History of Rehearsals for Growth
By Dr. Daniel J. Wiener
In 1985 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 therapy work with couples , 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.
The RfG “Toolkit”
By the time I wrote Rehearsals! for Growth in 1993, I had invented or adapted over 160 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 with which I worked. These games, with their respective page numbers are: 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)
Expansion of RfG
Starting in 1987 and continuing to the present, RfG has been presented at over 250 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. Subsequently, over 50 professional articles and book chapters, many with co-authors, were also published; two volumes of these have been compiled to date. (See list in Book Chapters and Journal Articles)
Offering RfG training to other therapists led to the creation of the RfG Certificate Program for practitioners in 1999 (over 130 graduates to date), and in 2014 the development of Certification for RfG Trainers. These trainings continue to the present day, most recently delivered in virtual format.
Further RfG Developments
Another recent development has been the expanded, successful application of RfG to working with populations that I had not encountered in my private practice when RfG was developed. This expansion has resulted from therapists in agency-based practice applying RfG to other populations, such as group therapy with adolescents, adult substance-abusers, and working with geriatric populations. As more therapists employed in agency settings became RfG-trained, expansion of RfG applications has proceeded.