This blog post is the first in a new series called Educators@Work, which will highlight influential educators from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds. We’re kicking things off with a figure that you may not have heard about, but she’s known in education and theatre circles as the mother of improv – Viola Spolin. Stay tuned for more posts in the future about interesting educators!

The First Leap

It was probably some combination of acrobatics in my stomach and the thought, “This is going to be a disaster…” cycling through my brain, as I walked through the door for the first time. I was the kid who dreaded drama class. I avoided the limelight at all costs. Yet, having grown up around the corner from Second City, the improv comedy club from which comedians like John Candy, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey launched their careers, I’d harbored a secret desire to try improv. (Improv is a form of theatre in which there is no script. Players simply get on stage and “make it up” as they go.) My desire was so secret, in fact, that I’d only recently even admitted it to myself. But curiosity had finally gotten the better of me. Seized by an uncharacteristically carpe diem attitude a few weeks prior, I’d signed myself up for a class.

“Deep breaths,” I reminded myself as I walked up the stairs and into the windowless classroom. I tried to make myself look as confident as I wished I felt. (Months later, a classmate told me that I had actually looked painfully uncomfortable.)

The Stretch ZoneComfort Stretch Panic

At Bon Education, we often talk about Karl Rohnke’s Comfort, Stretch, Panic Model, and in particular, we focus on the space called the “stretch zone.” It’s the place in between your comfort zone and your panic zone; it’s the place where you’re pushed, but not too far. The more time you spend in your stretch zone, the more you learn. So, we design learning experiences that put our participants in their stretch zones. I try to create stretch zones in my personal life, too. That’s why I started taking improv classes.

The First Laugh

It was about 14 weeks since my first class, and we were working on big emotions. My teacher Heather whispered an emotion to me and a different emotion to my scene partner Tom. We were each supposed to play those emotions to the hilt. We got up out of our seats, walked to the front of the room and someone gave us a location: garden. I was trembling. I am not comfortable expressing extreme emotions, and I would always shake a little before a scene started anyway.

“Garden! Thanks. Whenever you’re ready, guys,” Heather said.

Tom flung his arms up to the skies and initiated the dialogue: “Louise, why aren’t you digging?! We need to plant these flowers!” he bellowed and seethed.

Ah, anger. Got it.

I sniffled, let my lower lip tremble and crumpled into a heap on the floor. Then I hyperbolically wailed, “I’m sorry. I just…can’t!” My emotion was sadness.

“What is wrong with you? It’s not hard. Just pick up your little shovel and start digging!” he fumed. I paused, looked at him, then looked at the ground.

Little shovel, I thought. Okay. I gingerly pinched my thumb and forefinger together, pantomiming picking up the littlest shovel I could picture. I looked at him again and pathetically started scooping, about a teaspoon’s worth of soil at a time. Everyone started laughing.

It was goofy, stupid even. But that moment was a turning point for me. Not only did I discover that there is something inherently funny about small objects, but I also found that unexpectedly making an entire room of people laugh is an intoxicating feeling. And all it took was listening and responding, just like we’d been taught.

The Mother of Improv

I’ve found that the more time I spend in my stretch zone, the larger my comfort zone becomes. As a result of my improv practice, I’ve become more at ease with uncertainty. I’ve gained confidence in my own voice. My community has grown. I say “yes” to more experiences, which has opened new worlds to me. For all of this, I have Viola Spolin – the mother of improv – to thank.

For a little historical background (it’s fun – I promise!), improv has been around for centuries; its roots stretch back at least to the the Renaissance when bands of actors would travel from town to town, performing partially improvised plays. Over time, this artform fell into obscurity. But in the 1930s, Viola Spolin, an educator working with immigrant children in Chicago, began incorporating improvisational theatre methods into her work, laying the foundation for what we think of as “improv” today. Spolin discovered that she could help children overcome language barriers, bridge cultural divides and integrate into their communities through play. She developed a methodology and a series of theatre games for this purpose, which she later recorded in Improvisation for the Theatre, a seminal book that many consider to be “the bible of improv.” Using her techniques, in 1959 her son Paul Sills founded Second City, the improv school and comedy club where I first started taking classes.

Not Just for Actors

Although improv is best known for its application in acting, I’m most interested in how it’s being used to transform the lives of non-actors, like me. Scientists are using improv to learn to how to communicate their research to non-scientists. Caregivers are using improv to connect with dementia patients. Police officers are using improv to build relationships with civilians, while prisoners are learning improv as part of their rehabilitation process. Business executives and MBA students, doctors, veterans, Google employees, entrepreneurs and people with autism and social anxiety are all taking improv workshops specifically tailored to their needs. I love how this one activity provides so much value to such a diverse group of people. It’s worth examining why and how this works.

At its core, improv is about communication, relationships and mindfulness. Many of the “rules” that improvisors follow are helpful off stage, too. Three that I find universally applicable are:

  1. Respond in the spirit of “yes, and.” When your partner offers some piece of information about your scene, your job is to accept that piece of information as true and to contribute something of your own. “Yes and” is about stepping into the world that’s being created and building it up, one piece at a time. Players don’t need to robotically parrot the words “yes and,” but we do need to support our partner’s contributions and build on whatever’s been established. It’s the only way to co-create something that doesn’t yet exist.
  2. Focus on the relationship. I had a teacher who paused a lackluster scene to ask, “What is this scene really about?” After a number of guesses, the teacher explained: “It’s about the relationship. Always.” It’s not about the plot or about being clever. The teacher instructed the players to begin again, but to focus on the relationship. The scene gained instant depth, meaning and humor. “Focus on the relationship” is about listening to the emotions below the character’s words and responding, on some level, to those feelings and what those feelings imply about the relationship.
  3. Be in the moment. Improv is about fully existing in the present. Rather than focusing on how you’re going to respond, where you want the scene to go or trying to make the audience laugh, it works best when you remain open to the unknown. It’s about discovery rather than invention. If you really and truly take care of the present moment, then the future will take care of itself. Improv teaches us to trust ourselves and our scene partners; as long as we remain curious, listen carefully and respond authentically, everything will be okay.

Much has been written about how these and other principles of improv bolster communication, teamwork and creativity. But what I believe is truly special about improv is how those lessons are imparted. Like Piaget, Dewey and other constructivists, Spolin believed that we learn from direct experience. In her book Improvisation for the Theatre, Spolin writes:

We learn through experience and experiencing, and no one teaches anyone anything. This is as true for the infant moving from kicking to crawling to walking as it is for the scientist with equations. If the environment permits it, anyone can learn whatever he or she chooses to learn; and if the individual permits it, the environment will teach everything it has to teach. ‘Talent’ or ‘lack of talent’ have little to do with it. We must consider what is meant by ‘talent.’ It is highly possible that what is called talented behavior is simply a greater individual capacity for experiencing. From this point of view, it is in the increasing of the individual capacity for experiencing that the untold potentiality of a personality can be evoked.

What a radical idea: Talent is “simply a greater individual capacity for experiencing.” This implies that the teacher’s role is to develop her students’ openness to new experiences, and the student’s job is to have experiences. Teaching is about creating experiences that open students to what the environment has to offer, and learning is about receiving the environment’s lessons. This is what improv offers non-actors; it helps us open up to learn from direct experience, and this openness translates into experiences we have off stage.

The Present

IMG_5619Now, I am on an improv team. Every few weeks, we get together to perform a 15- to 20-minute improvised set in front of a room full of strangers. In the green room, before we go on, we catch up about our weeks and then do some warm-up games. About 10 minutes before we go on, we remind ourselves of the principles that we’ve found work for us. Remember, we say, let’s let our scenes build slowly. Let’s sit in them and not rush anything. We’re doing this for ourselves. So, if we get a kick out of something, let’s keep doing it. Oh, and if we can time it so that we’re all in the closing scene, great. If it doesn’t work out that way, that’s fine, too.

A few minutes before the show, we start dancing to imaginary music, getting all the jitters out of our bodies. “Okay, ladies! Ready?” the announcer asks.

We go backstage and peek out at the audience. The lights go down, and the music comes up. We pat each other’s shoulders and say, “I’ve got your back.” Then, we hear our cue, and we run on stage. “Thank you so much!” my teammate shouts over the applause. “We are the Whisper Tokens! May we have a suggestion of anything at all?”

I still tremble a bit, but that’s okay. It means I’m being stretched.

Additional Resources

To learn more about improv, check out the following resources:

  • At Bon Education, we incorporate improv games into our team meetings and our innovation trainings. If you’re looking for some easy warm-up games to use in your own work, try “Five Things,” “What Are You Doing?” or any of the others from this list.
  • Radiolab created an excellent podcast episode about two of the most highly regarded improvisers alive today.
  • For some classic books on improv, check out: Improvisation for the Theatre by Viola Spolin and Impro by Keith Johnstone.
  • If you want to see a show or take a class for yourself, there might be an improv theatre or improv festival in your area.
  • And if you live in Dubai and want to see a show or take a class yourself, visit The Courtyard Playhouse!


Elizabeth Graff
Education Program Content Developer, Bon Education

Elizabeth’s curiosity about learning and educational design first took hold while studying a Reggio Emilia-based early education program for inner-city residents of Chicago. Since that formative experience, Elizabeth has gone on to develop learning initiatives and assess educational programs for institutions ranging from Harvard University to the Chicago Children’s Museum to Sesame Street. Having spent the early part of her career teaching students with developmental differences, Elizabeth strongly believes in reducing educational barriers and designing learning experiences that are accessible to all learners.

Elizabeth holds a Master of Education in Technology, Innovation, and Education from The Harvard Graduate School of Education and a B.A. in Studio Art from Carleton College.

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