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 [1950], Art [1969], Dance-Movement [1966], Drama [1979] and Poetry [1969] 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!