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.”[1]  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, [2] 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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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 [1]. 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 [2], (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.

[1] 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).

[2] 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:

    1. 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.
    2. 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).
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
    5. 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.

     

  1. “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).