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Viola Spolin Papers

Identifier: MS155

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Scope and Contents

The Early Work series chronicles Spolin's early career, and contains writings, journal entries, playbills, and some items from the Young Actors Company, Spolin's acting school for children in Los Angeles that existed from the late 1940s through the early 1950s.  Playbills include "I Loved You Wednesday," performed in 1934 at the Studebaker Theater, and "Ladies of the Jury," performed in the 1940s at the Uptown Auditorium.  Both productions include Spolin in the cast.

Many of the writings in this series are from very early in Spolin's career, but describe theories of play and education that she used at the Young Actors Company and in "The Young Actor."  There are also some manuscript drafts of "The Young Actor," an unpublished book written by Spolin, some of which was later incorporated into Improvisation for the Theater.

This series also includes reports and journal entries from Spolin's work as a drama supervisor in the WPA Recreation Project.  The journal entries detail her experiences teaching drama in Chicago in the early 1940s, mostly in poor neighborhoods.

Biographical Materials include CVs, awards, obituaries, and some interview requests.  A log kept by Kolmus Greene chronicles Spolin's activities during the final years of her life.  Spolin's honorary doctorate, granted by Eastern Michigan University, is also here, as is her and Greene's wedding certificate from 1981.  There are also various clippings, obituaries, and reviews that reference Spolin and her work. An assortment of plaques and other awards are included in box 3.

Original order has been maintained wherever possible in the Personal Writings, Notes, and Poetry series, which accounts for some instances of overlap in folder heading years; organized chronologically because many writings have no title but are dated.  Included here are short stories, poems, journal entries, and various notes.  Spolin wrote an extensive selection of poetry, and folder headings sometimes include a selection of the titles contained therein (though none are complete listings).  There are also some transcriptions found here of Spolin and Kolmus Greene discussing various topics.  These transcriptions can be found throughout the collection, depending on original order and the topic of conversation, but the ones found here are more general or personal in nature.  Items found here are primarily of a personal nature, though some thoughts on education and theater games will be found interspersed within the writings.

Theater Companies are arranged chronologically by theater company, and are also chronological within each company.  A few items relating to the Playwrights Theatre Club can be found in this section, as well as correspondence, workshop notes, and publicity for The Compass, Second City, Game Theater, and Story Theater.  Correspondence and production notes for Sills & Co., a theater company founded by Paul Sills in New York, are found near the end of this section.  Of particular note are the Compass materials which, despite being only six folders, provide an insight into Paul Sills' role in this theater's founding.  The folder containing Spolin's workshop notes for Second City are also noteworthy, as they provide critiques of some of the earliest Second City cast members, including Paul Sand, Severn Darden, Dick Schaal, Mina Kolb, and others.

Items relating to Spolin's best-known work, Improvisation for the Theater, are organized chronologically.  The book was released in 1963, and manuscript drafts of this work, with handwritten corrections, can be found here dated 1955-1962.  Correspondence with individuals and publishers, various translations, and a book index compiled by Spolin on note cards housed in boxes appear at the end of this series.  Promotional materials and information on royalties for this publication can also be found here.

The Other Publications and Writings series contains subject files for many of Spolin's ideas and philosophies regarding education.  Early drafts can be found here for published materials, including Theater Games for the Classroom, Theater Games for the Lone Actor, and Theater Games for Rehearsal.  Additionally, there are manuscript drafts for a number of publications, many of which were never published.  Manuscript drafts for materials that were ultimately unpublished include several drafts for an untitled book on education, and a series of "handbooks" relating to theater and education.  This series is arranged alphabetically by heading.  A number of annotated books found in the collection are at the end, recorded alphabetically but not integrated into the alpha run for the series.  This series also contains a number of transcribed interviews conducted by Jeffrey Sweet for his book Something Wonderful Right Away.  Only a small selection of the interviews eventually published are found here, although the interview included here with Walter Beakel was ultimately not a part of Sweet's book.  Spolin was interviewed by Sweet, to be included in his book, but her interview was never transcribed.  The six audiocassettes containing these interviews, done in 1974, are included in the Audio/video series.

This series also includes numerous files kept by Spolin as ideas or work files that were to be used for future publications.  It includes some materials that could potentially have been broken up into other sections, but was kept this way to retain original order.  Also included here is a number of transcribed conversations and idea sessions about various topics, particularly theater games and teaching philosophies.

Correspondence is arranged alphabetically by name and topic.  Spolin kept track of possible copyright infringements on her work, and there is some documentation and correspondence here that tracks her research into unlicensed use of theater games.  Otherwise, this series consists primarily of general correspondence.  There is also correspondence in each of the other series, being particular to each series.  Of particular note in this series are the folders containing letters from Bill, Carol, and Paul Sills, and David Shepherd.

The list of Spolin's activities in the Lectures, Workshops, and Teaching series are arranged chronologically by date of the event.  This series contains correspondence, notes, and itineraries for Spolin's numerous lectures and workshops done in the 1960s through the early 1980s.  Of note are Spolin's workshops with the casts of Rhoda and Friends and Lovers, as well as the McGinnis Home for Boys and Girls and Sarah Lawrence College.  Spolin conducted a number of workshops at Sarah Lawrence, and references it throughout her papers as a formative experience.  Because of this, it is one of the better-documented workshop series included here.  Also of note are the early 1980s Mextel workshops, as these are among the final workshops produced by Spolin and video recordings exist for them in the audio/video series.

Items relating to What's Your Score? include notes, drafts, and mock-ups.  This workbook was written by Spolin and published posthumously by the Spolin Center in 1994.  Mock-ups for a pamphlet version of this publication appear in this series as early as 1966, with more extensive drafts dated between 1969 and 1975.

The Spolin Theater Game Center series is arranged alphabetically by subject and chronologically within classes, workshops, etc., except for correspondence, which is also alphabetical.  "Workshops" indicate events held at other institutions, while "classes" are at the Spolin Theater Game Center.  Both workshops and classes were produced under the auspices of the Center, as opposed to those found in the Lectures, Workshops, and Teaching series, which consists solely of outside work done by Spolin.  However, folder titles in this series are based largely on Spolin's own folder headings, which used the terms interchangeably.  This series contains schedules, lists, notes, correspondence, financial materials, founding documents, and meeting minutes for the Spolin Theater Game Center, founded by Spolin in 1972 (though classes were not initiated until 1975).  This series also contains numerous written transcriptions of audio recordings made of Spolin's workshops and classes, mostly from the late 1970s.

Audio/Video Materials are arranged chronologically, and include various formats (VHS, U-matic, and a small number of audiocassettes). Represented here are video recordings of various workshops, Sills & Co., news items, and Spolin's memorial service in 1994.  Audio materials include classes, workshops, and interviews from 1969 through the 1980s.  The majority of audio recordings can be found with the addition at the end of the collection, in the Audiocassettes series.

The Theater Game File series is arranged alphabetically, and includes correspondence, drafts, and administrative materials related to the publication of Spolin's Theater Game File in 1975.  Of note in this series is Spolin's marked-up copy of Improvisation for the Theater used while writing Theater Game File, as well as well as sets of draft cards and published annotated cards from Theater Game File.

The Games and Game Drafts series is arranged alphabetically.  Game names reflect what Spolin called them at the time each individual file was created, and these titles are in quotes.  If the folder heading is descriptive rather than being an actual title, it is not in quotes.  Dates vary widely, and each folder contains materials from throughout the 1960s and 1970s.  For this reason, dates are not included in folder headings.  Game development notebooks and card files are found at the end of this series.

Like the previous games series, Unpublished Games and Exercises are arranged alphabetically and have largely been left in original order.  Some games here (or similar versions of them) may appear in more recent Spolin publications, as their status as 'unpublished' dates back to when Spolin originally created these files.  Dates vary widely, and each folder contains materials from throughout the 1960s and 1970s.  For this reason, dates are not included in folder headings.  Each file contains notes and descriptions of games.

An addition to the collection was received in 2013, and included a modest selection of Photographs, dating from 1933-1991.  These images primarily depict Spolin in her work with the Young Actors’ Company in the early 1950s, including productions and workshops for children and young adults.  There are also materials here related to her conducting improvisation workshops in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as some personal photos.

Also part of the later addition, the Young Actors’ Company series chronicles Spolin’s time working with her children’s theater company and workshop in Los Angeles during the late 1940s and early 1950s.  Materials here include programs, costume lists, invitations, scripts, budgets, newsclippings, and stage designs for several plays produced by Spolin, including The Emperor’s New Clothes and The Clown Who Ran Away.

The largest component of the 2013 addition is a collection of Audiocassettes that for the most part serve as audio recordings of improvisation workshops conducted by Spolin between 1970 and 1987, with the majority of items coming from the late 1970s.  These sound recordings document games and side-coaching done by Spolin during workshops later in her career.


  • 1925-2003
  • Other: Date acquired: 03/01/2010


Conditions Governing Access

There are no restrictions on use of the materials in the department for research; all patrons must comply with federal copyright regulations.  DVD use copies for VHS videocassettes in boxes 42-46 can be found in box 47.


73.00 Boxes

Language of Materials



Viola Spolin has been called the "high priestess of improvisational theatre".  Born in Chicago in 1906, Spolin is best known as the creator of theater games, originally created as a series of exercises to aid students in the study of drama.  In 1955, Spolin conducted workshops for the Playwrights Theater Club, and later at the Compass Theater.  In 1960 she began running improvisation workshops for the cast of Second City.  As an outgrowth of her work with Second City, Spolin published Improvisation for the Theater in 1963, which resulted in much critical acclaim and solidified her reputation in improvisational theater.  Her papers include writings, transcriptions, interviews, journals, drafts of theater games, and other materials that chronicle her work in improvisation and educational theater.


The collection is arranged by series according to type of material, then chronoligcally, alphabetically, or in original order within each series.

Source of Acquisition

Carol Sills and Neva Sills

Method of Acquisition

Gift of Carol Sills, January 2009.  Additions, 2012 and 2014.

Separated Materials

The following publications have been removed from the collection and cataloged individually:

Something Wonderful Right Away, ed. Jeffrey Sweet.  1978.

Excursions Into The Intuitive: The Poetry of Viola Spolin, Viola Spolin.  1991.

Resetting the Stage: Theater Beyond the Loop, 1960-1990, Chicago Public Library.  1990.

The Hollister Report, vol. 2, no. 3, Winter (1990-1991).

Bulletin of The Society for Comparative Philosophy (Nov. 1970).

Alan Watts Journal, vol. 1, no. 10 (Aug. 1970).

Mummenschanz, Andres Bossard, Floriana Frassetto, Bernie Schurch.  n.d.

A Peca Didatica de Bertolt Brecht: Um Jogo de Aprendizagem, Ingrid Dormien Koudela.  1987.

Processing Information

Benn P. Joseph, 2010.

Guide to the Viola Spolin Papers
Benn P. Joseph
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Library Details

Part of the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections Repository

Deering Library, Level 3
1970 Campus Drive
Evanston IL 60208-2300 US