“Who’s Ready to Play? Practical Guidelines for the Effective Use of Improv in Therapy”

Daniel J. Wiener, PhD, RDT/BCT

In RfG, we therapists offer our clients improv games and exercises for them to experience risk and immediacy, promote self-discovery and potentiate both personal and interpersonal growth. Unless you are taking part in an enactment as an improviser (which can be done but contributes its own challenges to the therapy) you are creating a supportive context for clients to risk, explore and discover, but you yourself are not improvising (that is you are not in Adventure Mind). In the same way, parents at a playground with their children may provide structure, support and safety to facilitate their children’s play but have to remain in Survival Mind to see to it that the children they supervise are safe. Yet, to be successful, therapists need to have first-hand experience with improv prior to offering improv to clients, so that they can relate to and identify with their clients’ in-the-moment process.

In addition to your experiencing improv performance, you as the therapist will improve your chances of facilitating a worthwhile outcome for your clients by attending to the following, somewhat-overlapping, guidelines:

    1. Check your own readiness and willingness to have a novel adventure before proposing improv enactments to your clients. If you’re not “up for an adventure,” your energy will signal to clients that what follows is unlikely to be transformative.
    2. Prior to commencing improv enactments, briefly turn your attention inward to bring into awareness any judgments and expectations you may have regarding clients’ performances. Being thus aware may not significantly alter your attitude, but facilitates greater openness to seeing what clients actually do in the enactment (and challenges confirmation bias).
    3. Accept all offers of client performances in the enactment. By aligning with the fundamental rule of improv you set aside subjective standards by which you might judge clients, both for their adherence to your instructions and for the quality of their performances.
    4. Display yourself as a generous audience. Our clients are not performing for our entertainment; indeed, from their perspective, they are taking the gamble that their current, palpable discomfort at doing unfamiliar, possibly embarrassing activities will pay off in some far-from-guaranteed improvement in their lives. Demonstrating our admiration for their taking these risks conveys the message that they are courageous and determined to improve.
    5. Remain open to learning from WHATEVER happens. Improv enactments are open-ended experiments from which valuable lessons can be learned by clients, therapists and witnesses (other family or group members). Improv training teaches us to embrace the unexpected and to treat “mistakes” as gifts.

     

  1. “Competence that loses a sense of its roots in the playful spirit becomes ensconced in rigid forms of professionalism” (Nachmanovitch, 1990, p. 67). In my 45-year professional experience as a practitioner and 30 years as a supervisor, I have seen that therapists who become settled in their practice routines and disinterested in the challenge of further growth are at considerable risk of burnout. While certainly not the exclusive way to staying “fresh,” improv is an enlivening practice that confers not only benefits for the conduct of therapy but for therapists’ wellbeing.