Known in theater circles as the 'High Priestess of Improv', Viola Spolin shaped a generation of performers whose careers, in turn, shaped the entertainment landscape of today. Now the legendary drama teacher is the subject of a new exhibition at Northwestern University that begins Monday, April 1, the same day the Chicago Improv Festival launches in Chicago.
Free and open to the public, “Viola Spolin: Improvisation and Intuition,” runs from April 1 through August 16 at Northwestern University Library, on the Evanston campus. It draws from an extraordinary collection of Spolin’s papers that are housed in the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections.
Ensemble comedy TV shows like ‘30 Rock,’ improvisational theaters around the country and the movies of Christopher Guest and others who take an improvisational approach to film build on the groundbreaking work of Viola Spolin, says University Library digital media specialist Dan Zellner. Zellner, with librarians Charlotte Cubbage and Benn Joseph, curated the exhibition.
In the early 1950s, Spolin assisted her son Paul Sills and David Shepard in founding the Compass Theater, the nation’s first improvisational theater. In 1959, Sills co-founded The Second City, which became the most influential and prolific comedy and improvisational theater in the world. Second City had strong roots in the improvisational theatre games that Spolin developed to unleash creativity and that Northwestern University Press published in 'Improvisation for the Theater'. The book became an omnipresent text in acting classes and influenced generations of actors, directors and teachers.
The University Library exhibition tells the story of Spolin and the theatre exercises and games for which she is best known through photos, her writing and audio and video clips. On display are her games, some unpublished and visible for the first time to the public.
The exhibition is open to the general public from 8:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Saturday at University Library. Members of the Northwestern community with a valid WildCARD ID can visit during all open library hours.