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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.


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: