“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).