Improvisational Therapy

RfG Newsletter, Volume 3, Number 1, Fall, 1993

by Natasha Udensiva

[Editor’s Note: The following, based on Natasha’s experience as co-leader of our Rehearsals! for Growth Improvisational Therapy Group, is excerpted from an article published in the Summer, 1993 New Life Times]

“Once there was and once there was not”
(from a Russian fairytale)

Changing the repetitive scripts in our life is one of the main goals of Improvisational Therapy, (IT) which is based on the unique combination of psychotherapy and improvisational theater techniques.

Through all of our life we are trying to negotiate different structures -the structure of our work or profession our personal relationships or social life. We perceive the world from the logic of these structures, trying to fit into them. To be more effective and successful inside of them, we sometimes need to step outside of our habitual structures, shake them up and create new ones. These new structures may or may not be realistic but they help us explore different ways for our inner selves to make the structures fit us.

In improvisational group therapy (IGT) people create a very special reality, where they can combine their dreams and imagination with real events. The group gives people the opportunity to extend habitual ways of behaving and explore other dimensions of themselves by acting out their personal stories and improvising different outcomes.


The first step in IGT involves creating an opportunity to explore and extend people’s limits by using their playfulness and imagination. Imagine a scene in which you are sitting on an airplane with your neighbor. You can fall in love with the person sitting next to you and find yourself in a hotel room or at a wedding in a Church. Or your airplane can suddenly land. It is up to you where you want to find yourself – at Kennedy Airport,or another planet or in Paradise where you meet angels and ask for help. There can be millions of other variants. Your imagination and your eagerness to play will lead you. Most of the time it doesn’t matter whether you are acting out your real story or your fantasy- it’s still your experience.


The second step in the group is having people act out their problems, and creating for them images and metaphors, which can help them to see things in a new light. Let’s say, for example, you have problems with your boss, whom you are afraid to say “No” to. Imagine that you are acting out this problem, trying to say “No” to your partner, who is playing your boss. During the scene he becomes so angry, that he suddenly transforms into a wicked witch, who is continuing to be your boss,but can also eat you if you do something wrong. Your task remains the same but is now a little more complicated, to find a way to say “no” and manage not to be eaten. We can suggest that you be a very famous actor and play the same scene – a conversation with your boss – in different theatrical styles: Greek tragedy, Comedy in the style of Charlie Chaplin, a Broadway musical or Theater Avantgarde. This kind of exercise will stretch your mind and give you the option to see the problem from different perspective. Using images and movements adds dimension beyond the words.


The third step is having people improvise their problem with the whole group or having some members in the group improvise this person’s problem. For example, Z told the group that he had a very cold mother and father and was frustrated in his childhood. I suggested for a couple of people to play his parents, based on what they heard. The group members tried to play his distant and cold parents, but the power of his playfulness and involvement was so strong that he managed to involve his “parents” in a more close and warm relationship. As a result, he got the experience of being loved and accepted. His passion and eagerness to play were so powerful that he managed to involve his”parents” and they followed him with pleasure and fun. We didn’t reproduce his real situation, but Z got the valuable experience of loving and accepting parents. He also experienced his power over his parents which was something he had always been looking for.”I never had such an accepting mother”‘ said Z at the end of the scene–and there were tears in his eyes. The same evening Z called his mother and had a very warm conversation with her; by its conclusion his mother was crying, explaining to him how she really needed and expected his calls. For the first time in his life he really became aware of and impressed by how much his mother needed his love.


What makes this kind of work so powerful and effective?

1: When playing and improvising their stories people don’t experience the pressures of their usual roles and are free to change whatever they want. They have already had the experience of the real event and now are ready to get another kind of experience.

2: It is like a kaleidoscope, where you can see one pattern of mosaic but then you are turning it and you will see another. We are often afraid to turn the kaleidoscope of our life. Improvisational Therapy helps us do this, exposing endless new patterns for us to see.

3: When we play we connect with one of the basic needs of human beings. Everybody has the ability to play and capacity to be creative. Playfulness is one of the main ways by which we can reduce our inner tension.


In order to play and freely use images we need to be spontanous. However, spontaneity is a risk. It is giving up the desire to control the situation, overcoming fear of being evaluated and trusting yourself and your partner. During IGT people learn how to be spontaneous. It may sound paradoxical, but spontaneity needs to be learned.

In order to develop spontaneity you have to follow two rules: first, trust your own impulses and use them; second, accept offers from others. The combination of these two rules makes the situation unique and special. It is easy to say “trust yourself” but hard to do. “I want to be perfect and look good”.”What will happen, if I will do somthing wrong?” “How can I trust myself, if I can make a mistake?” These questions are plaguing us. It is very important to know that you have the right to be silly, not to be perfect and be just who you are. We all have a frightened child inside who is afraid of making mistakes, wants to look better than he is, and longs for approval. The group in IGT is an accepting, uncritical parent of this frightened child. The group is a place to explore how to be silly, boring, and make mistakes without being punished.


The second way of developing spontaneity is accepting the offers of others. People more often tend to say “NO”, then “YES”. “NO” give them a feeling of power and protection. “NO” is a way to control the situation. When parents are over controlling they tend to say “NO” more often than “YES” to their child. But it only seems that”NO” posses much power than “YES”. “NO” prevents us from doing and trying, keeping us stuck at the same place; “YES” creates an adventure and move us further. “NO” creates distance between people; “YES” makes them feel closer. We learn how to accept the offers of others by saying “YES” and experience our personal power of acceptance, not of rejection.


We miss a lot of opportunities in our lives only because we don’t accept the offers from both the outside world and from ourselves. We don’t want to see them. Things do not happen in our life, not because they can’t happen but because we don’t believe they will happen to us. Somebody once said that “People more often feel regret for what didn’t happen in their lives than for what did.” In IT you get to stretch your personal experience to include some things which have been missed in reality. If you permit yourself to imagine and act out an experience and enjoy it, this experience will come into your real life, because you already know what it is and you will be open for it.