Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
Viola Spolin (1906-1994) was an American acting teacher and educator who is largely responsible for creating the idea of “theatre games” in the United States. Spolin’s son Paul Sills was the founding director of Chicago’s The Second City, an improvisational troupe whose alumni include Joan Rivers, John Belushi, John Candy, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, and countless others. If you have ever watched “Whose line is it anyway?” you have been exposed to the types of games that represent Spolin’s work.
Spolin believed that theatre games should be the primary approach for working with kids. Through play, the teacher gains insight into the child’s attitude, insecurities, and behaviors. Attention spans and energy levels vary from child to child, but Spolin believed that if children were given an interesting problem to solve (through play), they would stay engaged for long periods of time. The long-term goal for Spolin was to move the students from spontaneous play into communicable stage behavior appropriate for the theatre.
Today’s exercise is one that my wife Jackie developed in her own work with children in the voice studio. Spolin had an exercise called “Creating Scenes with Costumes” (p. 292), where the students were instructed to go through a collection of costumes and hats, pick pieces that they liked, and dress themselves up. The students could then either look in a mirror to choose their character or allow the group to choose a character for them. Finally, the students had to improv a scene based on the characters they had created.
Jackie developed a simpler version of this game to use in voice lessons with her younger students using a box full of hats. Once a student has memorized their song, they get to play the hat game. The student goes to the box, picks a hat, and places it on their head. They must then instantly become the character and sing their song. My wife instructs the student to be silly, have fun, and to act and sing like the character would. Once the student has completed the song (or a cut) with one hat, they go back to the box, pick another hat, and repeat the exercise. The student does this as many times as the game remains fun and useful. My wife then discusses the exercise with the student, which produces valuable information about how the student experiences the world around them as an actor. They also discuss how the student’s voice was affected by the exercise and how they could use those qualities in different songs. For instance, “Castle on a Cloud” might need a little more princess in it while “It’s a hard knock life” might need a little more construction worker.
Not only is this exercise fun for both the student and the teacher, it also has significant pedagogical benefits. We all begin our lives as creative, energetic, and imaginative creatures – children. When we enter school, we are told to talk quietly, to color inside the lines, and to do things correctly to earn a good grade. While these rules are not meant to kill creativity, they often can. A child’s desire to play without inhibitions usually remains alive until they start going through puberty. If you can tap into that spirit early in their training, they are more likely to come out on the other side of puberty with confidence in themselves and their craft.
If you have other ideas for improvisational games that can be played in voice lessons, please share them in the comment section below. Until then, clean your old hats out of your closet, dump them in a box, and have fun this week!