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Demonstrating Viola Spolin’s Theater Games | Chicago Stories

Demonstrating Viola Spolin’s Theater Games

If you walk into any improv class in Chicago, chances are you’ll find the students playing a version of one of Viola Spolin’s theater games. In 1963, Spolin published Improvisation for the Theater, in which she compiled those games many of which are still used in a variety of contexts today. A group of experienced improvisers got together at The Second City to demonstrate some of Spolin’s games, with Director of Comedy Studies Anne Libera acting as the “side coach.” Each game has a “point of concentration” – a single objective that the players focus on.

Photo: A group of improvisers at The Second City demonstrates a Viola Spolin theater game called Parts of a Whole, or Add a Part. Photo by Meredith Francis
A group of improvisers at The Second City demonstrates a Viola Spolin theater game


In Mirror, two players stand facing one another. One player initiates movement while the other attempts to copy their exact movements. Spolin has a few variations on this exercise in her book, including one in which two teams mimic the movements of one another.


In Spacewalk, players simply walk around the stage while the side coach guides them as to speed, direction, interactions with other players, and more. In her book, Spolin discusses an additional element of spacewalk in which the players add “space substance” to the air around them as they walk. “They are not to feel or present space as though it were a known material (water, mud, molasses, etc.) but are to explore it as a totally new and unknown substance,” Spolin writes.

Parts of a Whole

In Parts of a Whole, or Add a Part, as it is listed in Spolin’s book, one player steps forward to create a part of a machine, animal, or some other object. Then one at a time, the other players join to create a whole picture or large, moving object.

Gibberish Interpreter

In Gibberish, two players speak a nonsense “gibberish” language at one another while a third translates between them. In this demonstration, the point of concentration is for the translator to mirror the tone and movements of the other players. Spolin presents variations of the game, but she writes that “Gibberish develops the expressive physical language vital to stage life by removing the dependency on words alone to express meaning.”


In Contact, sometimes also called Touch to Talk, the two players on stage can only speak when they make physical contact with one another, like placing a hand on the other’s shoulder. Each time a player has a new thought or string of dialogue, they have to have made a new kind of physical contact.


George Elrod, Sheri Flanders, Leila Gorstein, Javid Iqbal, Claire McFadden, and Ric Walker

Side Coach

Anne Libera