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

RfG Newsletter, Volume 4, Number 2, Winter/Spring 1995

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

Narratives can be classified as (1) attempts to reconstruct and recount the remembered experience of the teller (2) the retelling of second-hand stories (3) stories intended as inventions. These distinctions are not simply those between fact and fiction. From the constructivist viewpoint, no truly objective description of events is possible since all attempts to describe reality are influenced by the selectively attended-to experience of the teller. Moreover, each individual teller brings to bear his/her own cultural frames and meanings, which is selected (consciously or unconsciously) to be employed at that moment, in that setting, and for that audience. Thus the process of telling personal narratives is a creative endeavor; even the retelling of a story based upon recent and nontraumatic events involves selective distortions, omissions, and transformations.

Beginning with psychoanalysis, many types of psychotherapy have emphasized the curative power of recalling and telling stories, particularly those based upon traumatic memories. Such narrative telling of traumatic memories can have two contrasting outcomes: (1) transformative telling, in which an active restorying process occurs, characterized by the creation of a more complete, emotionally integrated, and meaningful story; and (2) repetitive telling, characterized by compulsive and literal retelling which

does not evolve with repetition. In my experience, the process of cocreating improvised stories that are told and enacted, even when the content appears unrelated to the facts or circumstances of a client’s life, has a transformative effect and serves as an effective resource in overcoming the stuckness of repetitive telling.

Creating Character

A central feature of the way we locate meaning in stories is in the creation and taking of character at different levels: the characters within the story, the character of the storymaker, the character of the audience. In improv more obviously than in life, the players are constantly engaged in the creation, development, and depiction of their own and other players’ character, constantly influencing one another’s expectations and identities. Both the story’s narrative content and the performance of storytelling involve the formation and shaping of character within and across the abovementioned levels. This process is of importance not only to clinicians engaged in helping clients restory their lives but in understanding how the therapist and client mutually shape their relationship, giving character to one another throughout the therapeutic endeavor. The following games teach players how to endow others with character:

Giving Character

Player A is given or selects an endowment for player B that is unlike B. Examples include: emotion (bitterness, sexual arousal, condescension); occupation (dentist, truck-driver, farmer) physical trait (bad breath, lame, very tall) present or recent transaction (is cheating, just now insulted, has been flattered by A’s character). Then, A makes an offer to B, treating him as a person with the chosen endowment. A accomplishes this by herself becoming the person affected by B’s endowment. For example, A’s eyes widen and her body tenses; she backs away from B, open palms out in front of herself, saying nervously, “Now Joe, just be reasonable. I’m sure we can work it out.” [Note that description should not be used; this would be “indicating.” For example: A stands alongside B, saying, “You sure are aggressive. You shouldn’t have hit me.”]

B responds by becoming endowed by A’s offer–NOT by attempt-ing to guess what A has made him into. Continuing the example above, B might glower, advancing on A with a raised fist, saying, “Next time you touch my kid, I’ll kill you!” Or, mechanically smiling with arms folded tightly across his chest, speaking in an insincerely soothing voice, B might say, “Bob, really, I like you–just come over here so we can talk things over.”

The exercise may end here or A and B may play the emerging scene further, improvising other circumstances and dialogue. More advanced players might be invited to play a scene while fulfilling other conditions imposed in advance by the therapist/director (such as, falling in love, having one character die, bringing up some appropriate reference to New Orleans, or even all three!).

One Knows, The Other Doesn’t

One player is sent out of the room while the second is given exact details of character and situation for both. For instance, Judy, (who is out of earshot) is the aging mother being sent to a nursing home against her will; she has fallen several times and cannot be left alone. The second player is the daughter whose husband won’t have the mother live with them; they are upper middle class, the mother is 80 years old, the daughter, 50. In the easier version, the second player is given a character that matches his/her actual age and gender; in the more difficult one, no restriction applies to the second player’s character.

When Judy returns to play the scene she knows nothing; she could be male or female, younger or older than her real age–all clues for who her identity and the details of character and situation must come from her partner. The burden is on the other (knowing) player to treat her in such a way that she will “get it” and take on the characteristics communicated without verbally indicating any details directly. If Judy misunderstands and begins to act like a three-year-old, the partner might say, “It’s just this kind of childish behavior that proves you can’t live alone any more.” (but NOT, “Mother, you’re 80 now; act your age!”) which would be “indicating”). The comedy or drama of this exercise depends on the nature of the circumstances given. It is excellent for teaching the acceptance of offers and drives the creative imagination of the knowing player to communicate clearly.

Endowment Lists

In this more advanced game, two or more players are each privately given a list of endowments that they use to give character to each of the other players. The lists of endowments can, but need not be, identical. For example, suppose a four-player game in which all players receive the following list: “Smart/Sexy/Funny.” Each player now selects which of the other three players gets which one of the above three endowments and plays the scene by giving character to each accordingly. It is important that players behave within a socially normal range in order to keep the scene and the characterizations realistic. At the end of the scene the players are asked to point in turn to the one they made smart, sexy, and funny.

What makes this especially interesting is that player A will say or do something that is taken differently by the others; B and C may react as though A has just been funny, while D will react as though she was being sexy. It can be challenging fun to play the scene without blocking the other players’ different attributions. What players discover is that behavior takes on meaning from the way it is construed by others.