THE POWER OF PLAY
By Sue Wurster
Aretha Amelia Sills is a Los Angeles-based writer and teacher of both improvisational theater and creative writing. She is the granddaughter of theatre academic, educator, and acting coach Viola Spolin who is considered an important innovator in 20th century American theatre for having created directorial techniques to help actors to be focused in the present moment and to find choices improvisationally, as if in real life. Spolin’s collection of theatre games, in fact, has long been considered the drama teacher’s “Bible.”
Aretha’s father, Paul Sills, carried on his mother’s work and was the creator and director of Chicago’sThe Second City, the first professional improvisation company in the U.S., and, later, the acclaimed Story Theatre. (The three generation are pictured below. )
Aretha studied theater games for many years with her father (and has conducted workshops for his Wisconsin Theater Game Center, Bard College, Stella Adler Studio of Acting, Stockholm International School, Sarah Lawrence College, and Northwestern University. She has worked with Tony and Emmy Award winning actors and has trained faculty from Northwestern, DePaul, Columbia College, The Second City, The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, and many other schools and institutions. She is the Associate Director of Sills/Spolin Theater Works and directs The Predicament Players. She created and directs an improvised show for Enrichment Works, a non-profit bringing theater that inspires learning into Los Angeles public schools.
Aretha also gives talks on how improvisational theater in the United States emerged out of Progressive-era social reforms in Chicago, particularly Neva Boyd’s Recreational Training School at Hull House. In her essay “The Theory of Play,” Boyd wrote: “Social living cannot be maintained on the basis of destructive ideologies – domination, hate, prejudice, greed and dishonesty. A society cannot hold together without a good way of life for all… Virtues are dynamic products and cannot be taken over, fully developed, without being continuously developed.”
Games, as both women knew, help children learn language skills, socialization, cooperation, and even morality, because all must agree on the rules and abide by them for a game to be any fun. In addition, the act of playing changes the participant. Boyd wrote: “Play involves social values, as does no other behavior. The spirit of play develops social adaptability, ethics, mental and emotional control, and imagination.” Spolin’s work with actors was deeply rooted in Boyd’s beliefs.
In October, Aretha conducted a weekend long workshop in Watertown, which BOLLI CAST members Richard Averbuch, Sandy Clifford, Becki Norman, and Sue Wurster attended. All four were challenged and inspired by the work.
Richard, who has acted and improvised professionally himself, says that the experience served as a vivid reminder that there is wonderful possibility and vitality involved in the act of playing games – it helps us reconnect with the child inside. “It’s also so encouraging to see that you can gather a group of (mostly) strangers, and, within no time, you can play and explore acting with them. It jump-starts the process of getting to know someone. We’re asked to trust that inspiration will come from our intuitive selves and by connecting with other actors, especially when engaged in movement.
Sandy says that she found the Spolin workshop “fabulous.” Aretha created a safe and supportive space which allowed us to take risks and have fun “playing” childhood games like Red Light, Green Light and other old favorites. They relaxed everyone and got us into that playful childlike space. No right or wrong was established early on. Focus was an important theme for me, really focusing on your partner or the task you were doing helped to keep a scene real.
Aretha also kept asking us to really see what we were doing and to keep heightening it. That exercise was fascinating because, in the heightening, things often became transformed. It was fascinating to see that happening with other people. I would love to take another workshop with her, Sandy said.
For Becki, taking part in the Spolin Workshop was a fun and enlightening experience. As someone who had never participated in a workshop like this, at first, I was wondering what I was getting myself into. But participating in CAST and Scene-iors at BOLLI gave me the confidence to take the next step. What was surprising to me was how much I enjoyed it and how comfortable I was. Improv is very different from straight acting. It is so spontaneous, while “straight acting” involves a different kind of preparation and a script. Both, however, need the players to get “out of the box” and temporarily be someone entirely different from themselves. That is not easy, but I did manage, and learn, to do it. What was special, on a personal level, is how all 16 of us, most of whom did not know each other, became a community, and, by the time we left, we were friends. The reliance and support for each other was wonderful. Overall, it was a rewarding experience, one that will help me in future productions. I know I have gained more respect for those who do improvisation!
And for Sue, the workshop was a chance to reconnect with play in an entirely different way. “When he moved to New York City to found The New Actors Workshop with Mike Nichols, Paul and his wife enrolled their younger daughter Neva at the Calhoun School where I was the drama teacher. That year, Paul gave me the incomparable gift of enrollment in his improvisation course, which I relished, particularly for what I took away to apply to my own teaching and directing. Working with Aretha, so many years later, was a wonderful experience, an opportunity to see Paul’s older daughter in action, carrying on the family ‘business’ with such grace, generosity of spirit, and depth of understanding. Her father and grandmother are surely looking down at her with enormous pride.”
It was a memorable workshop and a terrific way to spend a kong weekend!
Theatre, drama, speech, debate and all things word-centered have led many to refer to Sue as “Wurster the Wily Word Woman.”