The Only Guru Is the Moment

Mark Larson is the author of the wonderful book Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theater. He recently posted on Facebook an excerpt from a conversation he had with actor John C. Reilly for an interview that he did for The Paul Sills and Viola Spolin Oral History Collection at Northwestern University.

Though it speaks specifically about improv teachers, I think it’s important for improvisers to read this as well, since we have all taken or are taking improv classes, and to remember that there are no gurus.


MARK LARSON: I recently spoke with actor John C. Reilly about the work of Paul Sills and Viola Spolin and how profoundly it has impacted his own work and life since his days at DePaul University with Patrick Murphy.

But I think there is something wonderful here for all my teacher friends in all disciplines.

JOHN C. REILLY: Doing Spolin’s work requires, even from the teachers of her work, a certain suspension of ego, because in Spolin’s games-based improv workshop, the teacher is not an expert. The teacher is just a guide who has more experience maybe than you at playing these games, but they’re not the expert. They’re just there to join into the moment with you.

One of the most amazing things about doing Spolin’s work is when you finish doing your scene or the games you’re playing, you stand there and you turn to the group.

The teacher doesn’t read you a list of what you did right or wrong. The teacher turns to the group, too, and says, “Well, did you see the focus of the game? Did you see the weather in their movement? Did you see the ‘beyond circumstances’ in their relationships?” And then everyone talks about it.

So, it’s this wonderful kind of Socratic dialogue where there is no guru; the only guru is the moment. And there’s something really, really pure and true about that. When you go into the workshop, all you have to sign up for is being attentive to the moment and being willing to transform according to what the game asks of you. There’s something really beautiful about that. And it’s very self-empowering.

But it requires a kind of rigorous, um, ego checking, you know? Just, like, get out of your head. Don’t worry about being good, just focus on being THERE.

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