Improv as a Tool for Discovery
Daniel J. Wiener, PhD, RDT-BCT
“Truth can be discovered or predicted; discovery comes through improvisation. …There lies the great value of improvisation; to expose the fact that we often predict actions that we never take. We tell ourselves things that we would, but never do. The object of an actor using improvisational technique is to get away from his head, so he is no longer dictating responses to it. He doesn’t analyze the action out of existence by predicting it.” (Jean Eskow, noted theater director, quoted in Wiener’s Rehearsals for Growth).
Improvisational enactment not only inducts us into unfamiliar functioning in the present moment as a growth-enhancing experience but is itself a “middle way” to discover the consequences of enacting non-habitual choices, particularly in the social realm. At one end of the experiential spectrum, we can try out new actions in thought, which has the advantage of being safe from real-life consequences, but also the possible disadvantage of not being in complete accord with reality (as we don’t fully know the validity of what we assume or of what we are unaware). We also make pronouncements to, or in the presence of, others declaring what we would do in the future (“When I have a child, I’ll raise her differently than my mother raised me”) or under hypothetical circumstances (“If someone said that to me, I’d punch him in the nose!”) At the other end of the spectrum we can take action in the real world, which surely gives us valuable experience, but often leaves us at risk of having to live with the consequences of these actions. Improv, as a middle way, allows us to try out behaviors that have some unforeseen consequences, but with the safety of immunity from such consequences. Hence the word “rehearsals” in RfG, differentiating it from some consequential performance.
Psychology of the Playspace
When we enter into the improvisational mindset we are accepting that we are now in a playspace, “…a mutual agreement among all participants that everything that goes on is a representation of real or imagined being.” (David Johnson’s definition in his chapter on Developmental Transformations). In other words, the playspace is understood by all as pretense, thereby uncoupling our habitual ways of responding to real-life experience from what seems to be happening (Johnson further points out that, because the pretense of the stage is acknowledged as fictional by all, such pretense is honest, not deceptive). We also enter the playspace when we attend theatrical performances as spectators to the on-stage action—we don’t whip out our cellphones to call 9-1-1 or the police when a “murder” is enacted on-stage during the play, understanding it as a fictional event consistent with the plot we have already accepted as “provisionally real.” Interestingly, we may identify with the play’s characters and can be moved, even shocked, at the “murder;” our emotions resonate to the stage event even though our intellect discounts its real-life consequences (a.k.a. “suspension of disbelief”). Yet, the absorption in the play’s fictive reality is subject to override from our larger reality—were there to be a cry of “Fire!” that is not perceived as coming from the stage’s playspace but from the physical theater environment, we would forget the play at once and focus on the stimulus as a threat to our physical survival.
Discovery in Improvising
In a previous blog (“Pure” and Impure” Improv) I pointed out that seldom do any of us engage in purely spontaneous improvising—there are usually elements of previous routines and/or self-conscious striving present in most enactments. The “magic” of improv, however, comes from those less frequent but unexpected and powerful happenings that are spontaneous and unexpected by all present. A great deal of performed stage improv is devoid of true spontaneity, however entertained an audience may be. I asserted that, in comparison, improv performed in therapy may be “purer” in that improvising clients, though self-conscious, are on the whole less motivated to produce a theatrical effect.
When performing improv we experience, to varying degrees, the “pull” of the drama we are actively co-creating—the scene develops an internal logic that, both through our habits and our training, shapes, but does not dictate, what choices we make in the moment. To a greater extent than does the operation of our consciousness in everyday life, the emerging scene impels us to adjust continually to the unexpected. Such present-centered awareness is itself a form of discovery—we often experience our choices as coming into being from an unknown (or unfamiliar) source within ourselves and are often surprised at what we ourselves say, feel or do in the moment. Whether we welcome or resist these spontaneous choices, we can come to learn something new from their occurrence. This is discovery!
Improv-Induced Discovery in Therapy
As a therapy which utilizes client-performed improv, RfG also facilitates such discoveries, with the added benefit that the therapist can focus the designing and choosing of enactments upon issues and processes which have already been identified (both by therapist and clients) as fertile ones for making discoveries in. In particular, Proxy scenes[i] (Wiener, 2016) are a class of therapist-constructed enactments offered clients to explore, experiment with, or practice change. Such scenes are designed by therapists for clients to try out non-habitual and unfamiliar role choices (for individuals) as well as to explore unfamiliar patterns of interaction between clients (for both individuals and client relationship systems). Most often, a Proxy scene is devised to address the removal of a previously-identified constraint that would be more difficult to change were clients to remain in their familiar social roles.
A further aid to making personal discoveries in therapeutic improv is that we may verbally process these discoveries immediately following the enactment (when we have returned from being players/actors to our social selves, returning both in space and time to the role of spectators). With the memories of our performances still fresh, we may then recount both our on-stage experiences and contrast these with our habitual, real-life behaviors. RfG therapists are also trained to conduct such Post-Enactment Processing (PEP) in a manner that connects stage experience to therapeutic issues.
Wiener, D. J. (2016). Removing personal constraints via proxy scene enactment. Drama Therapy Review. 2, (2), 183-193.
[i] a term replacing the older “Displacement scenes”
“Pure” and “Impure” Improv
In RfG, we recognize that the dominant mode of adult mental functioning is “Survival Mind,” which focuses our attention purposefully toward the future in order to get desired results, scan for dangers, and promote the feeling
of being in control of achieving success in that future. By contrast, Adventure Mind activity is present-centered, follows what is interesting and is absorbed in living fully for the moment. From the Survival Mind perspective, Adventure Mind, when manifest in adult behavior, is an infrequent (and sometimes risky) lapse into childishness. On the other hand, from the perspective of Adventure Mind, there is a joylessness in the sole pursuit of success at the expense of fully present experiencing.
Imagine someone striving for social prestige who first works to make the money to dine at the finest restaurant, then orders food chosen by what will impress others and, while eating, thinks only about how to describe his dining experience to those others at some later time. What this person has missed was the opportunity to enjoy the meal at the time of eating! Clearly, it is possible to do all the rest in Survival Mind AND switch over to Adventure Mind once the eating begins, yet the ingrained habits of Survival Mind may result in the diner pursuing the anticipated triumph of
boasting to others to the detriment of fully tasting his food.
Confined to the context of the individual, improv may be thought of as an activity that draws both on Adventure Mind (for its absorption in the present moment) AND Survival Mind (both for its adherence to rules and being structured by an awareness of underlying purpose). Note that this blog will focus only on the mental/emotional process of the individual improviser; the complex topic of the parts played by Adventure and Survival Minds during interaction among improvisers will be addressed in future blogging.
The Relative “Impurity” of Stage Improv
So what are the differences between Stage and Therapeutic improvising with respect to their “purity” of Adventure Mind functioning? Well, on closer examination, seldom do any of us ever engage in “pure” Adventure Mind improvising. While on-stage improvisers can experience the joy of spontaneity that lies at the core of Adventure Mind functioning, it should be recognized that most improv performances draw on Survival Mind functioning as well. The primary objective of stage improv performance is typically that of entertaining an audience, where both success or failure (internal as well as external) are at stake for the performers. The tendency to “steer for” audience admiration and/or laughter may corrupt the improvisers, who may fall back on repeating elements (of topics, plotting, characters or format) that worked in the past, thereby prioritizing success over playfulness and artistry. Well-wrought, authentic examples both of competitive and uninspired improv “corruption” are displayed in Mike Birbiglia’s 2016 wonderful film “Don’t Think Twice,” where an improv troupe’s supportive friendships are destroyed by externally-imposed
competition for career survival.
My improv teacher, Keith Johnstone, repeatedly pointed out that scenes, when improvised with spontaneity, can be fascinating to an audience without having to be funny. He would sometimes call forth a “Boring Scene” to pre-empt the tendency of stage improvisers to “whore for laughs.”
The Relative “Purity” of Therapeutic Improv
I believe that therapeutic improv is closer to “pure” improv than is performance improv. By this I mean that a client who undertakes the enactment of an Exercise or Game is less likely to be striving to impress others, even though inhibitory self-consciousness is nearly always present. Indeed, I have been impressed repeatedly by the openness and daring of so many clients who went into the unknown and courageously adventured into new territory by following their spontaneous impulses. To be sure, plenty of other clients “play it safe,” either refusing to commit to entering the
playspace fully, breaking character during a Game, or blocking (often through “blanking out”) during an enactment. Such clients may merely be unconfident of their capacity to tolerate the uncertainty of having to forgo social routines and familiar ways of responding to the unexpected which often result in blocking the offer.
However, it should be remembered that improv in the therapeutic context is frequently experienced as an emotionally “high stakes” encounter for clients, given that the therapist often: (1) chooses specific games in order to “stretch” clients’ habitual boundaries; (2) deliberately offers less familiar roles; and (3) engineers scenarios that resonate with
clients’ emotionally-sensitive issues (Proxy scenes). Moreover, stage improv is performed for strangers who have no knowledge of or interest in the private lives of the improvising actors, while enactments performed in therapy take place in the presence of therapists and sometimes family members who are far more alert to both the correspondences and discrepancies between the client’s performances and his/her habitual social behavior. Improvising clients thus face a more formidable audience than do stage improvisers in front of whom to display vulnerability.
By my estimate, roughly 2/3 of clients (individuals, couples or families) will, with appropriate timing, attempt improv at all; of these, about half will accept the offer to use improv in their therapy beyond their initial one or two experiences. This remaining 1/3 who go on to enact additional RfG Exercises and Games are not distinguishable by either the severity of their presenting problems or other obvious population demographics (other than for children, who are far more willing, and adolescents, who are considerably more wary). In my 34 yrs’ clinical experience, clients who can
access Adventure Mind in therapy make more rapid and durable progress. And the “Purity” of client improvising manifests in those fascinating moments during enactments when self-conscious censorship is absent.
Improv IN vs. AS therapy: Further Thoughts
Daniel J. Wiener, PhD, RDT-BCT
In this blog I attempt to look more closely at some issues raised in my previous blog, “Improv IN therapy vs. Improv AS therapy.”
To review, in the applications of theater improvisation (improv) today, many people claim a number of personal benefits that result from the activity of improvising. There are those, including non-therapists, who view performing improv itself as sufficient to improve people’s life skills and/or or reduce their anxiety and/or depression. While not all such benefits are the same ones as those that people seek to obtain from psychotherapy, there is considerable overlap. Hence, I call this viewpoint and its practice “Improv as Therapy” (IAT)
By contrast, a small but increasing number of psychotherapists are using improv as part of their treatment of clients, where in-session improvising serves as a valuable technique to accomplish therapeutic goals. These therapists view improvising as helpful though not necessary in successful treatment. I call this viewpoint and its practice “Improv in Therapy” (IIT).
The following Table details some contrasts I perceive between IAT and IIT that were described in the earlier Blog. As a therapist who is firmly in the IIT camp, I acknowledge some likely bias in my comparative appraisal.
Improv asTherapy (IAT)
Improv inTherapy (IIT)
|Belief regarding Benefits Conferred by Improv||Directly, from the act of improvising||Less directly, through therapeutic application of improv combined with other therapeutic interventions|
|Pre-Screening of participants for readiness, suitability||Usually not||Always|
|Setting||Group (class or institutional setting)||Group, Family or Individual Psychotherapy|
|Goal-setting done by–||By player, often implicit or advertised; generic||By therapist & client, explicit; specific and contracted for|
|Person selecting Games||teacher/coach||therapist|
|Rationale for selection of Games||Untailored to individual’s life situation||Deliberately timed and sequenced, tailored to client and/or life situation|
|Assessment of improv performances||Generic adherence to rules and esthetics of stage performance||Specific and ongoing evaluation of fit between clients’ handling of improv tasks and life skills, in the context of clients’ personal issues|
|Expert support available should emotional difficulties arise||None||Therapist available to support and intervene|
|General Potential Cost Benefits||Inexpensive and more rapid||Costly and taking longer|
|Social Benefits||Enjoyment; directly promotes social connecting||Indirect/diffuse improvements in social functioning|
It should be noted that the IAT-IIT distinction is not exhaustive; there are two further applications that should also be considered. One I call “Experiential Psychoeducation,” which is the use of improv to heighten awareness (through in-the-moment, pre-selected enactments) of our habits (e.g., making choices based on expectations of future consequences; fear of social disapproval) and exploring alternatives to these habits. Improv is ideal for exploring such alternatives, since the setting of enactments is that of stage performance, set apart from real-life consequences. In effect, stage improv is an embodied and more vivid way of encountering hypothetical possibilities than merely responding to verbal “what-if” scenarios. I regard the boundary between Experiential Psychoeducation and IIT as being crossed when the player/client is guided to explore alternatives to habitual constraints that have kept her/him from improving her/his life-functioning.
Another practice combines the IAT and IIT applications when improv is utilized in training therapists to enhance their effective Use of Self. As studied both by myself in conducting RfG training and by Assael Romanelli, therapists who receive improv training improve in a number of somewhat-overlapping qualities: self-playfulness as an example to clients; flexibility, activeness and directness; spontaneity; immediacy/moment-to-moment creative engagement with clients/heightened therapeutic presence/mindfulness; generating excitement and risk-taking; and, greater confidence in trusting one’s intuition.
Call to Action
Recently, I have teamed up with Margot Escott, LCSW, a veteran improviser/therapist who shares my interests in discovery of and collaboration with the Improv/Therapy world.
If you are engaged in, or know of IAT or IIT activities, we would welcome receiving a description of these and contact information regarding their practitioners! Please send Margot information on what you are doing, with what population(s), and with what results.
Please send information to:
Improv IN therapy vs. Improv AS therapy
Daniel J. Wiener, PhD, RDT-BCT
Psychodynamic talk therapy was the dominant form of psychotherapy during the time that each of the professional Creative Arts Therapy (CAT) Associations in America (Music , Art , Dance-Movement , Drama  and Poetry  Therapies) was founded. Not surprisingly, much of the early CAT theorizing was couched in Freudian or Neo-Freudian language. Thus, these clinicians of the earlier era explained the efficacy of their methods in facilitating change (or even cures!) by reference to such terms as: “insight,” “sublimation” or “catharsis”.
From the beginning of contemporary CATs, there was a controversy between two camps of practitioners: those who believed that engagement in the creative processes of the Arts was itself inherently curative (Art as therapy); and those who insisted that Art-making was valuable only to the extent that it facilitated insight through the language generated as its result (Art in therapy). Those taking the art-as-therapy position did not claim that art-making was sufficient to confer all benefits of therapy, as that would have rendered themselves superfluous as therapists and carried the implication that artists were always psychologically healthy. Rather, they believed that changes resulting from the client’s therapist-directed artistic activity could be channeled into therapeutic benefits through the practitioner’s guidance.
The consensus of current thought in the CATs has bypassed the above-mentioned controversy; it has become generally recognized that clients’ awareness is shifted by the actions of the art-making experience, so that the benefits of CAT result in improvements both of action and of verbal expression.
In the applications of theater improvisation (improv) today, we see a similar distinction among those who tout the personal benefits of improvising. There appear to be non-therapists who view improv performance itself as sufficient to improve people’s social skills and/or or reduce their anxiety and/or depression (“Improv as Therapy”). Often, the benefits of improvising are advertised without any clinical frame of reference. For these non-therapists, improv may be offered (usually without prior screening of participants) in classes at theater venues, or during corporate training in formats that omit any therapeutic contract. I find these practices ethically questionable, as participants who may be unprepared for the changes arising from these intense, unfamiliar activities are seldom offered appropriate support to process them, nor provided with guidance in dealing with the life changes that may result from implementing such role expansions. Saying it another way, while some people may learn to swim by being thrown into deep water, there can also be drownings when this is done in the absence of trained lifeguards.
Others, guided by professional ethics and working within the role structures of a therapeutic contract, use theatre improv as valuable methods in achieving broader therapeutic goals. These are therapists who I place in the camp of “Improv-in-therapy.” Rehearsals for Growth, clearly, is one such practice, but there are others. Within Drama Therapy, there are also:
- Renee Emunah’s Integrative Five Phase Model, in which a group of clients progresses from Dramatic Play (generic improvising) through Scenework (taking roles other than those reflecting one’s own life) to Role Play (exploring alternative theatrical versions of one’s own life);
- David Johnson’s Developmental Transformations, in which the therapist and individual client, engage in a continuous, changing improvisation without any verbal processing afterwards;
- Steve Harvey’s Family Dynamic Play, in which families enact structured games and tasks under the direction of the therapist in order to experience cooperative interactions;
- Joel Gluck’s Insight Improvisation, in which contemplative meditation is combined with on-stage improvisational exploration for growth and self-discovery; and
- Pam Dunne’s Narradrama, in which improv is an important practice used in re-storying client narratives.
Though there appear to be a small but growing number of therapists who are using improv in their clinical practices, I have found it difficult to get a clear picture of the scope and variety of their efforts. Many of these seem to be therapists whose personal experience with improv classes and improv performance have inspired them to add improv as a tool to their practices. A few others have undertaken research to demonstrate the improvement resulting from offering clients improv activities. Other than for RfG and the above-mentioned improv-using Drama Therapy approaches, I doubt that there is either much training in, or clinical supervision of, improv-in-therapy at present.
If you know of other improv-in-therapy activities, I would welcome receiving a description of these and contact information regarding their practitioners!
Commentary on Romanelli’s “The Ninja Therapist”
Daniel J. Wiener, Ph.D., RDT/BCT
Having worked as a therapist for over 4 decades while concurrently training and supervising therapists for over 3 decades, I have witnessed many therapists who shaped their deportment and actions to model a conventional professional image. In contrast with other therapists more willing to depart from conventionality, these “professionally normal” therapists presented as dutifully empathetic emotionally, functioning most often as passive, emotionally reserved observers, thereby limiting their clinical effectiveness with many of their clients. As noted theater improvisation teacher Keith Johnstone points out, people often cultivate a dull “normal” persona to keep anything unusual from happening to them. When therapists join clients in “keeping anything unusual from happening to them,” is it any wonder that therapy so often becomes a slog in which a string of uneventful sessions are (unconvincingly) described as “making progress?”
In my experience, both giving over to spontaneity and varying the presentation of the therapist’s self during the therapeutic encounter appear necessary to potentiate discovery and adventure in therapy. When clients encounter a therapist who is a living example of willingness to adventure/change, flexibility and appropriate risk-taking, they are facilitated in their own growth. Theater improv performance is an ideal tool for many sorts of client growth, particularly when coupled with psychotherapy informed by a similar spirit and other action/improvisational methods.
The effects of Improv training for therapists, when undertaken with commitment, visibly expand therapists’ emotional range, trust of intuition and willingness to allow their spontaneous impulses to shape the therapeutic encounter. Dr. Assael Romanelli, a therapist who both teaches and practices improv, concluded (in his doctoral research) that “Overall, therapists [who underwent training in theater improv] experienced enhanced levels of presence, self-validation, increased animation and playfulness, as well as bringing more of themselves to the clinical encounter.” He also found evidence for the following specific changes in Self-of-therapist: Increased intuitional thinking; Improved sense of spontaneity/flexibility; Increased play/playfulness; Improved awareness of emotions; Increased relaxation & congruence/self-validation; Less fear of making mistakes; Increased self-confidence in the therapist role; Heightened sense of “presence” (awareness of the here-and-now) as the therapist; and, New, enlarged perspectives on therapy and on the role of therapist.
In a recent publication,  Romanelli and Berger offers the “Ninja” as an archetype/alternative role model for therapists. The Ninja is a results-focused warrior who improvises, pursuing his goal without adhering to any fixed methods or presuppositions. As improv practice improves the ability to respond to uncertainty and stay open to the here-and-now, it serves to develop these Ninja characteristics. The authors offer one dimension on which to classify improvisers as either “Initiators” (who tend to make new offers by asking questions, sharing an interpretation or insight, offering an intervention, shared artistic creation or activity, thereby moving the action/narrative/therapy forward from what has already been established) and “Reactors” (who tend to respond to or validate client offers without initiating discontinuity in client narratives). While oversimplified, this dimension is useful for us therapists to attend to, for if one exclusively relies on initiating or reacting the opportunity to move the therapy along productively is thereby curtailed.
Another conceptually independent dimension these authors offer is that of “fast” (spontaneous) vs. “slow” (considered) responses on the part of the therapist; in practice, the authors state, there is a tendency for initiators to be fast and reactors to be slow (a norm for psychotherapists). The authors suggest having an improvisationally-experienced supervisor or peer therapist observe one’s work to aid in assessing one’s tendencies on these dimensions.
Another useful distinction offered by these authors is that between “Horizontal offers” (which build on existing themes/offers, adding depth and heighten focus on affect) and contrasting “Vertical offers” (which change the theme or context to add perspective). Using clinical examples, they demonstrate how the skillful and timely use of each kind of offer may advance the therapy. Attending to these dimensions can also aid clinicians and supervisors better understand and work through impasses and resistance.
Romanelli and Berger conclude: “In the theater improvisation world, fast initiators are usually more valued than slow reactors. It has been our experience that in the psychotherapeutic world, the slow-reactor therapist is the more “popular” traditional psychotherapist archetype. The Ninja theory demonstrates that both modes of improvising are useful for the therapist. If flexibility is a goal for both parties in the psychotherapeutic encounter, then as clinicians we must consciously work to widen and adapt our improvising approach to each idiosyncratic client.”
It is heartening to see how, in recent years, there is a growing interest and enthusiasm for the application of theater improv to the practice of psychotherapy! In future blogs I shall describe what I have learned of the work of some other, non-RfG therapists who have begun to use improv in their therapy practices. Romanelli, A., Tishby, O., & Moran, G. S. (2017). “Coming home to myself”: A qualitative analysis of therapists’ experience and interventions following training in theater improvisation skills. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 53, 12-22.  Romanelli, A. & Berger, R. (2018). The ninja therapist: Theater improvisation tools for the (daring) clinician. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 60, 26-31.
“What would you use that RfG Technique for?”
Daniel J. Wiener, PhD, RDT-BCT
As a RfG Trainer, I often find myself in the position of answering the question, “What would you use that RfG Technique for?” The questioner is typically a Mental Health student or trainee who has recently witnessed or participated in an RfG Game or Exercise . Typically, the intent of the questioner is to learn better how to apply RfG in clinical practice. While this question appears straightforward, I find it difficult to give an answer that is both simple and helpful, despite my considerable experience with the development, practice, teaching, supervision and writing about RfG. Why is this so?
Now, it is easy for me to offer numerous examples of how any RfG technique was applied in a clinical context, after the fact. Such case examples abound in the RfG literature. The problem is that merely linking a technique to a case description fails to convey the essence of how RfG as a practical method (“praxis” is the fancier term) is accomplished. For me, RfG is less a collection of techniques than an improvisational art in which the therapist continually adjusts in the moment to the everchanging dynamics of the clinical encounter. In my RfG trainings I place less emphasis on teaching RfG as a conceptually distinct “approach” to psychotherapy and more on co-creating an enlivening experience that playfully challenges the growth of the Self of the therapist. The RfG techniques enacted during training are also ones offered to clients—but this is done not just to familiarize trainees with the techniques, but also that these trainees experience firsthand, in the moment, growthful impact during enactments.
So, what is the underlying process that leads an RfG therapist to therapeutic interventions and tools for assessment? Approached from another perspective, I offer my Thesis of Therapeutic Innovation , (which is loosely based on J. L. Moreno’s “Canon of Creativity”), below.
A Thesis of Therapeutic Innovation
A psychotherapy technique may originate spontaneously during a therapeutic encounter when an unbidden metaphor, connecting the present situation to an image drawn from some other context, sparks into the therapist’s current awareness. When this awareness is put to use as an action within the therapy it becomes a technique (this I term a “hot” technique). When the therapist’s response on a subsequent clinical occasion is triggered by a memory of what worked on the prior occasion the therapist intentionally replicates the prior technique, possibly with some modification (this is “warm” technique). Later, out of session, a memory of the “hot” or “warm” technique may lead to further conscious reflection and recognition that what was done is generalizable and useful. Thus, a “cool” technique is created that may be applied in a premeditated way to subsequent clinical situations. However, this practice may result in a mechanical attempt to fit the situation to the technique.
By the time the technique is presented as a description to others it has become a “cold” technique, lacking sufficient power to evoke a clinically effective result. Only when the practitioner applies the warmth of his/her own imagination and aliveness to the cold technique may it turn into an effective intervention in the present, unique, context.
So now my reluctance to answer the question may be clearer: I desire that students open to their own imaginations (generating “hot” or “warm” techniques) and don’t wish them to learn RfG as a collection of off-the-shelf “cool” techniques or to supply “cold” descriptions of technique and thereby encourage unspontaneous, formulaic practices.
In my view, there is only a moderate correlation between the ‘temperature’ of how the technique is evoked and the apparent success of its application. “Hot” interventions sometimes flop; “cool” ones may succeed. But I’m convinced that therapists who innovate via improvisational process develop into more resourceful, imaginative clinicians, who by their living examples, empower client change.
 In RfG, techniques are classified as either Exercises (involving clients as their social selves enacting non-ordinary, improvised activities) or as Games (involving clients taking dramatic roles while enacting improvised scenes).
 A detailed application of this thesis is found in: Wiener, D. J. (2012). Improvisation and innovation in psychotherapy: Variations of the presents action exercise. International Journal of Social Science Tomorrow, 1, (1), 1-12. AVAILABLE in: Wiener, D. J. (2016). Rehearsals for Growth: Collected papers II, 2005-2016. Northampton, MA: Self-Published, pp. 149-159.
“Who’s Ready to Play? Practical Guidelines for the Effective Use of Improv in Therapy”
Daniel J. Wiener, PhD, RDT/BCT
In RfG, we therapists offer our clients improv games and exercises for them to experience risk and immediacy, promote self-discovery and potentiate both personal and interpersonal growth. Unless you are taking part in an enactment as an improviser (which can be done but contributes its own challenges to the therapy) you are creating a supportive context for clients to risk, explore and discover, but you yourself are not improvising (that is you are not in Adventure Mind). In the same way, parents at a playground with their children may provide structure, support and safety to facilitate their children’s play but have to remain in Survival Mind to see to it that the children they supervise are safe. Yet, to be successful, therapists need to have first-hand experience with improv prior to offering improv to clients, so that they can relate to and identify with their clients’ in-the-moment process.
In addition to your experiencing improv performance, you as the therapist will improve your chances of facilitating a worthwhile outcome for your clients by attending to the following, somewhat-overlapping, guidelines:
- Check your own readiness and willingness to have a novel adventure before proposing improv enactments to your clients. If you’re not “up for an adventure,” your energy will signal to clients that what follows is unlikely to be transformative.
- Prior to commencing improv enactments, briefly turn your attention inward to bring into awareness any judgments and expectations you may have regarding clients’ performances. Being thus aware may not significantly alter your attitude, but facilitates greater openness to seeing what clients actually do in the enactment (and challenges confirmation bias).
- Accept all offers of client performances in the enactment. By aligning with the fundamental rule of improv you set aside subjective standards by which you might judge clients, both for their adherence to your instructions and for the quality of their performances.
- Display yourself as a generous audience. Our clients are not performing for our entertainment; indeed, from their perspective, they are taking the gamble that their current, palpable discomfort at doing unfamiliar, possibly embarrassing activities will pay off in some far-from-guaranteed improvement in their lives. Demonstrating our admiration for their taking these risks conveys the message that they are courageous and determined to improve.
- Remain open to learning from WHATEVER happens. Improv enactments are open-ended experiments from which valuable lessons can be learned by clients, therapists and witnesses (other family or group members). Improv training teaches us to embrace the unexpected and to treat “mistakes” as gifts.
- “Competence that loses a sense of its roots in the playful spirit becomes ensconced in rigid forms of professionalism” (Nachmanovitch, 1990, p. 67). In my 45-year professional experience as a practitioner and 30 years as a supervisor, I have seen that therapists who become settled in their practice routines and disinterested in the challenge of further growth are at considerable risk of burnout. While certainly not the exclusive way to staying “fresh,” improv is an enlivening practice that confers not only benefits for the conduct of therapy but for therapists’ wellbeing.
Effectiveness in RfG workshop training: 32 years’ experience
For the first 10 years (1984-1994) I offered trainee clinicians highly experiential RfG workshops containing little emphasis on learning concepts and with no encouragement of reflective process. While the majority of trainees left these workshops highly enthusiastic, declaring themselves committed to applying what they had experienced to their clinical practices, follow-up questioning by telephone from 2 weeks to 3 months following the training regularly revealed that these same trainees were ill-equipped to utilize RfG enactments and had in fact abandoned further efforts after some preliminary unsuccessful attempts. (No statistics were collected in those days, but my recollection was that only one in 7 or 8 had had some success and said they intended to continue to use RfG).
This led me to suppose that, following publication (in 1994) of Rehearsals for growth: Theater improvisation for psychotherapists (The RfG Book), my encouragement of close reading/studying that text would supplement the experiential work of the direct trainings and empower trainees to apply RfG to their practices. While I found there to be an increase in the proportion of actual use of RfG by the ¼ of clinicians who read the book (30%, relative to 8% for the ¾ of clinicians who hadn’t), the results were still unsatisfactory to me.
Interestingly, I occasionally would (and still do) hear from clinicians (via phone calls, emails and in-person encounters at conferences) who had learned RfG only from reading the book and who contacted me to report success experiences with applying what they had learned from reading. My recollection is that these clinicians usually had a background in other action methods, mainly psychodrama and/or drama therapy, or a theater performance background. However, lacking information on either how many clinicians read the book or on how many of these readers had been unsuccessful in applying RfG, the only valid inference I derived from these communications was that direct training in RfG was not essential for its successful application.
Now, I lack information on how these experiences compare with effective training in other applied psychotherapy techniques. For a while I supposed that most trainees had simply had insufficient exposure (many had taken only one or two 3- or 6-hr. conference workshops while others had had a single weekend of training) to have learned enough to be able to apply what they had learned directly; I also entertained the thought that learning action methods like RfG was more difficult since most therapists were only trained in and were used to conducting talk-only therapy. This led to creating a lengthier, more intensive RfG training experience that would better prepare clinicians to use RfG originated from these thoughts.
While I had offered sporadic multi-session trainings in New York City between 1988 and 1995 to perhaps 40 therapists, the first organized, complete RfG Certificate Program (RfG-CP) was offered to a group of 9 CCSU MFT interns in 1999-2000. Following this, the RfG-CP with only minor changes was offered about every other year through 2009-2010. In 2012 and 2013, only two weekend intensive trainings were offered. While in 2014-15, 4 were offered. CCSU MFT interns have comprised the majority of trainees, with MFTs, drama therapists and a few clinicians with other backgrounds also attending.
During the past 20 years I have supervised over 100 MFT students in their 12-month clinical internships who had received brief RfG trainings as part of a prior course, but had not taken RfG-CP workshops. The about half of these interns attempt to apply RfG to some of their cases, presenting their work in supervision both as case reports and as videos of the actual sessions. Not surprisingly, these interns have not done nearly as well collectively as those of their student peers who have taken RfG workshop training. Yet, both interns with workshop training and those without it were equally competent at giving instructions to clients.
What I have learned from this near-controlled experiment is that successful implementation of RfG techniques in clinical practice largely depends on integrating specific learned procedures to accompany those techniques (e.g., how to select RfG techniques suitable for clients at the present point in their therapy; remembering to adopt a permissive and playful attitude when inducting clients into RfG; warming up clients to enter the playspace; and how to process enactments and integrate such processing into verbal therapy).