Improv for Therapists

Practical Training in Rehearsals! for Growth™

Spring 2021 – Workshops

CONTINUE TO WORKSHOP REGISTRATION

 

Dates & Times of Series:

Ended Six Fridays, 9:30 am-11:00 am, EST: January 15 to February 19 (1.5 hr Modules)

NEW Six Fridays, 9:30 am-11 am, EST: March 12 to April 16th (1.5 hr Modules)

NEW Six Mondays, 9 am-10:30 am, EST: March 29 to May 3rd (1.5 hr Modules)

NEW Three Saturdays, 1pm – 4 pm, EST; April 24, May 8th, and May 22nd (3.0 hr Modules)

Attendees may choose any number of modules. Date selection is not required.

 

Description
Theatre Improvisation (improv) action techniques reduce our reliance on controlling the future and experiencing a playful, risky aliveness in the moment. For 35 years Rehearsals for Growth (RfG) improv techniques have been used both in clinical practice and the training of therapists.

Training in RfG’s Improvisational Methods prepares therapists for their practical application— RfG training via Zoom demonstrates how these techniques are applied in our teletherapy sessions. Come engage in enacting these playful techniques, preparing you to employ them in either virtual or face-to-face therapy!

In these module series, each highly experiential training will focus on one or two case examples centering on the use of particular, well-tested RfG Games/techniques. Trainees will both be able to practice these Games and learn how they may be adapted to their own cases.

In accordance with RfG Certification Program requirements, trainees with greater RfG experience will receive assignments in advance, including readings and leadership of RfG games & exercises, in order to progress toward completion of their Certification.

Location:

@ zoom web meetings

Invitations are delivered via email. Prepare your device ahead of time to join the meeting early via computer (best and preferred) or via mobile device (acceptable).

 

Tuition Rates:

      • $200 for a whole Series (9 hrs total)
      • $36 for each 1.5hr Module | $72 for each 3.0hr Module
      • Students & Interns get a 50% discount.
      • You may pay for additional Modules at any time.
      • Tuition is due in-advance of attending each Module.
      • Contact us if you missed any paid Modules.
      • Payment, in case of cancellation, will be credited to future workshops.
      • All purchases are processed via PayPal.

CONTINUE TO WORKSHOP REGISTRATION


Presenters

Daniel J. Wiener, Ph.D., RDT/BCT is licensed psychologist who taught Marriage and Family Therapy for 23 years as a Professor at Central CT State U. Founded in 1984 his approach, Rehearsals for Growth, uses improvisational theatre games to work with relationships. Dan has presented over 260 professional workshops in 10 countries, training over 1200 therapists and is an Author/Editor of 5 books (starting with Rehearsals for Growth: Improvisation for Psychotherapists in 1994), as well as 50 published chapters and articles.

Jami Osborne, LMHC, MaCCS, RDT-BCT, RfG-CT is an expressive and drama therapist, certified RfG trainer, with wide experience in mind/body energy approaches, including EMDR.

FREE RfG PRACTICE AND SUPPORT GROUP

OPEN TO ALL ACTION THERAPY PRACTITIONERS

 

Upcoming Dates:

Saturday, Feb. 20th, 2021  2-4 pm EST
Saturday, Mar. 20th, 2021  2-4 pm EST

How often do we ask ourselves…

How am I doing? What am I missing?
How do I get started on applying action methods to my therapy practice?
Which RfG exercise or game might best work in this situation/with this population?
Are others getting good results with this game?
How do I keep on if I’m not having fun, or seeing my progress?
I’d love to see someone else demonstrate that exercise!

It can get perplexing, discouraging, and even lonely to be completely on one’s own when working with new therapy techniques. Learning and improving one’s practice of Action Methods in Psychotherapy, such as Rehearsals! for Growth (RfG), is helped considerably by having professional AND social contact with other practitioners who are also working to develop their competence and confidence… and it’s FUN!

PLEASE JOIN US!

ANY Mental Health grad student/practitioner with some prior training or exposure to RfG, or ANY OTHER ACTION THERAPY, including current and former students of CCSU’s course MFT-557 (Action Methods in Family Therapy), is welcome.

RfG Practice and Support Groups provide learning experiences, not designed to replace any instructional workshops.


Following two+ years of our successful live meetings, we at RfG are continuing our
FREE RfG Practice and Support Groups
Now being hosted VIA ZOOM video conferencing.


If you’re interested, we ask everyone to contact Mo at least 48 hrs in advance via text message or email to [email protected] The ZOOM meeting invite will be sent out a few hours before the start of the meeting.

Mo will convene each two-hour RfG Practice and Support Group session once per month.
The Leaders will offer warmups, invite questions, arrange demonstrations and facilitate sharing.
There is no charge for this group.

This group is led by:
DANIEL WIENER, PhD, RDT-BCT, is the Founder of Rehearsals! for Growth
ODALYS PADRON, LMFT, is a graduate of CCSU’s MFT program and a RfG Certified Practitioner
MO (MAUREEN) SAND, LMFT, is a graduate of CCSU’s MFT program and a RfG Certified Trainer

RfG Blog: Be Very a-Freud: Don’t Think Ahead!

 

Sigmund Freud’s famous dictum, “Denken ist probiter Arbeit” (Thinking is practice work) reflected a Nineteenth-century viewpoint that productive action originates in conscious thought as planning or rehearsal. Of course, Freud himself believed that much behavior is determined by mental processes outside of consciousness; by this dictum he was explicating only the role of conscious (secondary-process, Ego-based) thought. The dictum appears to reject, or rather does not take into account, the possibility that cognitions which arise out of unpremeditated action (behavior) or of non-rational mental process (“primary-process thinking”) may also be valuable.

This blog does not aim to totally refute Freud’s dictum but invites improvisers to appreciate the creative potential available through spontaneous choosing (“Adventure Mind”), while also  recognizing the drawbacks of adult reliance on “thinking ahead” (what I call “Survival Mind” functioning) and its interference with improvised performance.

 

Some definitions used in RfG:

Survival Mind is a description of one mode of mental functioning, in which people focus their attention (both purposefully and automatically) toward the future in order to achieve desired results, scan for dangers, and promote the feeling of being in control of that future. Survival mind functioning also draws on associating present cues with past experience and applying prior solutions to present circumstances.

By contrast, Adventure Mind describes a contrasting mode of mental functioning, in which people are absorbed in living fully for the moment. The guiding principle in Adventure Mind functioning is, ‘follow one’s interest in the present moment, wherever it goes.’

 

Spontaneity and Anxiety

From the Psychoanalytic (Freudian) perspective, the conscious Ego defends itself (via defense mechanisms) from impulses that are regarded as unacceptable. The goal of these mechanisms is to reduce either of two kinds of anxiety: neurotic anxiety, stemming from the fear that the Id will take control; or moral anxiety, arising from the Superego’s fear that one’s violation of moral codes will incur shame or guilt. These defense mechanisms operate outside our current awareness in order to distort or deny the actual reasons for our actions. In the Psychoanalytic paradigm, a person’s actions are never viewed as truly spontaneous but as determined by unconscious processes.

Keith Johnstone’s “Impro”, written in 1982, presented improvisation (“improv”) as an activity that takes performers out of their reliance on the past and plunges them into the present moment, thereby freeing up their spontaneity and activating “risky aliveness” [Another dimension of Keith’s work lies in deepening trust and collaboration between improvisers]. The title of his 1994 book, “Don’t be Prepared: TheatreSports for Teachers” turns the American boy scout motto (“Be Prepared”) on its head; that book features practical demonstrations of how we perform creatively only when we engage with a different relationship to consciousness, by bypassing our anticipatory, Survival Mind mentality.

RfG, which applies improv performance to psychotherapy and personal growth, benefits clients when they accept offers to explore the terror and novelty of venturing outside of their routine ways of thinking and interacting. On both conscious and unconscious levels, we are all self-defined by our habits to a considerable degree; the mere invitation to venture into unfamiliarity activates Survival Mind. The core of effective therapeutic practice in RfG consists of making it sufficiently safe in the moment for our clients to accept the risk of feeling unprepared. Taking up a character (dramatic enactment) lessens such riskiness by reducing our subjective accountability to the consequences of failure.

We therapists make it safer for our clients to take these risks in a number of ways: (1) we build on having established ourselves previously as trustworthy and respectful, which is foundational to all good therapy; (2) we are ourselves open to novelty and inquiry in the moment; (3) we time our offers to moments when we sense clients’ receptivity and invite them respectfully, without expectation or pressure on them to assent; (4) we provide clear instructions in advance, allowing for informed consent for what is to follow; and, (5) we make it known that we have no performance standards or expectations for whatever ensues, that all enactments will be taken as experiments, discoveries and/or rehearsals, not performances.
In the majority of cases, clients will strengthen/develop self-appreciation for making their own decisions to choose or reject the opportunity to venture into the unknown; for some, saying “no” or “not yet” and seeing that the therapist genuinely accepts their decision strengthens the therapeutic alliance and makes it more likely that they will risk such adventures in the future.

 

Overcoming Survival mind Tyranny

Returning to the psychoanalytic perspective, the neurotic ego is compromised by fears of losing control or being vulnerable to shame. Through improvisational practice clients increase their ego strength when they experience directly the playful, provisional role expansions of improv. As improv creates ego-distance during dramatic enactments, clients directly and vividly experience their on-stage personae as distinct from their identified-with, usual social Selves. Acting with ego-distance heightens clients’ practice of “pushing the envelope” of inhibition that has, until now, limited the scope of their self-approval.  Over time, cultivating the practices of emotional risk-taking and accessing Adventure Mind leads to lasting personal and interpersonal growth. Paradoxically, we prepare ourselves for this growth first by tolerating the dread of being unprepared and, ultimately, by embracing the unknown. So, don’t be a-Freud; allow yourself to adventure into the unprepared-for, present moment!

Improv for Therapists

Practical Training in Rehearsals! for Growth™

SIX MODULES; 90 minutes Each

CONTINUE TO WORKSHOP REGISTRATION

 

Dates & Time:

January 15, 22, 29; February 5, 12, 19

9:30 AM – 11:00 AM Eastern Time (EDT)

There are six (6) Modules delivered on consecutive Fridays

Choose any number of Modules. Date selection is not required.

 

Description
Theatre Improvisation (improv) action techniques reduce our reliance on controlling the future and experiencing a playful, risky aliveness in the moment. For 35 years Rehearsals for Growth (RfG) improv techniques have been used both in clinical practice and the training of therapists.

Training in RfG’s Improvisational Methods prepares therapists for their practical application— RfG training via Zoom demonstrates how these techniques are applied in our teletherapy sessions. Come engage in enacting these playful techniques, preparing you to employ them in either virtual or face-to-face therapy!

In this module series, each highly experiential training will focus on one or two case examples centering on the use of particular, well-tested RfG Games/techniques. Trainees will both be able to practice these Games and learn how they may be adapted to their own cases.

In accordance with RfG Certification Program requirements, trainees with greater RfG experience will receive assignments in advance, including readings and leadership of RfG games & exercises, in order to progress toward completion of their Certification.

Location:

@ zoom web meetings

Invitations are delivered via email. Prepare your device ahead of time to join the meeting early via computer (best and preferred) or via mobile device (acceptable).

 

Tuition:

$36 for each Module | $200 for all 6 Modules

      • Students & Interns register at a 50% discount.
      • You may pay for additional Modules at any time.
      • Tuition is due in-advance of attending each Module.
      • Contact us if you missed Modules you have paid.
      • Payment, in case of cancellation, will be credited to future workshops.
      • All purchases are processed via PayPal.

CONTINUE TO WORKSHOP REGISTRATION


Presenters

Daniel J. Wiener, Ph.D., RDT/BCT is licensed psychologist who taught Marriage and Family Therapy for 23 years as a Professor at Central CT State U. Founded in 1984 his approach, Rehearsals for Growth, uses improvisational theatre games to work with relationships. Dan has presented over 260 professional workshops in 10 countries, training over 1200 therapists and is an Author/Editor of 5 books (starting with Rehearsals for Growth: Improvisation for Psychotherapists in 1994), as well as 50 published chapters and articles.

Jami Osborne, LMHC, MaCCS, RDT-BCT, RfG-CT is an expressive and drama therapist, certified RfG trainer, with wide experience in mind/body energy approaches, including EMDR.

Blog: Improvisational Therapy during the Pandemic

Daniel J. Wiener, PhD, RDT-BCT

June 25, 2020

Since the time Covid-19 was declared a Pandemic, for nearly all of us, face-to-face psychotherapy has given way to teletherapy, delivered over various virtual platforms. Consequently, psychotherapy has altered to being conducted in a far-less-embodied form, raising valid concerns about how these changes affect its effectiveness. Such concerns appear more salient regarding training in and practice of the Action Therapies, including Rehearsals for Growth. So, need we wait until Social Distancing ends before resuming action therapy?

Our experience over the past 100 days has been that both RfG tele-training and tele-therapy are quite feasible, even when certain familiar RfG techniques have to be modified or replaced. The fundamental reason for this is that RfG enactments are improvisational encounters in the playspace arising from activating imagination; encounters need not be bodily ones, nor must the playspace be evoked in a concrete spatial location. To state this as a slogan, “Replace the Embodied playspace with the Virtual playspace.” What follows are a few examples of how RfG training and therapy, delivered over the Zoom platform, have adapted. Some acquaintance with RfG practice is presupposed.

 

Some Changes to Training– workarounds

Since most participants have available only the microphone and camera that their laptops or smartphones come with, a constraint to be overcome is that participants will view and be viewed by others only as a head-and-shoulders image and will be seated and relatively motionless. Breaking the habits and assumptions that arise from the conventions of Zoom business meetings, we can sometimes invite participants to leave their chairs, distance from their cameras and move/be seen in full-body view, even though the audio signal will then be compromised or lost. The enactments and warmups in this mode will add variety and energy to training workshops; verbal directions before, and processing afterward, will help tie things together.

The use of breakout rooms and turning off one’s camera in Zoom can lessen the distractions of Gallery view, both when witnessing several others and the heightened self-consciousness arising from being viewed by everyone else; also, exercises may be conducted in smaller subgroups which the trainer can visit to observe passively or provide coaching.

Enactments customarily performed in fuller body view can be modified to be done with smaller gestures; Mirrors can be enacted by moving hands near the head and by drawing attention to smaller head and facial gestures; Presents works well enough if the Giver begins with an opening gesture of both hands moved outward from under the Giver’s chin, while the Receiver takes the Present by moving the open outstretched hands to a more closed position under the chin.

In place of physical movement exercises used to facilitate character formation and enactment, I have asked participants to bring a wearable hat of any kind to the training session. They are then guided through a progression of steps that activate imagination to create and explore their own character through dramatic encounters with the characters of other participants.

 

Some Changes to Therapy 

Increasingly, clients’ home space constraints affect their ability to create an “on-stage playspace,” not only regarding room but also freedom from distracting “off-stage” sounds. Obtaining sufficient privacy from other persons with whom they live is an even greater concern. I find it helpful to hold pre-session conversations in which we discuss ways to prepare their home spaces and make arrangements with others living with them. Sometimes, the outcome is a decision to enlarging the treatment system into a consultation session (or even into relationship therapy) that includes others living together with the initial client. Compared with in-person face-to-face therapy, more attention needs to be paid to warmups and transitional activities, probably because a client no longer has the built-in transition of traveling to the therapist’s office, or of entering and situating self within  the therapists’ physical office and that interpersonal space.

Increased Use of Homeplay— RfG techniques were developed originally to be applied exclusively as in-session therapeutic interventions, primarily for couples and families. Within a short time, these same techniques, particularly some of the simpler Exercises, were also being assigned as between-session homework to further deepen and accelerate the therapeutic work. When RfG homework is assigned, the next session usually begins as a Post-Enactment Processing (PEP) on what occurred when the clients tried these enactment(s) at home.

By contrast, “Homeplay,” implemented more recently, has been offered as a practice for persons in relationships (usually, family members) to shift the affective climate toward cooperation and playfulness to counter undesirable, habitual relationship sequences. With improved technology (use of cellphone videomaking) conveniently available, homeplay videos can now be reviewed, either in-session or asynchronously (sent to the therapist to be reviewed prior to the next session). A contract/agreement  for coached homeplay can be created outside of a therapeutic relationship, although I recommend that the parties clarify roles, activities, expectations and responsibilities explicitly before beginning.

 

The Future of Virtual Improv in Therapy

It is expected that a fuller flowering of creativity will continue in the near future; as the composer Igor Stravinsky wrote, “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself from the chains that shackle the spirit.” The Applied Improvisation Network (AIN) is currently mobilizing with a flood of ways to improvise online, including some who are exploring Virtual Reality (VR) technology We invite readers to submit their own examples and join the community of those who are innovating and exploring in the new Virtual world.

 

Therapeutic Coaching of Clients During Improv Enactments

Daniel J. Wiener, PhD, RDT-BCT

Clinical effectiveness in RfG does not require executing protocols faithfully or flawlessly. For this reason, RfG training does not make use of drills or insist on memorization to improve the fidelity or completeness of giving directions/instructions. RfG therapy is effective when the therapist:

1) is attuned to her/his own playfulness and spirit of adventure;
2) is observant of the client(s)’ state of receptivity/readiness for adventuring;
3) experiences alignment/rapport within the therapist-client system;
4) is aware of a rationale for selecting the particular G/Es to be offered to clients;
5) understands the ‘essential components’ of what is needed to instruct clients through the enactment;
6) finds a balance between permissive curiosity and coaching/correcting client performances.

Akin to a theatre director’s functioning to shape the actors’ performances during play rehearsals, coaching refers to the therapist’s purposeful intrusion into the playspace of enactment. The therapist’s choice whether to intervene with coaching depends on the purposes for which the enactment is being staged.

Coaching takes a number of forms:

  1. Encouraging players to continue when they end, or appear to be ending, an enactment prematurely;
  2. Adding a detail, or repeating instructions that are not being followed (In “Mirrors,” correct a Leader who moves too rapidly or abruptly);
  3. Stopping the action if they are off-track or have omitted an essential element of the instruction, then starting them over (In “Mirrors,” if the Follower fails to mirror or lags mirroring the Leader’s movement by more than 1 second);
  4. Add a new instruction that builds upon what they have established—this could be done to intensify an emotional expression or to remind them of a feature of their role/character they could activate (In “Mirrors,” adding moods/emotions to shape the players’ current motions, such as “SCARED!” or “SEDUCTIVE!”;
  5. Inject an offer (usually verbally) into a scene that functions as one coming from within the playspace (e.g., “You realize she’s drunk!”). Sometimes, particularly during a Game like “Directed Story” (The RfG Book, pp. 102-3), players are instructed beforehand to expect these off-stage offers;
  6. Entering the playspace physically as an object or a character to further the action of a E/G in progress. Sometimes, the therapist can play a minor character to enhance the specificity of the scene’s location, such as walking on as a waiter during a scene set in a Restaurant; At other times the therapist might enter the scene as a character that was referred to but has not been seen, such as ‘one character’s absent Father.’

Another function of coaching is hypothesis-testing. Are the clients departing from the given instructions because of some deficit in their capability to carry out these instructions? Are they inattentive? Are they confused over the shift in roles demanded by the instructions? Is their blocking of the therapist’s offer isomorphic to their blocking of one another? Shifting the context to self-observation, did the therapist her/himself omit or distort some instructions or convey (perhaps subtly) some demand or judgement that affected client performance? Often the best way to put such hypothesizing to the test is to coach the clients to start over and observe what differences manifest in outcomes from their initial performance to subsequent ones.

Finally, it should be considered that, whatever its other benefits, any intrusion into the playspace will switch the clients’ mindset from Adventure Mind to Survival Mind. There are circumstances in which the choice to intervene/coach is nearly always ill-advised, such as when clients new to improvised enactment are playing enthusiastically even though they are departing from the instructions. Then, it is more important that clients have a success experience of enjoying improvising with one another than that they perform according to the therapist’s other objectives.

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 improvisingthere 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.

Reference

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

Daniel J. Wiener, PhD, RDT-BCT

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.

Criterion

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 [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!