Improv Games:  Expanding Emotional Expressiveness

RfG Newsletter, Volume 2, Number 1 Fall, 1992

One of the therapeutic purposes served by improv exercises is to free clients from the often-constricted range of emotional expressivity displayed in a specific context, (such as a marital relationship), or throughout life itself. Because psychotherapy is itself a specific context, strongly influenced by the therapist’s own preferred emotional style, therapists often have an incomplete or distorted assessment of clients’ emotional range (to the extent they may have considered the issue at all).

For example, suppose a therapist with an emotionally calm, cerebral style is working with an intellectualized, angry client. The client picks up on the therapists’ preference for rational discourse and keeps from experiencing or expressing anger, even when anger is the topic in focus during therapeutic sessions. The therapist, while noting the intellectualized style of the client, may well be unaware of how limited the client’s expression of anger is.

Improv enactments lend themselves to a suspension of the constraints that regularly inhibit acting “out of character” by offering fictional characters through which to live. Despite such permission, clients frequently discover that they cannot bring themselves to enter the stage reality of their character fully. They either break character altogether or under-express the emotion called for in the moment (yet another variation is to offer a caricature of the emotion which is recognizably “out of character” for that stage character).

While the following techniques can be adapted to therapy with individuals the presence of others, as in group therapy, facilitates greater exploration of expressiveness, probably because there is simply more energy available when people are responding to one another’s emotional expression. Additionally, people learn from one another when in the observer position and draw on energy from their audience when performing in front of others.

In couples and family therapy we observe how the established relationships between family members so limit spontaneity that predictable sequences of emotional exchanges are the rule. For example, A’s anger is regularly met by B’s fearful attempt to placate, leading to A’s “magnanimous” soothing of B, followed by B’s offer of humor or affection, etc. Therapists familiar with the concepts of Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis, Harville Hendrick’s Imago Therapy, or Jay Haley’s early work on Strategic Family Therapy will recognize this phenomenon when described in different language. What is equally significant is the narrowed range of intensity of expressed emotion in these exchanges.

Consequently, improv exercises are indicated as a playful and effective means to alter these predictable sequences in order to open up new possibilities for the relationship. Frequently, it is a revelation for adult family members to discover that they can play with other family members outside of their character boundaries without the consequences that they expected, and probably experienced, in their family of origin.

While all improv games and exercises offer opportunities for emotional work the following games, listed roughly in order of difficulty, have proved directly useful for exploring and expanding emotional expressiveness:

1. Circle Gibberish.

“Gibberish” refers to nonsense speech; that is, syllables not intelligible in any language known to those present (“Cho buxta prembihana,” for example). Gibberish is a very useful device in improv, as it gets players away from attending to speech content and focusses them on vocal expressiveness and body language. In Circle Gibberish, three or more players in a circle have a group “discussion,” gesturing and reacting to one another’s gibberish as though the content was understood.

This is one exercise in which it is preferable for the therapist/leader to initiate the “discussion” among the players. In this way the leader can draw in players who are less active. Of course, as in improv generally, whenever a gibberish utterance is reacted to with great emotionality the speaker is made to appear influential and validated. Circle Gibberish may be used as a group or family warm-up, as it creates a more expressive and cohesive group atmosphere.

2. Emotional Lists.

Two players begin an improvised scene, both playing an emotion supplied by a director/therapist from a list of emotions drawn up in advance. At various points the scene is frozen, a new emotion is supplied, and the scene is continued with both players taking up the new emotion. Throughout, the players must continue playing the scene while justifying their emotions. This game is usually lively and often stimulates players to expand their variety of emotional expression.

This game can also be played in a somewhat more difficult version where the players are given different concurrent emotions to play, e.g., A plays “Sadness” while B plays “Anger;” then, A is switched to “Fear” while B is to play “Boredom.” The challenge in either version is twofold: first, to play the emotion authentically; second, to justify the current emotion in relation to what has gone before in the scene.

3. Emotional Zones.

The stage area is divided into two or more zones, each of which is given the name of a contrasting emotion. During a scene, any player moving into a different zone must play his part with that zone’s emotion for as long as he remains in that zone. This gives players an incentive to advance the action so that they, or another player, gets to move into other zones.

4. Insults.

In our version of this game, a brief, commonplace scenario is first enacted between two players. Then, the same scenario is repeated, but with a gibberish “word” added at the end of each line. This gibberish “word” is treated as an insult by the other player, who reacts with astonishment and annoyance, repeating the “word” before delivering his next line (which also ends in a gibberish “word” insult. The first player now repeats the insult “word” while reacting strongly and going on to deliver his next line, ending with a gibberish insult, etc.

As the scene advances the “insults” become greater so the reactions to them magnify to disbelief and outrage, climaxing in all-but-speechless fury. When the players pace themselves and remember to complete the scene this game produces wonderfully satisfying results for players and onlookers alike.

An example:

Player A is given the role of shopkeeper; Player B is a customer. The scenario is for B to enter A’s shop, buy a hat, and leave.

A: Good morning, prizig.

B: ‘Prizig?’ I’d like a hat, black, size seven, darbostari.

A: ‘Darbostari!?’ …Yes, here’s one you might like, mashoo!

B: What! ‘Mashoo!?!’ You…ah, how much is it, Zopnish!

A: ZOPNISH!!! Fifteen ninety-five for you, BROOLBAH!!

B: BROOLBAH?!?! You call ME Broolbah? I’ll…I’ll take it, you…Vonnerflub!!

A: VONNERFLUB!!! You…you…Here’s your change and I hope you enjoy the hat…FLINIGPOTZ!!!

B: FLINIGPOTZ??? FLINIGPOTZ!!!! …Good Day!

As Keith Johnstone points out (in Impro, reviewed in our first issue), we are not interested in insulting, but rather in seeing someone insulted: …”The interest we have in custard pies is in seeing them hit people.” (p. 54) Keith uses other variations of this game primarily to free the actors he trains from self-consciousness and defensiveness; once someone can accept being insulted, he writes, that person then feels safe and experiences great elation. In our work there is often a “high” experienced following such an emotionally ‘full-out’ enactment. Therapist/directors should also attend to the accompanying freedom of gesture and body position which the player will be, most likely, unaware of.

5. It’s Tuesday.

The first of two players makes a simple statement which the second player reacts to in some specific emotional way and continues to build to the extreme beyond coherence, and ultimately to a comic death. This exercise works best when people have built trust and feel safe to take big risks together. The player who has just “died” then makes a simple statement to which h/er partner responds with a different emotion, but in like manner. There is license given to break all the rules against making noise and losing emotional control, the result of which is most often glee on the part of the players and those watching.

An example: A makes the offer, “That’s a nice watch you’re wearing.” B (rather softly at first): “Yes, it is rather nice. Do you know how I got it? (warming up and speaking louder): For thirty-eight years I worked for the Canarsie Railway. Rain or shine, I was there. (impassioned now) Slaved for them really. (louder still, with anger): I GAVE THEM THE BEST YEARS OF MY LIFE! (yelling and waving fists): AND TWO WEEKS BEFORE RETIREMENT THEY CUT OFF MY PENSION AND GAVE ME THIS STINKING WATCH INSTEAD!! (shrieking while thrashing and rolling on the floor): The Bastards!!! I’ll kill them all!!! ARRRRRRGH!!” (B “dies.” A brief pause. B sits up and says to A): “Blue has always been my favorite color.” [etc.]

It’s Tuesday, though conceptually straightforward, can be a difficult game to play convincingly, as few of us are so spontaneous as to be able to take matters to their full emotional extreme. Since many, if not most, players will hold themselves back at some point, the therapist/director can praise the players for having gone as far as they did and later explore verbally what stopped them from going further.

The guiding principles for therapist/directors in all improv work, but especially emotional work, are: (1) to create a safe, playful atmosphere that facilitates exploration and spontaneity; (2) to accept whatever players do in the exercises while encouraging further stretching of their “comfort boundaries” by repetition of enactments and selective coaching (remember, it’s a rehearsal, not a performance!); (3) to remain open oneself to the creative impulse that may lead you to novel observations or insights, or even to improvise new exercises or variations.

Two players begin an improvised scene, both playing an emotion supplied by a director/therapist from a list of emotions drawn up in advance. At various points the scene is frozen, a new emotion is supplied, and the scene is continued with both players taking up the new emotion. Throughout, the players must continue playing the scene while justifying their emotions. This game is usually lively and often stimulates players to expand their variety of emotional expression.

This game can also be played in a somewhat more difficult version where the players are given different concurrent emotions to play, e.g., A plays “Sadness” while B plays “Anger;” then, A is switched to “Fear” while B is to play “Boredom.” The challenge in either version is twofold: first, to play the emotion authentically; second, to justify the current emotion in relation to what has gone before in the scene.