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It Ain’t What You Play, It’s How You Play It!

Daniel J. Wiener, PhD, RDT-BCT

July 1, 2021


Having been training clinicians for over 30 years in RfG, I’ve observed repeatedly how students progress through different roles, from their first encounter with an improv game as they personally enact it (Player); next, to giving instructions and coaching other students in that game’s enactment; (Director); then, on to applying that game in actual therapy (Clinician); and finally, how they present the description (or simulation) of the game as was played by their clients during therapy afterwards in class (Supervisee). Along the way, students usually play the same game again in further training classes; observe their classmates giving instructions and performing as players; participate in role-plays in simulations of improv enactments; and take the roles of Consultant and Supervisor during their more advanced training.

What appears significant to me when generalizing across these experiences is how both the focus and the manner in which students engage with that same improv game shifts as they become more practiced in their use of that game. As a first-time Player, the student is typically immersed in “surviving” the improv encounter, caught between the Adventure Mind’s attraction to adventure with spontaneity and Survival Mind’s fear of “doing it wrong” and “looking bad.” Once the repeated experience of improvising assures Survival Mind that mistakes are survivable, the balance shifts in favor of relaxing, enjoying, and loosening the grip of these negative expectations and (at times) viciously negative self-judgments. Of course, both the peer training group format and the permissive attitude of the Trainer contribute greatly to facilitating this shift. RfG training empowers therapists to accurately empathize with their own improvising clients and to model the same nurturant, playful and approving influence they have witnessed in and experienced from their Trainer.

When first directing other students and then clients in enactments, students are often unaware of the distinction between which parts of the instructions are congruent with their purposes in offering that game during therapy and which parts are peripheral. Take, for example, the enactment of Tug-of-War (“TOW”, Wiener, 1994, p. 121-2), an exercise that has two players miming the use of an imaginary rope to physicalize the struggle of pulling one another over a center line. When directing TOW with a pair of clients the novice RfG therapist may emphasize one of the instructions (how there is to be a winner and a loser after 30 seconds), heightening client focus on the simulation of conflict, while omitting or de-emphasizing how the players could be attending to one’s own and one’s partner’s movements so that all observers may readily visualize “the rope” behaving realistically. The novice student thereby misses the opportunity to test and/or promote clients’ cooperation and co-creation of a more convincing performance. After being offered offered coaching feedback these beginning students then better appreciate how the challenge of having client players attend to the movement and energy of their partners both tests and teaches them the process of co-creation.