On the Completeness and Accuracy
of RfG Enactment Directing
Daniel J. Wiener, PhD, RDT-BCT and Ariel Axelrod, MA
May 9, 2023
The detailed written descriptions found in the RfG literature for each game or exercise (G/E) are meant to serve as a vehicle for passing on institutional knowledge. At an early stage of learning, closely adhering to the written instructions is a reliable and desirable practice for clinicians.
There is a similar process in martial arts. In some Japanese traditions, stylized movement forms are called kata. Kata are idealized formal renditions of movements intended to convey the essential knowledge needed to practice and understand the particulars of those actions, but they do not reflect all individual instances likely to be encountered in a real-life scenario. As such, they are a practice rather than a reality. In these martial arts, your students are to be pitied if you cannot demonstrate kata, and you are to be pitied if the only way you know how to move is kata. In the same spirit, the RfG written instructions for G/Es are described as a kind of kata: idealized forms and starting points from which you can, should, and must depart. If you follow exercise instructions to the letter, you will find yourself engaged in a highly formalized practice that showcases idealized and stylized situations that bear only an approximate resemblance to reality. Reality rarely looks like the idealized scenarios described in the instructions, and yet understanding and practicing exercises as they are described is required to fully understand the reasoning for actions and steps therein. While this progression toward competence is needed and desired in training, it is a separate endeavor from therapeutic application.
In addition to learning relevant client or student information prior to offering enactments and establishing a safe atmosphere in which improv is offered, it is important to consider the social context of the situation, whether it’s an improv class, a training workshop, or therapy. The enactment of RfG G/Es may result in reactions unforeseen by either or both the client/student and/or the therapist/director. For instance, when improvisers suddenly find themselves disclosing things they didn’t want to, it may throw them into crisis. You need to attend to peoples’ defenses and disclosures without judgment and may need to have backup plans if the initial work goes awry. Better still, you may need to rely on both your trained intuition and spirit of improvisation to be effective!
As noted in the RfG Practitioner Manual, the formalized instructions include preparations to assure physical and emotional safety and take into consideration any physical limitations, making the environment most inviting to the opportunity for adventure, discovery, and insight. Such highly formalized preparations cannot meet the needs of every therapeutic/learning scenario. Yet as noted earlier, you can’t just learn from a book. Competence is not achieved by the rote memorization and application of these formalized instructions. Rather, these are intended as a jumping-off point. When you are comfortable with the rules governing these exercises, it will be time to break them. We hope you will take this information in and then modify it to suit your needs. If you do not break the rules, the situations you find yourself in will break them on your behalf, so we urge you to get a head start. Don’t respect the instructions so much that you’re enslaved to the form of them!
INACCURACIES OR OMISSIONS (IDIOSYNCRATIC DEPARTURES) VS. “FATAL ERRORS”
A distinction should be made between idiosyncratic departures from the written instructions and what computer programmers call “fatal errors.” In programming, a fatal error is one that causes a program to abort; in therapy, it is an omission or inaccuracy that undermines the purpose of the enactment. An example to clarify this distinction follows.
When directing a “Mirrors” exercise, leaving out the instruction to have the players refrain from speaking during the enactment would be an idiosyncratic departure that might result in a lessening of the concentration of the player in the Follower role from attending as closely to imitating the movements of the Leader. Speaking might shift the focus of this exercise toward, say, competitiveness and away from cooperation via making and accepting offers on the Movement Dimension—but still allows for players to function as is usually intended by the therapist/director. Allowing, or even instructing, players to speak while performing “Mirrors” might turn out to be a useful variation, whether intentionally instructed, or not.
On the other hand, failing to either instruct verbally, or demonstrate through coordinated movements, the following of the Leader’s movements by the other player would be a fatal error, undermining the central purpose of the “Mirrors” exercise. Sometimes, fatal errors may be erased or undone by corrective coaching during the enactment underway, or by starting it over, in which cases no lasting harm may result. This is why it is more important that therapists using RfG G/Es understand the rationale for these enactments than that they memorize the instructions, reciting them mechanically. In fact, mechanical recitation is itself another kind of fatal error, for even when its content is faithful to the written instructions, mechanical intonation is an offer on the Verbal dimension which is likely to confuse or misdirect the players from accepting in a playful or curious mindset.
Over the past 30-odd years of training therapists in RfG, I (Dr. Wiener) have found that RfG practitioners who maintain a lively curiosity, don’t take themselves too seriously, and activate their own playfulness while conducting therapy find ways to innovate during their practice more frequently than more conventional-minded ones. Another way of framing this observation is that effective RfG practice is more closely associated with Artistry than Craftsmanship. Though I make no claims that Artistic therapists get superior clinical outcomes, I suspect that they obtain higher long-term personal satisfaction from their practices!