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.