Interview: Paul Sills Reflects on Story Theatre by Laurie Ann Gruhn

The first words that come to mind when I think of Paul Sills are intuitive, reflective, honest and concise. He is not a man of many words until he discusses a subject he feels passionate about, and it is very clear he feels passionate about storytelling. I can remember first seeing him several years ago when I attended a workshop he was leading at New York University. As several of us sat around chatting, in walked a quiet, observant man who, without any great to-do or fuss, walked to the center of the room, sat down on a stool, gazed at the now quiet crowd, and after a moment or two, said simply, “So, what do you want to talk about?”

Paul Sills is a man of great knowledge, but when asked to elaborate on a given subject, he often answers, “Well, I don’t know.” It is very apparent he does know, and what he is saying is that he is not sure about how to begin providing information, which to him is not so much informative but holistic and intuitive.

Sills’ background is impressive, to say the least. In 1971, he wrote the widely acclaimed and ground-breaking Story Theatre. Since then he has conducted numerous courses, workshops, lectures and seminars on storytelling and improvisation. He is an established author, director, teacher and performer. He was the original director of The Second City (1959-65) and creator of Story Theatre, both of which played on and off Broadway. He was co-founder of Compass as well as Game Theatre and, most recently, Sills & Co. He has taught privately for many years and explores new improvisational forms in his workshops. As the son of acclaimed teacher and writer Viola Spolin, he grew up in an environment rich with educational theatre experiences. He carries on her work in improvisation, as well as continuously developing his own unique style. Sills is a man who likes his words to stand on their own. Like a chef who does not want his recipes analyzed, but simply savored, one quickly sees that the various ingredients of his ideas both stand on their own and come together in a masterful blend of creativity, insight and reflection. He has brought to the world of storytelling a fresh and inspirational approach. Storytelling, to Sills, is a way of being, a way of sharing self. As Lillian Hellman says in Pentimento of her stories, they are a “way of seeing, and then seeing again.” Sills is Merlin to a generation of Arthurs. He has turned us into birds and fish, owls and foxes, peasants, farmers, millers, and maidens, all so that we may gain a clearer way of seeing. And, like Arthur, we have learned from him. We have re­ examined the space and time in which we live.

To Sills, this is what education is all about. To examine stories beyond what they have to say for themselves is, as he says, “to ask ‘Who is Cinderella?”‘ She is someone different to everyone who encounters her. But you know who she is. She is the one with the glass slipper. And you’ll know her when you see her. She is invisible and hidden, but somewhere deep in all of us. And after listening to, and reading Sills’ words, it is equally apparent that we build Cinderella’s ballroom ourselves. We create the space, and thus create her world for ourselves.

Now spend a few minutes with Merlin. Enter his story.

Laurie: Would you discuss the process by which Story Theatre was developed? How and why was it initially conceived?

Paul: It was an answer to the question of how the theatre could be relevant in 1968. We opened the Story Theatre in Chicago in July, and the democratic convention nominated Humphrey in August of that extraordinary year, when in the Spring, first Martin Luther King, then Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. Initially we were talking about opening a bar where we could put the Democratic party on trial for getting us into Vietnam in the first place, but that was just a desperate idea. Then I happened to read the Blue Light story in the Grimm Brothers collection and I saw it on stage in the space then and there without the need to change a word. Stage space is capable of transformation-with out mechanical scene changes-as we knew from working with Viola Spolin at Second City. Playing her game “Transformation of Relations,” the players could change relationship from doctor­ patient, to flying birds, to robots, to whatever else emerged, and where they were transformed along with them. As all true improvisation is in pure stage space (without literal props or scenic devices), transformation of where is implicit. In the Blue Light, an old soldier who, on account of his many wounds can serve no longer, goes before the King and is sent off penniless into the dark forest. He limps along until he sees a light and comes to the house of a Witch. She refuses to take him in for the night unless he promises to go to the bottom of her well and retrieve for her a blue light that burns brightly and never goes out. She lowers him on a rope. The space shaping player helps the audience see the forest, the rope and feel the clammy surface of the well, and the quality of the mysterious blue light. As the Witch winds him up on the winch, be suspects she’s not going to let him up and refuses to give her the blue light. She cuts the rope and he falls to the bottom of the well. There is no escape. He has nothing left but the blue light and his pipe, which as his last act he lights from the flame. And lo! A little gray man appears and offers to do his bidding. This is a motif in fairy tales: the power that’s given from nowhere, just when nothing seems possible. In the depths of the despair, there lies the spark: the transformation of reality. The soldier gets his revenge on the King, replaces him, and marries the Princess and triumphs over soldiers, judges, over all authority and power. And when the paternal power was overthrown, in the highly charged political situation of’68, the young people cried, “Right on!” It was just in the air. After all, we were doing the story during the convention.

As for the other fairy tales in the first Story Theatre show, the audience found those that were relevant to their concerns and saw them as pertinent to the hour. Later, in San Francisco, in ’73, the Blue Light no longer seemed relevant, and San Franciscans said the show we did there wasn’t political at all. To sum up, Story Theatre was a response to a need I felt to say something in’68, and I found what I had long been looking for, a theatre that took place in pure space, the space of transformation.

The alternative way of telling stories in theatre is dramatic form, which inhabits a different space. Even Shakespeare, who moved closer to pure story in his last plays, does not escape the literal space of drama. Each scene has its exposition to orient the audience spatially. Both Yeats and Brecht, who came ever closer to story, often seemed restricted by dramatic form, having no conception of the transformation of space. They used storytellers, as Chamber Theatre uses narrators, for non-dramatic purposes. But story is different from drama; it intends something else. Drama may need and use story, as Shakespeare did, but story is primary, and story re-telling, a different act.

Laurie: At the time of its development, Story Theatre was an innovative theatrical format. How was it initially accepted? Was there any resistance to the project?

Paul: Any resistance was in me. My actors, who will all be identified in an anthology I am preparing of unpublished shows (including this first-ever story theatre production), gave themselves fully, and accepted my reluctance to charge admission, advertise, or admit critics. One critic came uninvited and unannounced and gave us a good long review; although no phrase in it was aware of the reality I have been describing of ’68, Convention time: Frankly, I found it compelling and enchanting-a whole new way for the theatrical muse to play.

Laurie: Is it theatre for children?

Paul: Well, yes. But it is theatre for adults, too. So you can take your kids or your parents…. The impressive thing is that this kind of theatre is not being done anywhere else in the country, and merely by word of mouth; it is attracting people who have never been to the theatre before.

Laurie: Could you tell us something about your early experiences with theatre and storytelling?

Paul: I am a son of Viola Spolin, so I was in some of her theatre game workshops at Hull House, Chicago. It was her influence, which led me to read book after book of fairy tales from many cultures. Since she was the student of Neva Boyd, who taught traditional games and folk dances at her Recreational Training Center, I came in for a lot of playing. All this has stood me in good stead on my journey. As for education, I attended Chicago’s Francis W. Parker School where there was a theatre complete with costume room, lighting equipment, scene shop and green room, and it seemed we were always doing plays or revues. At the University of Chicago, where there was no drama department (or football team) under Robert Maynard Hutchins, we had a most active theatre life, doing classics, readings, poets’ theatre, what have you. It was here I started reading Brecht and first directed his storytelling show Caucasian Chalk Circle.

Laurie: Who has the most influence in your life in theatre? Why?

Paul: The answer is Spolin (with all deference to Shakespeare and Brecht); she has a genuine teaching and I am close to it. To take but one aspect, working with space objects, let me quote from her Theater Game File (Northwestern University Press), “Space Objects Commentary (Making the Invisible Visible”: The teacher who has goals to reach and subjects to teach rarely has time or energy to allow inner feelings or thoughts to emerge. Workshop space object games/exercises assist in uncovering the hidden self. Objects made of space substance should be looked upon as thrusts/projects of this (invisible) inner self into the visible world. In effect, then, the invisible ball thrown to a fellow player … is an aspect of a player’s sharing and connecting with the fellow player who accepts and catches the invisible ball. To achieve this connection “Keep the ball in space and not in your head!” and “Give the ball its time in space!” are constantly side-coached. All intuitively perceive/sense the unseen space substance as a manifest phenomenon, real! Space (the unknown) becomes visible through the event…. The use of space objects is not pantomime. Pantomime is an art form, sister to the dance that uses invisible objects as an actor uses lines. The purpose of space substances objects is not to develop such techniques (although they could be used to do so), but rather to awaken that intuitive area which understands and sees this physical evidence of the heretofore hidden inner self. Recognition of this added dimension of the world brings excitement and refreshment to all. When the invisible (not yet emerged, inside, unknown) becomes visible ­ seen and perceived – theatre magic! This “hidden self,” by the way, this “invisible inner self” is what fairy stories are about.

Laurie: Have you discovered any new story theatre techniques or insights you’d like to share with us?

Paul: In recent years I have begun to realize story theatre is essentially choral theatre. It is not necessary, for instance, that players exit and enter as in a play. They might remain on stage throughout and sit or stand, speaking chorally at times. We could get right back to Aeschylus in some such way. I also tried history theatre with a couple of attempts to narrate the words and deeds of the Boston Founders (between 1760 and 1775), when, as John Adams said, “the hearts and minds” of the patriots were radicalized. I plan on returning to this heartening subject. I am currently working on an anthology, as I said earlier, of some of my story theatre shows and commentary, listing all productions and performers from’68 on, pictures and whatever else I can think of. *

Laurie: Since this issue speaks to ideas surrounding stories and storytelling, will you share some of your ideas and insights on the subject?

Paul: The stories I find appropriate for story theatre are, like fairy stories, in action, without psycho-socio analysis of characters. Stories are not literature; they are like teachings, which stress the unity of genuine life. The teachings have useful knowledge, good counsel. As Walter Benjamin wrote, “Whenever good counsel was at a premium, the fairy tales had it, and where the need was greatest, its aid was nearest.” Story speaks in its symbolic images directly to the unconscious, to who you are (without knowing it) – your self, your whole hidden self. This self, of which I am unconscious, cannot be merely psychic or physical, but something else, the unity preceding the division into one or the other: my wholeness, not to be realized in a thought or through the senses, but only in a unified deed. It is thus that I meet my self, the “unknown sage” of Nietzsche, from time to time. We may never learn to know ourselves by thought, said Goethe, as I read in Yeats, but by action only. No one comes near this secret who reflects upon it; one only comes near it by doing the pertinent deed. If this is difficult stuff intellectually, it is the joy of story. Cinderella is not allowed to go to the dance; Simpleton cannot be permitted to go into the forest to chop wood. But these most miserable creatures do overcome; they do the impossible thing as all heroes do; with help of the helpers they become whole, unified persons who live purposefully in the world and can expect marriage and half the kingdom. This is real teaching to my mind.

The stories are not moralistic, as is sometimes assumed, and a surprising number of heroes must steal the invisible cloak to accomplish the impossible. All must do what is on the face of it impossible: build castles in a single night, or die and come back to life. In this way stories point to the seemingly impossible task each of us is assigned, to become who we are intended to be the surprise self. My authority for this? The stories themselves; listen to Yeats: If we will but tell these stories to our children the land will begin again to be a Holyland. … When I was a child I had only to climb the hill behind the house to see long, blue, ragged hills flowing along the southern horizon. What beauty was lost to me, what depth of emotion is still perhaps lacking in me, because nobody told me … That Cruachan of the Enchantments lay behind those long, blue, ragged hills.

From The Drama Theater Teacher, Vol. 5, No.2

*Paul Sills’ Story Theater: Four Shows, available on Amazon or at other booksellers.


Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller.” Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, 1973.

Spolin, Viola. Theater Game File. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1989.

Yeats, William Butler. “Cuchulain of Muirthemme.” Explorations. New York: Macmillan, 1962.