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Viola Spolin's Theater Games for the Classroom

Updated: Aug 31, 2020

At the start of each workshop series, I grab my frayed copy of Viola Spolin's seminal "how-to handbook" - the foundation on which all else will build.

While not written specifically for teaching actors with special needs, this book is a must have for anyone engaging people with autism in theater work.

"Play is democratic! Anyone can play!"

Spolin's exercises are easily accessible to both teachers and student but have implications that extend beyond the theater workshop, fostering collaboration, eye contact, joint attention and imagination as actors work together to transform objects and create environments.

autism actors play viola spolins theater games
Make the Invisible, Visible. What shape it it? How heavy? Feel the weight with your whole body!

Spolin groups games in chapters including:


Space Walks

Transformation Games

Sensory Games

to name a few. The games are explained in an easy, "recipe-like fashion" with "Description and Notes" in the left column and suggested "Side coaching" tips and Evaluation in the right column.

Make the object real! Share with the audience! Will the bird fly away?

The development of "space objects" for instance, is not just a fun exercise that develops imagination, focus and joint attention. Space objects are a prerequisite skill for any future improvisation work where agreement must be spontaneous and objects must be created in the moment. Space objects are also used in many circle warm-up games involving object transformation.

Spolin's theater games have 3 essential parts: focus, sidecoaching and evaluation.

  1. Focus is the problem presented and the attention to achieve the goal with partners.

  2. The term "side coaching" refers to what the teacher does, calling out comments to keep players focused. Side coaching has similarities to the "prompting, fading, shaping" method typically used to teach a wide range of skills to people on the spectrum (ranging from one-step motor imitation to verbal behavior to social skills). Spolin gives suggested sidecoaching remarks in boldface on the right hand side of the page to get us started.

  3. Evaluation! This part is often given short shrift due to time limitations and difficulty but it is so important. For Spolin, evaluation is not a critical or judgemental evaluation but has to do with the focus: was the goal achieved? Teaching people on the spectrum how to look at work and make informed judgements is a skill that takes "prompting, fading and shaping!" but think of the benefits of this beyond the theater workshop!

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