History Of Rehearsals for Growth

By Dr. Daniel Wiener

I was taught theater improvisation games by my late spouse, actress and teacher of acting Gloria Maddox. For four years I performed team improvisational comedy for a hobby as a member of a troupe of amateur actors who shared my fascination with walking on stage in front of a paying audience without anyone in the theater knowing what was going to happen next. I suppose I was drawn to the thrill of performing publicly “on the edge” where, unlike in the improvisational art we call “psychotherapy,” the consequences of “failure” are merely esthetic.

During a practice session with my improvisation troupe one day, I noticed that a visiting player was finding it very difficult to co-create a good scene with one of our better players, yet succeeded effortlessly when working with other partners. At that moment, I connected this event to my frequent clinical experience of observing persons who appeared socially skilled and emotionally balanced when seen individually, but who displayed considerable dysfunction when seen in the company of their spouses. I grasped that good improvising has a lot in common with good relationship functioning: both require offering others a clear sense of oneself, cooperation, support, attending closely to others, giving up anxious over-control, and making others look good.

Over the next two years I began to use improvisation and other theater exercises to assess client relationships in my couples therapy, and found that these enactments served to cut through lengthy verbal arguments about who had the problem by having the couple experience what wasn’t working in their mutual performance. By 1990 I had moved beyond assessment, finding that improvisation exercises are frequently useful as interventions in working on such relationship features as role flexibility, status equality, range of emotional expressiveness, cooperation/competitiveness, mutuality, intimacy, and capacity for play. The main advantages of improvisation techniques over purely verbal ones are twofold: (1) they encourage participation from the less verbally facile partner who often becomes bored or feels disadvantaged in “talk-only” therapy; and, (2) they create impactful learning experiences that often serve as blueprints or models for desirable changes in interaction. For all its benefits, improvisation technique is not a complete therapy in itself; rather, it may be likened to vitamins which may supplement, but not replace, food.

By the time I wrote Rehearsals for Growth in 1993 I had invented or adapted over 150 variations of theater games and exercises. By around 1997 it was becoming clear that a much smaller core of perhaps eight of the simpler of these games and exercises were sufficient assessment tools in the majority of couples and family cases I worked with. These eight are listed with the page number of the instructions from the book in parentheses:

One Word at a Time (65); Mirrors (69); Poet’s Corner (84); Presents (105); Master-Servant Games (119); You Will, I Won’t (129); Emotional Lists (131); and Tug-of-War (121).

Video Demonstrations

Starting in 1987 and continuing to the present, RfG has been presented at nearly 200 conferences and staff trainings to mental health professionals.

Between 1991 and 1996, 11 issues of The Rehearsals for Growth Newsletters were published and distributed to interested professionals. This website is a successor to that newsletter.

Another recent development has been the expanded, successful application of RfG to working with populations that I had not worked with in my private practice where RfG was developed. This expansion has resulted from therapists in agency-based practice applying RfG to group therapy with adolescents and with adult substance-abusers. As more therapists employed in agency settings are trained, further development of RfG is expected.

Currently, there is an increased interest in researching the connection between good improvising and good relationship functioning. In the area of status, future research on the efficacy of therapists’ status maneuvers appears more feasible now that advanced training in status maneuvering is being offered.

Probably the greatest determinant of the future of assessment research and practice in RfG is the interest of trainees and practitioners in using data collection and standardized instruments in their clinical practices. The RfG Certificate Training Program  will now include a section on assessment.