fee-paying students. She was working with newly-arrived citizens who had language communication difficulties and a whole lot of other problems in their lives. As often happens with communities like this, the new arrivals found themselves living in ghetto areas, with all the social unrest that this can bring. We sometimes think of ghettoes as being a problem of the late 20th century, but things were dreadful in Chicago in the 1930s, as the country fought its way out of the Great Depression.
So imagine the situation. Viola Spolin and a room full of suspicious new Americans with language difficulties, plus other ghetto inhabitants that the social services had placed in the group because they didn't know what else to do with them. With no material to work with, Spolin devised her own way of communicating with these people, and helping them communicate with each other.
She did this by allowing them to play. Building upon what she had learnt from Neva Boyd, Spolin developed a series of games which adapted the concept of play to help them with 'creative self-expression'. "The games emerged out of necessity," she said. "I didn't sit at home and dream them up. When I had a problem, I made up a game. When another problem came up, I just made up a new game."
Eventually, Spolin suffered burn-out working in the ghettoes and decided to go back to her other love, theatre. The techniques she devised working at the WPA became the basis of her Theater Games system. In 1946, she went to Hollywood and founded the Young Actors' Company, where she trained children and young people in performance skills using the Theater Games system.
In 1963, she published Improvisation for the Theater, which contained more than 200 games and improvisation exercises. It has become a classic reference text for teachers of acting in the US, as well as for educators in other fields. Spolin's Theater Games transform complicated theatre conventions and techniques into simple game formats. The playing emerges naturally and spontaneously; the exercises are, as one reviewer wrote, "designed to fool people into being spontaneous."
There are games to free the actor's tension, games to "cleanse" the actor of subjective preconceptions of the meaning of words, games that explore relationships, games of concentration - all areas that actors in training have to deal with. To achieve the games' purpose, all you need are an understanding of the rules, the players (both actors and audience are considered to be players), and a space in which to play.
The Young Actors' Company continued until 1955, after which Spolin returned to Chicago, where she conducted games workshops with the Compass Group, the country's first professional improvisation theater company.
And this is where her son Paul Sills comes into the picture. He grew up in an affluent white suburb and he wasn't planning to become an actor, so theoretically, the games originally devised by his mother weren't aimed at him or people like him. However, Sills found the games engaging and - importantly - hilariously funny. He taught them to his fellow students at the University of Chicago, and this led to the establishment of the Second City Comedy Club.
Second City Club, Chicago
Second City can lay claim to be the first improvisation comedy club in the world. The original players were, like Sills, all Chicago undergraduates. The name of the club made fun of the disdainful attitude of New Yorkers to Chicago. Shortly before the establishment of the club, the New Yorker magazine had published an article by A J Liebling which made fun of Chicago's pretensions to be the second city of the USA.
The first Second City Club show took place in 1959. In the beginning, some of the material was scripted, but the audience reacted better to (and laughed louder at) the improvised material. Many of the performers at Second City went on to star in the classic TV series Saturday Night Live. Film stars Bill Murray and Dan Akroyd performed there. When Second City opened a separate club in Montreal, Mike Myers joined - which brings us back to the beginning of the story, the Comedy Store Players in London.
So … what does all this have to do with teaching?
Several of the Comedy Store games can be used in the classroom, almost in their original form. Here are two adapted examples:
1 Superhero, household object and location
Choose a team of three, four or five students, who sit in a line. Another student is the director. Ask the rest of the class to give you the name of a superhero, a household object and a location. Then tell the director to point at someone to start the story.
Important: there should be no pressure on any student to say more than they want. If they run out of steam, the director must move on. Equally, the director can move on even if someone is in full flow. The story can be as long or as short as you think best.
Follow-up: The rest of the class make notes and write the story for homework. The students who performed the story are excused homework!
Three students sit next to each other and you tell them that they are experts. However, they don't know what they are experts about. The rest of the class has to choose their area of expertise. Let's say the class chooses 'fish'. The class then ask question about fish to the experts. The experts answer, but only one word each. Example:
Question: What is the best fish to eat?
Expert 1: I …
Expert 2: …think …
Expert 3: … that…
Expert 1: .. the … etc etc
Important: Only three questions per group of experts, then change. Choose a new group of experts and a new area of expertise. Also, don’t expect long answers. You can thank them and stop the answers as soon as they get a laugh from the rest of the class.
The level of creativity in these activities seems immense, but doing them is actually quite simple. Very often, you just have to say the first thing that comes into your mind. But the feeling of achievement IS immense.
Activities like these have other unexpected benefits. Getting students to listen to each other is often hard, but not when you are playing games like these. When students embark on these flights of creativity, the rest of the class watch and listen with enormous concentration, as people do when they are watching their favourite comedian or a comic actor in a movie. And the activities are funny, which leads to laughter. And laughter is, as we say in English, a great aide-memoire.
Improvisation for the Theatre, Northwestern University Press, 1963.
Theatre Games for Rehearsal, Northwestern University Press, 1985.
Theatre Games for the Classroom, 1986.
All the above books are by Viola Spolin
Impro - Improvisation and the Theatre - Keith Johnstone, Methuen, 1981.
Theatre Games - Clive Barker, Methuen, 1977.
The Drama Course can be viewed here
The Creative Methodology for the Classroom course can be viewed here.