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Celebrating Viola Spolin, 'High Priestess of Improv'

Spolin’s lasting contributions to entertainment are subject of library exhibition

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Viola Spolin -- known in theater circles as the “High Priestess of Improv” -- 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 opens 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 Aug. 16 at Northwestern University Library, 1970 Campus Drive, 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.

In conjunction with the exhibit, a free and public lecture by Carol Bleackley Sills will take place at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 4 at McCormick Tribune Center Forum, 1870 Campus Drive, on Northwestern’s Evanston campus. Bleackley Sills worked alongside her husband and Spolin’s son, Second City co-founder Paul Sills, in the creation of The Game Theater, Story Theater, The Body Politic and other theater companies. She also served as Spolin’s editor.

Spolin’s legacy is embodied in the innovative improvisation games and acting exercises that she invented to unleash creativity and that were codified in “Improvisation for the Theater.” Published by Northwestern University Press, that book became an omnipresent text in acting classes and influenced generations of actors, directors and teachers.

“Ensemble comedy TV shows like ‘30 Rock’ and improvisational theaters around the country 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 Shepherd 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. As its website indicates, Second City had strong roots in the improvisation exercises that Spolin developed.

The University Library exhibition tells the story of Spolin and the theatre exercises and games with which she is identified through photos, her writing and audio and video. 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 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at University Library. Members of the Northwestern community with a valid WildCARD ID can visit during all open library hours.

The lecture by Carol Bleackley Sills is sponsored by Northwestern University Library, the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities and the Chicago Improv Festival.

Spolin’s papers are a gift of the Sills family. For more information about the exhibit, lecture or collection, contact Clare Roccaforte at or call (847) 467-5918.
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