Is There Room for Improvisation in All of This?

gangnon.jpg About the presenter: Pat Gangnon, MS, CCC-SLP, is employed as a speech pathologist at a middle school and has extensive experience in the area of drama, directing middle and high school plays. Pat has studied with Paul Sills as part of the Theater Game Intensive and has used Spolin Theater Games with various age levels. He has presented at the state and national level on using theater games with a stuttering population. Pat was a recipient of the Rolfs Educational Foundation Teaching Award for exceptional teaching ability as well as outstanding contributions to the education of children in the West Bend School District.

Is there room for improvisation in all of this?

By Pat Gangnon
From Wisconsin, USA

"There is no technique. You just need a little respect for the invisible"
Paul Sills, son of Viola Spolin and originator of The Second City

Have you ever heard of "being in the moment"? All of us have had experiences where we were caught up in what we were doing and were so engrossed that we were living in the moment. Viola Spolin, in her book, Improvisation For The Theater (Spolin, 1963) writes that "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 his equations." Experience is a wonderful teacher, a lifelong friend, and something we all are involved with. Experiential learning can be a fertile ground for improvisation. My goal in writing this paper is to show how experiential learning and improvisation can be beneficial to individuals who stutter. I will explain Spolin Theater Games, their history, rationale and use, and will give examples of how they can be applied to a stuttering population.

Since studying with Paul Sills (Sills, 1996 and 1997), I have used Spolin Theater Games in the classroom, with student council leadership activities, in plays as part of the directing process and with students with stuttering concerns. The reaction has been favorable and the benefits of using theater games have been numerous. There have been many instances where groups of students have worked with theater games and have bonded together and developed a positive working relationship. People using the games feel free to interact, to watch and to observe without the pressure that goes with communication. Spolin Theater Games have a "magic" about them that I have not found anywhere in education. I have seen time and time again the excitement that people of all ages share in being involved in the games. They feel connected and that is so important to all of us.

Joe Sheehan, in his book STUTTERING: Research and Therapy (1970), talks about stuttering being like an iceberg, with only a small part above the waterline and a much bigger part below. Most of what you don't see....fear, shame, guilt, anxiety, hopelessness, isolation and denial....are, in many cases, left untreated. What adults who stutter are telling me is that theater games and improvisation deal with what is going on below the surface. One individual who stutters who experienced an evening of theater games and improvisation said he felt that theater games can be an essential tool for helping a person who stutterers achieve gains in fluency. This approach is putting all the pieces of the puzzle together... fluent speaking, interpersonal communication and upping the confidence of the disfluent person. He states that stuttering is sort of a thinking game. The more you think about it, the more trouble it is. When he is just speaking with intuition (not thinking about how he is saying it or whether he will block), he is completely fine.

Let me introduce three key terms that play an important role in defining improvisation.

Intuition Experiential learning taps into intuition, which is the act or faculty of knowing without the use of rational processes. All of us have known times when things just seemed to happen...we came up with the answer immediately. Another definition of intuition is "the immediate knowing or learning of something without the conscious use of reasoning". In Theater Games For The Classroom: A Teacher's Handbook (1986), Viola Spolin writes, "Intuition bypasses the intellect, the mind, the memory, the known. Using intuition cannot be taught. One must be tripped into it.

Imagination Albert Einstein, one of the great thinkers of the 20th century, so valued imagination that he was quoted as saying "Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world."Imagination is defined as the power of the mind to form a mental image or concept of something that is not real or present. We all have imagination and choose to use it in a multitude of ways. Think of anyone you know who is imaginative....what impresses you about that person? What do they do that is different from the rest of us?

Spontaneity Another key term in the creative process is spontaneity . To be spontaneous means something is self-generated. Spontaneity is a moment of explosion: a free moment of self-expression. In a communication crisis, such as stuttering, the individual involved in a block would select out of the spontaneous explosion that which is immediately useful to continue communication. Spontaneity involves a balanced working of the intuitive and the intellect.

Now that I have introduced some key terms, I will introduce Spolin Theater Games, their history, rationale and format.


Viola Spolin (1906-1994) was a theater educator, director and actress who was recognized internationally for her "Theater Games" system of actor training. Working with Neva Boyd in Chicago in the 1920s, Spolin developed new games that focused upon individual creativity, adapting and focusing the concept of play to unlock the individual's capacity for creative self-expression. Her work, along with her son Paul Sills, inspired a new American art form-improvisational theater. Although theater games were used in the context of theater training, Spolin felt the process is applicable to any field discipline or subject matter where full participation, communication and transformation (the appearance of a new reality) can take place.

Several publications written by Viola Spolin are widely used by theater instructors and include Improvisation For The Theater (1963); Theater Game File (1975); Theater Games For Rehearsal: A Director's Handbook (1985) and Theater Games For The Classroom: A Teacher's Handbook (1986). Theater games offer exercises designed to stimulate action, relation, spontaneity and creativity of individuals in a group setting. With theater games, students can meet fellow players and involve themselves in free connecting, communicating, responding and experimenting.

Spolin Theater Games have been used with students and professionals in theater, elementary and secondary education, schools for gifted and talented programs, curriculum studies in English, religion, and psychology and in centers for the rehabilitation of children with behavior disorders.


One of the key rationales for using Spolin Theater Games is learning and teaching principles that tap into the intuitive. To deal with intuition, you need to be tricked into it. Play works well in reaching this goal and to give a simplistic one sentence explanation: "Get out of the head and into the space!" With Spolin Theater Games, play emerges naturally and spontaneously: age, background and content are irrelevant. Viola Spolin, in Improvisation For The Theater (1963) says that the game is a natural group form providing the involvement and personal freedom necessary for experiencing. Skills are developed at the very moment a person is having all the fun and excitement a game has to offer-this is the exact time he or she is truly open to receive them.

Another key rationale for using Spolin Theater Games has to do with building a trust base in a group setting. In stuttering therapy, no matter what your approach happens to be, there comes a time when you want to take what you have learned into the real world. How many times have you seen success with your students in the therapy room only to be disillusioned when you notice it isn't carrying over into other places? People with fluency disorders have a need to transfer their speaking success to numerous speaking situations with peers. Communicating abilities, developed and heightened in theater games, spill over into everyday life. An individual with fluency concerns, whether a child, adolescent or adult, wants to feel accepted by their peers. Spolin Theater Games are energy sources, helping students develop concentration, problem solving and group interaction skills. They are designed for a group and are a non-threatening way to interact with peers while developing confidence, group trust, and support.

Finally, when you look at the International Fluency Association and the International Stuttering Association Bill of Rights ( Bill Of Rights, 2000), a person who stutters has the right to stutter or to be fluent to the extent he or she is able or chooses to be; communicate regardless of his of her degree of stuttering and be treated with dignity and respect by individuals or groups. Using Spolin Theater Games addresses all of these rights and gives many opportunities to transfer natural speech into a group context. What better way is there to deal with intuition, imagination and spontaneity than while projecting yourself into unfamiliar situations?

Theater Games

According to The Second City: Backstage at the World's Greatest Comedy Theater (Patinkin, 2000), theater games aren't games in the sense of winning and losing, and they aren't about being funny. They're about being in the moment; they're about being totally present to each other- being "in play". If the rule of the game is that you have to mime eating a Thanksgiving dinner while having a conversation without once mentioning food or the activities involved in eating like "pass the cranberries" then that's what you have to do to successfully play the game.

The Game Format

There are over two hundred theater games and many games have variations. Each game is presented in the book, Theater Games For The Classroom: A Teacher's Handbook (1986). Key terms to be aware of when using this text are: purpose, focus, sidecoaching, description, notes and evaluation. Once you have a chance to review the game with these key terms, you will be able to readily use them with your group. Definitions for these key terms include:

Purpose: defines the main result a teacher hopes to get from each game. All games have many uses and a teacher may resolve particular problems that arise in class by consulting purpose

Focus: the student/player keeps the mind's eye on the focus as a ballplayer keeps his/her eye on the moving ball. Focus guarantees involvement of all participants in every moment during the process of playing.

Sidecoaching: usually written in bold italics, sidecoaching is the link between teacher/coach and students/players. The phrases are assists given while the game is being played.

Description: tells the teacher/coach how to organize the game, where to position players, when to start sidecoaching and when to stop play.

Notes: includes observations on what makes the game work most effectively, what difficulties may arise in play and how to solve them, what opportunities to look for and what other games are related.

Evaluation: usually written in light italics, consists of questions for both the students/players and observers. The evaluation reveals what was perceived, learned and/or accomplished in the course of the game.

An example of a warm-up that emphasizes communicating with words would be Kitty Wants A Corner. The game is usually played with eight or more players and requires an open area for movement.

Kitty Wants A Corner

Purpose: To produce off-balance moments. Players must interact.
Focus: To avoid becoming-to stop being-"It."
Description: Full group stands around the perimeter of the playing space, except for one player (the kitty) who stands in the middle. The spot where each person stands is "a corner". Player who is "It" approaches another player and says, "Kitty wants a corner!" The reply to this is "See my next-door neighbor." Kitty continues this dialogue with fellow in turn, while trying to jump into a corner vacated by other players, whose business it is to trade places without kitty pouncing upon a corner. The odd player out, in such a case, is "It."

Another classic Spolin Theater Game involving communicating with words would be Name Six. The game usually has eight or more players and requires an open space.

Name Six

Purpose: To help students communicate quickly and easily using words
Focus: On quickly naming six objects with the same beginning letter. Description: All the players except one, who stands in the center, sit in a circle. The center player closes eyes while the others pass any small object from one to the other. When the center player claps hands, the player who is caught with the object in hand must keep it until the center player points at him or her and names a letter of the alphabet (No effort is made to hide the object from the center player.) Then the player who has the object must start it on its way immediately so that it passes though the hands of each of the players in the circle in turn. By the time it returns, the player must have named six objects, each beginning with the letter chosen. If the player does not succeed in naming six objects in the time that it takes for the object to make the round of the circle, that player must change places with the one in the center. If the circle is small, the object should be passed around two or more times. Note: if an individual has fluency issues and requires more time to respond, those people playing can expand the time reference.
Notes: 1. This traditional game is useful as a warm-up to quiet a group.
2. It can easily be adapted for curriculum needs when coordinated with any memorization students may be doing: name six numbers divisible by four, six parts of the body, six of the fifty states (or the original colonies), six verbs, etc. This game sometimes works best if the teacher takes the center position.
3. For children too young to know all letter/sound correspondences, have the center player call out a word and the player with the object say six other words that begin with the same sound.
4. Another variation for young players is for the center player to call out a category (such as "animals" or "fruit" or "things with wheels"). Then six things that belong in that category must be named.


Improvisation is a viable way to involve individuals with fluency concerns in communication situations with peers. It involves intuition, imagination and spontaneity while dealing with the heart of improvisation- transformation. Spolin Theater Games are an excellent resource and can be used with children, adolescents and adults with success. Parents, teachers and students have reported gains in fluency in natural speaking situations outside theater game activities. Future research is warranted in this area.

Using theater games and improvisation with individuals with stuttering is something that just seems a natural fit. Why not? The whole purpose of stuttering therapy is communication. Theater games and improvisation offer a natural structure where great things happen.


International Fluency Association and International Stuttering Association. (Bill of Rights, 2000). The Rights And Responsibilities Of People Who Stutter. For more information contact Michael Sugarman at

Patinkin, S. (2000). The Second City: Backstage at the World's Greatest Comedy Theater. Naperville, ILL: Sourcebooks, Inc. ISBN#1-57071-563-0.

Sills, P. (1996 and 1997) Theater Game Intensive. Workshop. Contact: Wisconsin Theater Game Center at

Spolin, V. (1963). Improvisation For The Theater. Evanston, ILL: Northwestern University Press. ISBN# 0-8101-4000-4.

Spolin, V. (1975). Theater Game File. Evanston, ILL: Northwestern University Press. ISBN# 0-8101-4007-1.

Spolin, V. (1985). Theater Games for Rehearsal. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press. ISBN# 0-8101-4002-0.

Spolin, V. (1986). Theater Games For The Classroom: A Teacher's Handbook. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press. ISBN# 0-8101-4004-7.