Improv Games:  Story-making: Constructing Alternative Realities, Part 2 of 3

RfG Newsletter, Volume 4, Number 1, Fall 1994

(This section, adopted from Rehearsals for Growth: Theater Improvisation for Psychotherapists by Dan Wiener, is the second of a three-part series on the contribution of RfG to a narrative approach to therapy).

Just as there is a correspondence between adhering to principles and objectives of good improvising and good relationship functioning, stories that are aesthetically pleasing and dramatically absorbing correspond to those that define our reality in both a meaningful and healthful way. A story is seen as more insightful when there is greater coherence in its structure, greater universality in its message and greater artistry in its performance.

While clinicians working with therapeutic narrative are generally attentive both to the content and the affective components of individual client stories, they seldom attend to storytelling as performance or pay attention to how the story is linked to the stories of other family members. Related issues include: how the members divide up the narration or supplement the parts of the story that others have told; from which or whose perspective the story is told; to what extent family stories resonate with, parallel, or contradict one another; how historically rooted or detailed a story is; to what extent the story points to a hidden text; how open the narrator of the story is to alternative meanings; how variable the stories are when retold.

What distinguishes storytelling from narrative is the context of performance. Traditional societies have employed storytelling as a method of promoting relatedness, preserving culture, and building a sense of community. In contemporary Western society, pychotherapy is conducted within a framework that intentionally separates it from the rules of discourse that apply in public and communal life. Therapy is viewed as a semiprivate enterprise that offers clients an opportunity to drop their conventional social masks, truthfully attending to and bringing forth aspects of self that would ordinarily render them vulnerable to shame and social rejection. In order to establish the safety of client self-revelation the therapeutic profession has not only appropriated the legal device of privileged communication but has created a therapeutic persona that presents clients with a non-judgmental, attentive, client-focussed audience. In couples, family, and group therapies, the presence of other clients heightens the performative dimension of storytelling beyond that achieved in individual therapy and allows for cooperative effort.

The following games are helpful in assisting clients in improving their cooperative storytelling abilities while also providing therapists with tools for assessing the performance of narrative.

Fortunately/Unfortunately

This is an improvised first-person narrative told mainly by one player. The storyteller’s partner (who can be the therapist) serves both as audience and as a shifter of the narrator’s point of view, which is accomplished by alternatively interjecting “Fortunately,” or “Unfortunately,” after every sentence or two of the story. The narrator takes this as the first word of his next sentence, which he then completes, justifying the incorporation of the attitude implied by either word. This game is also useful for including bashful players, since the role makes minimal demands (and no improvising), yet is a speaking part. Of course, in working with equivalently adventurous players, the roles can be exchanged in another round of the game.

The therapist will be interested in whether the narrator reports that the interjected word frees up his imagination as he proceeds (implying a willingness to accept offers from outside) or, conversely, that the offer interrupted his direction and/or posed an unwlcome obstacle (implying a preference for over-control and/or a blocking of offers from the partner.

Narrative/Color

Similar in form to Fortunately/Unfortunately, the improvised story can be told in any person or tense. The partner’s role is to call out “Narrative!” as a signal to the narrator to advance the action whenever the story line appears stalled and “Color!” when the story appears to need more description. For example, the narrator begins: “Jake ran to the edge of the cliff and looked down. Flavia screamed at him to stop, but Jake dove off the cliff anyway . . .” At this point the partner wants more description and calls “Color!” The narrator continues: “Jake’s body was arched, his arms held in tightly to his sides. He appeared to Flavia intent on smashing headfirst onto the rocks below. The cliff looked to be 150 feet high; large grey boulders were jutting from the teeming, dark waves below . . .” At this point, having had enough description and wishing the story to advance, the partner calls “Narrative!” etc. In contrast to Fortunately/Unfortunately, the partner exercises more judgment and plays a significant part in the cocreation of the story; at times it may be necessary for the partner to repeat “narrative!” or “color!” when the narrator does not shift at the first instruction.

This game highlights an important feature of narrative performance: people often avoid the danger of telling or retelling of stories (as explained in the first part of this article, published in the last RfG Newsletter issue) by either advancing the action so rapidly that they “get it over with” without dwelling on those descriptive features that might evoke emotional underdistance (all narrative, no color) or dilate with description, forestalling “getting to the danger” (all color, no narrative). It can be useful to assign a theme or ending that has emotional impact for the storyteller in order to supportively challenge the performer to meet and overcome the story’s danger.

River Exercise

In this exercise the storyteller begins by standing with eyes closed while his partner, beside or behind him, provides frequent, brief, and gentle touches. These touches direct the storyteller to move his entire body quite slowly, fluidly and continuously, moving in the direction indicated by the touches. The storyteller remains in control of his own movement and stays on his own balance throughout the exercise. The partner’s job is to attend fully to the storyteller, whose eyes remain shut throughout the exercise, as well as provide specific and varied suggestions (offers) for movement, including touches behind the knees that guide the storyteller to kneel; it is helpful if the partner gets the storyteller to lie down, roll over, stand again, etc. After being in motion for only a short while the storyteller begins a third-person narrative, drawing on the indirect suggestions that his movement provides.

The experience for the storyteller is dream-like and often deeply emotional. The partner’s presence is sometimes felt as an inner guide rather than as an external person. The continuous, slow, fluid motion seems to open the storyteller’s imagination in ways that are not so familiar, with the result that the adventure of the story is experienced quite vividly. Stories in a River Exercise appear to be told more for the storyteller himself rather than for an external audience and are apt to differ markedly in mood, tempo, and content from one person to another.

Family Story

This game is useful for actual families or for unrelated groups of players who play the parts of extended family members. The game is started by one member introducing a fictional event involving a fictional family member (e.g., “Do you remember the time Uncle Bruce showed up at our house with no shoes?”). Other members take turns adding details and furthering the story, often becoming major characters in the story itself. There are only two rules: (1) everyone gets a chance to contribute; (2) no one blocks (negates) anything already said. Since the story is made up on the spot, no one actually knows more than anyone else. One result is every member’s contribution is important–the story is owned by all.