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Blog: Improvisational Therapy during the Pandemic

Daniel J. Wiener, PhD, RDT-BCT

June 25, 2020

Since the time Covid-19 was declared a Pandemic, for nearly all of us, face-to-face psychotherapy has given way to teletherapy, delivered over various virtual platforms. Consequently, psychotherapy has altered to being conducted in a far-less-embodied form, raising valid concerns about how these changes affect its effectiveness. Such concerns appear more salient regarding training in and practice of the Action Therapies, including Rehearsals for Growth. So, need we wait until Social Distancing ends before resuming action therapy?

Our experience over the past 100 days has been that both RfG tele-training and tele-therapy are quite feasible, even when certain familiar RfG techniques have to be modified or replaced. The fundamental reason for this is that RfG enactments are improvisational encounters in the playspace arising from activating imagination; encounters need not be bodily ones, nor must the playspace be evoked in a concrete spatial location. To state this as a slogan, “Replace the Embodied playspace with the Virtual playspace.” What follows are a few examples of how RfG training and therapy, delivered over the Zoom platform, have adapted. Some acquaintance with RfG practice is presupposed.


Some Changes to Training– workarounds

Since most participants have available only the microphone and camera that their laptops or smartphones come with, a constraint to be overcome is that participants will view and be viewed by others only as a head-and-shoulders image and will be seated and relatively motionless. Breaking the habits and assumptions that arise from the conventions of Zoom business meetings, we can sometimes invite participants to leave their chairs, distance from their cameras and move/be seen in full-body view, even though the audio signal will then be compromised or lost. The enactments and warmups in this mode will add variety and energy to training workshops; verbal directions before, and processing afterward, will help tie things together.

The use of breakout rooms and turning off one’s camera in Zoom can lessen the distractions of Gallery view, both when witnessing several others and the heightened self-consciousness arising from being viewed by everyone else; also, exercises may be conducted in smaller subgroups which the trainer can visit to observe passively or provide coaching.

Enactments customarily performed in fuller body view can be modified to be done with smaller gestures; Mirrors can be enacted by moving hands near the head and by drawing attention to smaller head and facial gestures; Presents works well enough if the Giver begins with an opening gesture of both hands moved outward from under the Giver’s chin, while the Receiver takes the Present by moving the open outstretched hands to a more closed position under the chin.

In place of physical movement exercises used to facilitate character formation and enactment, I have asked participants to bring a wearable hat of any kind to the training session. They are then guided through a progression of steps that activate imagination to create and explore their own character through dramatic encounters with the characters of other participants.


Some Changes to Therapy 

Increasingly, clients’ home space constraints affect their ability to create an “on-stage playspace,” not only regarding room but also freedom from distracting “off-stage” sounds. Obtaining sufficient privacy from other persons with whom they live is an even greater concern. I find it helpful to hold pre-session conversations in which we discuss ways to prepare their home spaces and make arrangements with others living with them. Sometimes, the outcome is a decision to enlarging the treatment system into a consultation session (or even into relationship therapy) that includes others living together with the initial client. Compared with in-person face-to-face therapy, more attention needs to be paid to warmups and transitional activities, probably because a client no longer has the built-in transition of traveling to the therapist’s office, or of entering and situating self within  the therapists’ physical office and that interpersonal space.

Increased Use of Homeplay— RfG techniques were developed originally to be applied exclusively as in-session therapeutic interventions, primarily for couples and families. Within a short time, these same techniques, particularly some of the simpler Exercises, were also being assigned as between-session homework to further deepen and accelerate the therapeutic work. When RfG homework is assigned, the next session usually begins as a Post-Enactment Processing (PEP) on what occurred when the clients tried these enactment(s) at home.

By contrast, “Homeplay,” implemented more recently, has been offered as a practice for persons in relationships (usually, family members) to shift the affective climate toward cooperation and playfulness to counter undesirable, habitual relationship sequences. With improved technology (use of cellphone videomaking) conveniently available, homeplay videos can now be reviewed, either in-session or asynchronously (sent to the therapist to be reviewed prior to the next session). A contract/agreement  for coached homeplay can be created outside of a therapeutic relationship, although I recommend that the parties clarify roles, activities, expectations and responsibilities explicitly before beginning.


The Future of Virtual Improv in Therapy

It is expected that a fuller flowering of creativity will continue in the near future; as the composer Igor Stravinsky wrote, “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself from the chains that shackle the spirit.” The Applied Improvisation Network (AIN) is currently mobilizing with a flood of ways to improvise online, including some who are exploring Virtual Reality (VR) technology We invite readers to submit their own examples and join the community of those who are innovating and exploring in the new Virtual world.