The roots of American improvisation: Play, process, and pedagogy
Table of Contents
The Roots of American Improvisation: Neva Boyd and Viola Spolin
Josephine Raciti Forsberg: A Catalyst for Understanding
The Connections Between Life, Theatre, and I mprovisation
Something from Nothing : Forsberg’s Praxis
An Overview of The Players Workshop Exercises
Creativity and Improvisation: The Cognition Connection
In 1973, I was a somewhat shy, nineteen year old girl living on the south side of Chicago and working as a secretary at the Chicago Transit Authority. I had never heard of Second City and had no idea who Josephine Raciti Forsberg was. “Improvisation” was not part of my lexicon. I had grown up a first generation America n in an Irish Catholic home where each one of us was assigned a particular role to play from which we should never stray. I did not like my prescribed role, which fell along a traditionally gendered and working class line; I wanted to be an actor and perfo rmer. I had known this for as long as I can remember. So, when a co - worker told me that he was going to be taking “acting” classes at The Players Workshop of The Second City, I asked if I could go along. I could not know at the time that this choice would have a major impact on my life.
During my two years with Forsberg, I performed in Land of the Stage II, one of her Second City children’s theatre productions. This show was structured so that children would be exposed to the theatre as a form of popular c ulture, as well as an introduction to Forsberg’s beloved Shakespeare. Forsberg’s children’s shows also included audience participation and the playing of traditional games, such as “Going on a Lion Hunt.” In addition, I was a performer in many of the revue s at the Players Oe, Forsberg’s small cabaret - style theatre housed in a Unitarian Church in Chicago’s Old Town. Lastly, with four male players with whom I had taken classes, I became an improv - comedy performer in The St. Vitus Dancers comedy troupe. Every weekend, we played the comedy clubs in the Chicagoland area. I stopped studying with Forsberg when I was hired to play Frenchy in the National Tour of Grease .
As an improvisation student and practitioner, I experienced, first hand, the transformative and e mpowering aspects of this art form; however, I had never questioned how or why improvisation served as a catalyst for “self” development. I only knew that I had become a good actor and performer. As an acting and improvisation teacher, I began looking for answers. In my search, I found explanations in Erving Goffman’s work on interaction ritual, in the play and games theory of Neva Boyd, in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on creativity and flow, in the literature of the humanistic psychologists and Transacti onal Analysis, and in neuroscience and the human cognitive processes as discussed by various creativity scholars. I came to understand that the transformation that players experience is based in the improvisation structures and not in some mystical powers. By focusing on problem - solving and responding to the actual stimuli being presented in the moment by all the players and by the environment, transformation and liberation from old schemas and old dysfunctional habits are possible. As the “high priestess o f improvisation,” Viola Spolin, stated:
The energy released to solve the problem, being restricted by the rules of the game and bound by group decision, creates an explosion — or spontaneity — and as is the nature of explosions, everything is torn apart, rearr anged, unblocked. The ear alerts the feet, and the eye throws the ball. 1
The entire organism is engaged in improvisational work. There is no mind - body separation. There is only “unicity.”
This dissertation, then, examines the ways in which improvisation, a s it developed in the United States, particularly in Chicago, operates as a catalyst for liberating
1 Viola Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater , 3rd ed. ( Evanst on, IL : Northwestern University Press, 1999 ), 5 — 6.
creativity in individuals. Through the games, exercises, and interaction rituals that improvisers use in their ensemble work with both the onstage players a nd the audience players, an environment where individuals may feel safe to experiment with new ways of being is created. In other words, this dissertation strives to answer the question: how does improvisation, with its emphasis on problem - solving, group p rocess, and agreement, free individuals from their “inner censors,” thus allowing a personal transformative experience to transpire in a public theatrical setting?
In order to address this question, I have used Josephine Raciti Forsberg and her work as ex emplars. I have not chosen to do this simply because Forsberg was a teacher who had a positive impact on my life. Forsberg’s contributions to the development of the art of American improvisation in the twentieth and twenty - first centuries have been greatly overlooked. Although she established the first school in the United States dedicated to teaching the art of American improvisation, she is only included in the discourse by former students or relegated to a footnote as the woman who was “effectively ouste d” from her status as “the first tier of official Second City training.” 2
Forsberg contributed to the development of American improvisation as an art form that began in the first half of the twentieth century with Neva Boyd’s work in the field of play the rapy theory. Her approach also reflects the positive, self - actualizing component of the art of American improvisation that her teacher, and the “high priestess of improvisation Viola Spolin argued was meant to free players from the cultural bonds
2 Amy Seham, Whose Improv Is It Anyway? (Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 2001), 36.
that have led to the repression of spontaneity in socialized adults. Spontaneity, Spolin believed,
creates an explosion that for the moment, frees us from handed - down frames of reference, memory choked with old facts and information and undigested theories and tec hniques of other people’s finding. 3
Forsberg agreed with Spolin’s theory and built on it by uniting improvisation techniques and classical, Stanislavskian actor training techniques with theories of psychology, particularly Transactional Analysis. She succ essfully put her system into practice in her classes and in the producing arm of her Players Workshop of The Second City: The Children’s Theatre of Second City and The Players’ Oe. She established workshop and performance environments where players were ta ught that relationships flourish through a “give - and - take” of power, that taking risks and responsibility leads to peak performance experiences, that responding to stimuli in the “Now” rather than resorting to old schemas and bad habits leads to self - actua lization, and that taking care of the other person is the best way of ensuring that you will be taken care of. Forsberg strove to give her students the tools for becoming successful theatre artists and human beings. For the most part, she succeeded.
In exp loring the transformative nature of the art of American improvisation, this dissertation does several things. First, it looks at improvisation’s historical roots in the beginning of the twentieth century in Chicago, as well as its theoretical roots in soci al and educational reform. Second, it places Forsberg in the historical narrative by providing information on direct and indirect influences on her approach to teaching the art of
3 Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater , 4.
American improvisation, as well as an analysis of her curriculum. Third, it provides insight into the biological and cognitive processes involved in practicing the art of American improvisation. Looking through these lenses provides a deeper understanding of the ways in which improvisation functions as a collaborative art form and a catalyst for liberating an individual’s creativity.
Chapter One, “The Roots of American Improvisation: Neva Boyd and Viola Spolin,” discusses the development of the art of American improvisation. This chapter begins with a focus on the importance of Ne va Boyd’s foundational theories of play therapy and social group work, as well as the social and educational reforms that characterized the early years of the American twentieth century. Boyd’s work sets the ground rules for improvisation as a collaborativ e endeavor, not only between the onstage players, but also between the players and the audience. Boyd, a settlement house worker and pioneer in the field of social work, “was a proponent of the modern play movement, which emphasized the importance of recre ation in socializing individuals.” 4 Her interest in the educational value of play began at Hull House, a settlement on Chicago’s West Side, and reached its apex at Northwestern University. In 1927, after having established several training programs for soc ial workers, the fiercely independent Boyd agreed to become a faculty member in Northwestern’s Sociology Department. She retired in 1941; however, she continued to teach and lecture on the use of play as a means of improving social relationships until her death in 1963.
4 University of Illinois at Chicago, Special Collections Finding Aids, accessed June 2007, http://www.uic.edu/depts/lib/specialcoll/services/rjd/findingaids/NBoydf.html .
Boyd championed the social benefits of play, believing that “its essence is psychological involvement and spontaneous activity for its own meaning.” 5 Boyd theorized that,
Activity in which reciprocal responsiveness via play is dominant prov ides a basis of unconsciously acquired understanding of “self and others.” Such play activities serve not only as a means of creating universality and humanizing sensitivity but also as a means of giving organized constructive expression. The medium of exp ression and the degree of unconscious, interpersonal reciprocity evoked among the players influences the development of character. 6
In other words, play is a useful tool that leads players, through social interaction ritual, to an awareness of the “self” a nd the “self” in society. Boyd believed that play provided “an effective way of communicating with hard - to - reach individuals.” 7 She also believed that directed play results in positive transformations for the individual and, by extension, for the community .
Directed play is defined by activities or games organized by a set of rules that are agreed upon by all players, not a disembodied authoritarian voice, and based on stable patterns. Boyd’s concept of directed play does not mean that play lacks the import ant “happifying” element 8 that takes the focus off competition and places it on fun. Indeed,
Neva Leona Boyd . Play and Game Theory in Group Work; a Collection of Papers , edited by Paul Simon ( Chicago: Jane Add ams Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, 1971 ), 74.
6 Ibid., 77
7 Ruth Austin, introduction in Handbook of Games (New York: Dover Publications, 1943), 2.
8 Boyd, Play and Game Theory in Group Work , 84.
she believed fun was perhaps the most important part of the experience. Moreover, the rules in directed play do not lead to “an imitation of play,” which Huizinga argues is the result of “play to order.” 9 Rather, within these organized structures the players are liberated through the discipline of adhering to a particular pattern of behavior and not to an authoritarian voice. In other words, directed play gives the players a sense of autonomy and agency because they freely agree to play by the rules. Boyd believed directed play set the stage for the physiological, psychological, and social transformation of the individual.
Chapter One also looks at Viola Spolin’s rol e in the development of the art of American improvisation. In “Play as a Means of Social Adjustment,” Boyd states, “playing a game is psychologically different in degree but not in kind from dramatic acting.” 10 In her archives, housed at the University of I llinois at Chicago library, there is literature on drama, games and drama, and play and drama. 11 In her Handbook of Games , one of her first publications, she includes a chapter on dramatic games. However, as David Alfred Charles points out in The Novelty of Improvisation: Towards a Genre of Embodied Spontaneity , there are only hints of the “value of play and games in the theatrical realm” 12 in Boyd’s theories. It was her student, Viola Spolin, who adapted
Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (New York: J. & J. Harper Editions, 1970), 7.
10 Ibid., 98.
11 University of Illinois at Chicago, Special Collections Finding Aids, accessed June 2007, http://tigger.uic.edu/depts/lib/specialcoll/services /rjd/findingaids/NBoydf.html
12 David Alfred Charles, The Novelty of Improvisation: Towards a Genre of Embodied Spontaneity (PhD dissertation, Louisiana State University, 2003), 24.
Boyd’s theories on play therapy, codifying them in Imp rovisation for the Theatre . This book, first published in 1963, has become a foundational text for actor training in the United States. Spolin, who lived and studied with Boyd from 1924 to 1927, credits her mentor with providing her with the tools she need ed to be a successful teacher and group worker:
an extraordinary training in the use of games, story - telling, folk dance, and dramatics as tools for stimulating creative expression in both children and adults, through self - discovery and personal experienc ing. The effects of her inspiration never left me for a single day. 13
In Improvisation for the Theater , Spolin also acknowledges Stanislavsky 14 as providing her with insights “at sporadic times” throughout her life; however, in a 1987 taped interview, she re cants, saying that she knew nothing of Stanislavsky because she was not a theatre person. She was a group worker. Lastly, Spolin also recognizes the role her family played in the development of her games. She informs that their weekly games of charades con tributed to her “Word Game,” an exercise used for developing material for scenes.
Spolin began developing her own theories as a teacher and supervisor of creative dramatics with the WPA Recreational Project in Chicago. Her initial approach was non - verbal and non - psychological, leading to improvisation structures, also known as
13 Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater , vii.
14 Frost and Yarrow assert tha t Konstantin Stanislavsky might be assumed to be “the originator of the modern use of improvisation, at least as a rehearsal and training device” (15). This use of improvisation is applied, meaning, as Hazel Smith and Dean Rogers point out in Improvisation , Hypermedia and the Arts Since 1945 , that it is used ‘towards the formation of a subsequent live performance which is no longer improvised” (pp. 27 – 28). Improv comedy troupes use improvisation techniques to create scenes or revues that will eventually bec ome scripted pieces to be presented before an audience.
organizational structures, that served as a catalyst for liberating players from what Spolin refers to as “the subjective pretend/illusion response.” 15 Spolin’s approach to improvisat ion differs from the European tradition of actor training whereby improvisation is used to spark actors’ imaginations and to aid them in relating situations from their own lives to the play, thus bringing a vitality to a scene, as well as to their characte rs. This use of improvisation, however, does not necessarily ask the performers/actors to interact or work as an ensemble. It is a rehearsal technique. The approach that developed in the United States, particularly in Chicago, stresses interaction and the development of relationships between the players and the players and audience.
Spolin’s success with employing game structures as a tool for theatre training for children, amateur actors, and non - literate immigrants eventually led to demonstrations as to how improvisation actually worked. This led to taking audience suggestions, which has become the defining element of American improvisation, or what is also known as Chicago - Style Improv.
Chapter Two, “Josephine Raciti Forsberg: A Catalyst for Understandi ng The Connections Between Life, Theatre, and Improvisation,” focuses on Forsberg and the influence that the Human Potential Movement had on her approach to teaching improvisation. In 1971, Forsberg established the first school dedicated to teaching improv isation, The Players Workshop of The Second City. She provided the training for the majority of Second City performers, produced Second City’s children’s shows, and was responsible for Second City’s touring company. In 1981, she worked with David Shepherd, a friend from the early days of the Playwrights Theatre Club and Second City,
15 Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater , 49.
developing Improv Olympiad. The concept was further developed by a former student, Charna Halpern. Halpern recalled in a 2000 article on Forsberg that she was concerned that her former teacher would be upset about the new competition. Forsberg’s response to Halpern was: “Just go ahead and do it. There’s room for everybody out there.” 16 Forsberg believed that we teach students “to go somewhere and do something with what they learn. ” 17
In 1985, Andrew Alexander, a Canadian businessman, and one of the driving forces behind SCTV, bought Chicago’s Second City. Alexander wanted to create an in - house training center; he wanted, Forsberg asserted in a 1997 interview, The Players Workshop. Forsberg refused and “he opened up his own training center.” 18 In 1987, The Second City Training Center was established. Forsberg’s nephew and protégé, Martin de Maat, was asked to head the new training center. Forsberg was asked to be an artistic consultan t, but her heart was not in it, 19 and she eventually dropped out. In addition to de Maat, other former students of Forsberg’s, such as Jeff and John Michalski, were also instrumental developing Second City’s Training Center. The Michalskis brought their
16 Charna Halpern quoted in Sara Burrow’s “She Wrote the Script for Chicago Improv,” News - Star , July 12, 2000, Section 2, 1.
17 Josephine Raciti Forsberg quo ted in Sara Burrow’s “She Wrote the Script for Chicago Improv,” News - Star , July 12, 2000, Section 2, 1.
18 Jack Helbig, “Anything But Retiring,” Performink 1997, 7.
19 Ben Winters, “Whose Name Is It, Anyway? A Second City Pioneer Fights For A Piece Of The Im prov Business She Helped Build — And A Little Respect,” Chicago Tribune , December 3, 2000, accessed May 21, 2011, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2000 - 12 - 03/features/0012030379_1_viola - spolin - second - city - paul - sills/4 .
kno wledge of Forsberg’s approach and curriculum. De Maat brought his eighteen years of experience in the Forsberg improvisation family business and Forsberg’s curriculum.
Initially, The Players Workshop continued to thrive. Alexander sent performers to Forsb erg to be trained in the basics of improvisation. The Second City Training Center took on the responsibility of teaching advanced improvisation performance techniques. However, in 1992, Second City also began offering beginning classes. By this point, the only mark of Forsberg’s association with Second City was the inclusion of the name in her corporation title: The Players Workshop of The Second City. Second City, her one - time artistic home, became a competitor, as did Improv Olympic (IO) and The Annoyance Theatre — both enterprises established by former students. By 1997, Forsberg workshop participants dwindled to about 125 students. As Ben Winters reports, “ Those who wanted to study in the glow of Second City's mystique now found their way not to Players, b ut to the Second City Training Center. ” 20 In 2000, Second City also wanted to stop Forsberg from using “Second City” as part of her name. U ltimately , as reported in
the Chicago Tribune , “the prospect of losing even a symbolic connection to the world's most famous comedy theater was too distressing for Forsberg to accept, and Second City decided not to press its claim. ” 21
Forsberg and her daughter, Linnea, turned the managing director responsibilities of The Players Workshop over to Steve Roath, a former stud ent. Roath seemed to save The Players Workshop by establishing a corporate division; however, his management style contributed to its demise. The once only - game - in - town for training in the art of
American improvisation, the woman who had trained thousands and thousands of performers, who had been a major force in promoting improvisation as an art form, ultimately lost her position as the leading authority. The Players Workshop of The Second City, which had grown into a successful family business, could not compete with Second City, the corporation. Even Forsberg herself is slowly being erased from improvisation’s historical narrative.
Chapter Three, Something from Nothing :
Forsberg’s Praxis, Overview of The Players Workshop Exercises,” provides an insight i nto Forsberg’s workshop approach and an analysis of her curriculum. In considering the skills that her students would need to acquire in order to be successful theatre artists, Forsberg created a cohesive six - term curriculum. Each term had specific learnin g objectives and exercises to support these objectives. Forsberg drew on Spolin’s foundational work and the “Spolin Games”; however, she also created many of her own exercises, which she developed by observing and learning about the blocks that inhibited c reativity. She designed some of these exercises based on her experiences as a theatre artist herself and some on her knowledge of psychological and behavioral theory, as well as her desire to help her students acquire life skills.
Forsberg began outlining her approach in her unpublished notes, Something From Nothing . These notes do not provide an analysis of her exercises or a clear insight into her theory; rather, Something from Nothing is an outline of exercises and the order in which they should be intr oduced to the students. Chapter Three places these exercises within a theoretical framework that highlights the significant role improvisation plays in
the development of theatre and performance skills, as well as the development of the “self.” It also rev eals that there is a fine line between art and therapy.
Chapter Four, “Creativity and Improvisation: The Cognition Connection,” explores the link between creativity and improvisation from a cognitive process perspective. This chapter focuses on the role th at tolerance and/or intolerance of ambiguity plays in the creative process and particularly in the art of American improvisation. In looking at the tolerance/intolerance of ambiguity, this chapter considers the impact one’s “inner censor” has on the creati ve process and the importance of understanding the authoritarian voice that Boyd, Spolin, and Forsberg believed hindered the growth of the individual. Creativity scholar, Mark A. Runco, states that individuals who are tolerant of ambiguity possess the abil ity “to deal with the ill - defined nature of problems that have creative potential” and “to tolerate a range of options that should be considered.” 22 In other words, individuals who can tolerate ambiguity are open to possibilities and can easily adjust to ch ange. In the art of American improvisation, where “not knowing” is a persistent state of being, tolerance of ambiguity is critical.
In addition, this chapter looks at the role that divergent and convergent thinking skills play in the improviser’s creative process. Although divergent thinking is often privileged in discussions about creativity because it is related to generating ideas, convergent thinking is also paramount in improvisation. It is not enough to produce a wealth of ideas; the players must exp lore them, or “land” on one theme, albeit probably for only a short period of time. “Landing” is a term used in improvisation that simply
Mark A. Runco, Crea tivity: Theories and Themes : Research, Development, and Practice ( Boston: Elsevier Academic Press, 2007 ), 297.
means heightening a moment and mining it for all its worth before moving on to a new discovery. Therefore, it is impor tant to consider the role that both skills play in improvisation.
The art of American improvisation is based in the “holistic understanding of the human personality” 23 as more than a pathological entity. Improvisation demonstrates that human beings are cap able of transformation given the right circumstances and environment. Humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow argued that neurosis may indeed be rooted in self - punishment stemming from guilt; however, “growth and improvement can [also] come through pain and conflict.” 24 The process of improvement is played out in improvisation work. The concentration on solving the problem provided in an improvisational structure, Spolin argues,
performs the same function in creating organic unity as does the game and genera tes great excitement by constantly provoking the question of procedures at the moment of crisis, thus keeping all participating members open for experiencing. 25
In addition, her “Orientation” exercises were created to bring “the first organic awareness of self, object, and environment to the student.” 26 Furthermore, Boyd also argued that through play, the “self” would be transformed psychologically, physiologically, and socially, creating a whole, healthy “self.” In her work, Forsberg has focused on the
23 Donald Moss, Humanistic and Transpersonal Psychology: A Historical and Biographical Sourcebook (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999), 15.