Three women at the foundation of improv

One of my intentions for 2019 is to apply story finding to shine a light on the often invisible work done by women, in this case the origins of improvisational theater.

Viola Spolin book

I wrote this post to call attention to the foundational work done by Viola Spolin as a way to announce my latest workshop, but more on that soon – this story begins with Viola Spolin.  Her son, Paul Sills, is widely celebrated as the founder of improv because in 1955 he created the Compass Theater, and then later Second City in Chicago – but Spolin was responsible for many of the improv games and the foundational philosophies and practices that shape improvisational theater as we know it (as reflected in her 1963 book Improvisation for the Theater).

However, in the process of finding Viola Spolin’s story, I actually found the story of three women: Viola Spolin, her mentor Neva Boyd, both of whom were in fact supported by Jane Addams, since Viola Spolin first worked with Neva Boyd at Hull House, one of the settlement houses founded by Jane Addams.

So, here’s their story.

Hull House was the first social settlement house in Chicago, and it served as a place where immigrants would gather to learn, to eat, to debate, and to acquire the tools necessary to put down roots in their new country. Later, in the 1920’s, when the demographics of the neighborhood changed, in addition to the Italian, Irish, German, Greek, Bohemian, and Russian and Polish Jewish immigrants, participants in the clubs, activities, and programming of Hull House included more African Americans and immigrants from Mexico. At Hull House, as part of the progressive education movement, Neva Boyd focused on non-competitive play as a democratizing force. An early theorist of the educational and social benefits of play, her book Handbook for Recreational Games documents many of the exercises she developed as part of the work she did, which included training social workers in group work.

For Boyd, games not only helped children learn cognitive like language and communication skills, but also critical social and emotional skills like cooperation: “Play involves social values, as does no other behavior. The spirit of play develops social adaptability, ethics, mental and emotional control, and imagination.” (

Viola Spolin in turn, applied these societal benefits of play to cultivating her own practice of play as a teaching system, first for the WPA Recreational Project in Chicago, working with children and recent immigrants in low-income neighborhoods and ultimately bringing the benefit of theatrical play to drama therapy programs, mental health facilities and with prisoners, as well as community groups seeking creative engagement in the midst of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement such as the North Side Cooperative Ministry, Parents School, and Women for Peace.

Such it is that in this playful spirit, in the aim of reaching across divisions of culture and language, and as Spolin put it: as part of “the necessity to help people become more creative as a real justification for living,” my collaborator Criscillia Benford and I will be  offering our first creative expression of 2019: Embracing the Awkward – Finding Fun on First Dates and More on January 5th right here in Oakland, CA. And there are still spots left!!

This play-filled workshop brings together my decades of experience in improv, Criscillia’s meditation and neuroscience pratice, and both of our research expertise in social interaction. It has been designed to give you the time and space to practice having conversations with new people. We’ll use improv activities, infused with research-based insights into human communication, to help you connect to the moment –– no matter how awkward! Expect a mix of games, activities, and scenes to help you get more comfortable being yourself while connecting with others. No improv or performance experience required. Just bring a willingness to have fun, be curious, and try try again. You don’t even need to be single!

Together we will co-create and maintain a space where curiosity, lightheartedness, and listening are celebrated. You will leave with a better understanding of how navigating conversations with agreement and acknowledgement can lead to more more fulfilling connections.

Hope to see you there! Sign up here:

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