Ellie sat in the therapy chair across from me and repeated things she had said many times before. “I am not good enough.” “I am not smart enough.” “I don’t know what to do.” “I feel hopeless.” The energy was draining from the room. We were both stifling yawns. Ellie wanted change. She felt trapped in a body and identity that she judged and couldn’t abide.
Out of the blue, I threw a light-blinking rubber ball at her as she was talking. For the first time in months she said something new.
Then she laughed. And threw it back to me.
So I threw it back to her while I said, “Once upon a time there lived a woman named Ellie.” She threw the ball back and said, “She died an old woman with regret in her belly.”
Something in the room had changed. We both had more energy. The moment felt charged with a playful potential.
To improvise means to do something impromptu, unrehearsed and not routinized. Improvisation is to act spontaneously.
Viola Spolin is often called the mother of improvisation. In at least one way, she truly is. Her son, Paul Sills, founded The Second City in Chicago. Second City spawned Joan Rivers, Steve Carell, Tina Fey and many more. But Spolin’s goals in improvisation went beyond comedy. Trained in the 1920s during the Progressive Education Movement by social worker and activist Neva Boyd, Spolin taught theatre games to working mothers during the Depression and to various immigrant populations via the WPA. Later she trained professional actors.
To Spolin, improvisation is a way out of the “approval/disapproval system” that blocks our authentic experience of ourselves and each other. Improvisation is the path that frees us from the confines of our own evaluative, self-conscious and repetitive stories. Improvisation opens us to our own aliveness, even in the smallest moments.
Through theatre games, Spolin teaches us to put our attention fully on something or someone, and then respond from our inner impulse. In this way we experience the extemporaneous energetic emergence of the intuitive. And through the intuitive, transformation is possible.