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.


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”