7 Questions: Featuring Keynote Speaker – Aretha Sills!

The AIN conference team is very excited that Aretha Sills will be a Keynote Speaker at the world conference this summer and has agreed to share her insights and resources.


1. What should people read if they want to understand your work?

  • Improvisation for the Theater, 3rd Edition, by Viola Spolin (Northwestern University Press)
  • Paul Sills’ Story Theater: Four Shows by Paul Sills (Applause Books)
  • Handbook of Recreational Games by Neva Boyd (Dover Books)
  • The biography of Viola Spolin found at www.violaspolin.org/bio

2. What inspires you most to do what you do?

Play is a form of liberation, and there is nothing like seeing people experiencing freedom on a regular basis, not that it’s always easy. Even brief moments of freedom can inspire the search for more—for my father Paul Sills this is a political idea as well. Viola Spolin’s whole teaching method is a way to liberate ourselves mentally and physically from the invisible and visible strictures that bind us.

3. What do you love most about the idea you are speaking about?

I’m speaking about the origins of improvisational theater in America, with stories and photos from the originators that show how modern and relevant they were. I’ve found that it’s eye opening to audiences to see that progressive women created this field and that their ideas were so radical people are only now beginning to see how necessary they are to democracy, community, and personal expression. It’s also a family history, and they were fascinating people, so I love to share their stories.

4. What thoughts do you have about the conference theme:  Communicating Beyond Borders and Barriers: Applications Of Improvisation In Society?

Communicating beyond borders actually describes how improvisational theater emerged in America through the work of Neva Boyd, Viola Spolin, and Paul Sills. Neva Boyd was a social worker, teacher of social work, and theorist of play. She was involved in the recreation and playground movements in the Progressive era in early 20th century Chicago, and she used play to integrate recent immigrants into the existing culture. Viola was a child of immigrants who loved to play, and who studied social work with Neva Boyd. Later, when she taught theater in her community to children and immigrants, she needed a non-verbal way to communicate complex theatrical concepts to her students, and her education in the uses of play as a teaching method helped her to create theater games, though as she said, she was more interested in transformation than assimilation. Viola’s son Paul Sills created new theatrical forms based on their ideas, and brought their work to the world. It’s been reaching across boundaries and inspiring new forms in many fields ever since.

5. Favorite form of communication?


6. Share at least 2 reasons why you think the world needs improv.

As Neva Boyd argued, play is like a natural incubator for Jane Addams’ idea of social ethics–in other words that democracy doesn’t work unless we each get out of our own cultural sphere and get to know people who are not like us, and try to understand what they need. Many of Viola Spolin’s theater games actively embody this idea. We learn social ethics through play because we need others to play most games, so there’s a built in incentive to work through disagreements and compromise to keep the game going.

And, as Viola Spolin says, true improvisation activates the intuition, which is an area of knowledge beyond prejudice, preconception, cultural strictures, cliche, and all the old rules that we live by mostly unconsciously. Focus allows us to see clearly (even if only momentarily) past the systems that divide us and make direct contact with each other. I don’t think it’s a secret that we desperately need this right now.

7. What else are you doing in the near future?

I’ll be teaching improvisational theater, improvisation for writers, and using improvisation to devise new material around the U.S. and internationally. You can find info about upcoming workshops at www.violaspolin.org.

I direct a troupe called The Predicament Players (after a Spolin quote: “the only real joke is the human predicament”) and we recently launched an interactive show of Spolin’s theater games in L.A. Unified School District elementary schools, primarily in low-income areas, that will be starting up again this fall. Many of the children in the audience have never seen live theater, let alone adults playing with abandon! They are the best audiences in the world. We focus on creative problem solving through play and how play helps groups work together happily.

Bio:  Aretha Sills is the granddaughter of Viola Spolin. She studied theater games for many years with her father, director Paul Sills (creator/director of The Second City and Story Theater), and has conducted workshops for Paul Sills’ 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, LAUSD, CETA, and many other institutions and schools. She is the Associate Director of Sills/Spolin Theater Works and she directs The Predicament Players.



Aretha Sills working with a group of international educators in Stockholm, 2017. Photo by Vega Ebbersten.