Bill Murray, Martin Short, and Key & Peele wouldn’t be the Kings of Comedy without the Mother of Improv. Unlike the stars she influenced, Viola Spolin isn’t a household name. But that may change with WTTW’s new documentary “Inventing Improv.”
The Chicago Stories special explores the life and legacy of this influential figure. “The story of Viola Spolin and her contributions – not just to our city’s culture but to the rest of the world – is a quintessential Chicago story of creativity and innovation, and we are proud to be the ones to tell it,” says WTTW President and CEO Sandra Cordova Micek.
Nicknamed Spark, Viola ignited the improvisational theater movement and made Chicago the home of improv. The communication techniques and theatrical exercises she developed laid the groundwork for The Second City, SCTV, and Saturday Night Live.
Yet improv wasn’t initially used in comedy acts.
Viola, who was born in Chicago to Russian-Jewish immigrants, worked as a social worker at Hull House when she was a teen during the 1920s. After leaving to gain theater experience, she returned as Drama Supervisor for the Chicago branch of the WPA’s Recreational Project in 1939.
While teaching immigrant and first-generation children how to acclimate to America via theater, Viola devised games named Contact, Gibberish Interpreter, and Audience Suggestion. Not only did these practices break down cultural barriers and enhance empathy, they would later become the hallmarks of improvisational comedy.
In 1946, Spolin founded the Young Actors Company in Hollywood where she used her then revolutionary methods to mentor students such as Alan Arkin and Paul Sand. Like actors Alan Alda, George Wendt and Bob Balaban, Sand recalls memories of Viola in the documentary.
The film also explores the key role her son Paul Sills played in co-founding Chicago’s Compass Players club, the first improvisational theater in the country. Active from 1955 to 1958, the company featured Elaine May and Mike Nichols.
By 1959, the troupe morphed into The Second City. With a new venue and improved format, the shows offered less emphasis on jokes and more reflection on the times. By putting a mirror up to society, laughs came from audience recognition of themselves rather than punchlines.
But despite its forward thinking, Second City was still a boy’s club with only two women (Barbara Harris and Mina Kolb) in the company at that time. However, due to its popularity, Second City had to add more players to the roster. Viola was in charge of cultivating prospective cast members by teaching her innovative games in Chicago workshops. Training programs also sprung up in Toronto and Los Angeles. And, in 1967, a touring company was created to further increase the talent pool.
Eventually, Gilda Radner, Catherine O’Hara, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jane Lynch, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Amy Sedaris, Cecily Strong, Aidy Bryant, and Kate McKinnon would come through Second City to share their comedy with the world.
As Spolin explained, “My games are more than a bunch of exercises. Used properly, they’re a learning system which can reach the intuitive power of the individual and release genius.”
“We hope the audience [of the documentary] comes away with an appreciation for improv, as Paul Sills described it, as the most democratic form of theater, because it values everyone equally as a player,” says the film’s producer/writer Jude Leak. “The essence of improv is community…performers using their gifts to make a better place for everybody. And it all started in Chicago.”
“Inventing Improv” (which includes vintage clips of Second City alumni Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, and Rachel Dratch) premieres on Oct. 22 at 8 p.m. on all WTTW platforms. On Oct. 21, WTTW will host a preview of the show with Aretha Sills, granddaughter of Viola Spolin/daughter of Paul Sills, and others including comedian Frances Callier who admits, “I came for the improvisation but stayed for the movement.”