Improvisation in Institutional Settings: Creative Alternatives of New York

RfG Newsletter, Volume 3, Number 2 Winter/Spring, 1994

by Emily Nash

Creative Alternatives of New York (CANY) is an organization that provides therapeutic theater workshops to special populations. Originally designed to activate the dormant creative energies of psychiatric inpatients, CANY has expanded its work to outpatient clinics, homeless shelters, learning-disabled junior high school students and an alcohol rehabilitation center. Although the philosophy and methodology of the work remain consistent, sessions vary in structure and content according to the specific needs of each population.

At the core of the work is the belief that every person, no matter how dysfunctional, has a healthy self and within that self is the potential to create. CANY sees the creative process as a healing one, an experience of self-discovery and renewal. Theater, in particular has the power to transform, to act as bridge from one world to the next, from one part of the self to another. Their workshops offer participants a safe playground where a full range of human experience can safely be explored.

Unlike psychodrama or other role playing modalities, participants in CANY workshops do not play roles directly related to their lives. Rather, by creating fictional characters and imaginary scenes they feel the sufficient distance from themselves to free-up blocked energies and tap into aspects of their personalities which might be otherwise inaccessible. As one client commented, “We feel so confined to who we think we are. By playing so many different characters, I’ve found so many different parts of myself.” Playing characters serves to give people a stronger connection to themselves, thereby building ego strengths and enhancing their capacity to relate effectively to others. Improvisational scenes bring characters together, facilitating social interaction and emotional connection.

An example of the use of improvisational technique at CANY occurred in a therapy group of outpatient men at the Bronx VA Hospital. Various diagnoses were represented: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, substance abuse. The project, taking place over a few months of weekly sessions, was to create and perform an improvised piece of theater. The group was led by a professional team of theater artists, trained in the Creative Alternative philosophy and methodology, who had worked with this group over a long period of time.

During a brainstorming process the group came up with the theme of “homelessness” and proceeded to explore through improvisation the experience of homeless men. The theme was a wonderful metaphor for what these clients face: the lack of an “inner home” (a sense of self), a feeling of not belonging in the world and the literal threat of being homeless. One character made a comment “I need a second chance”, inspiring the play’s title A Second Chance. The clients began to work on scenes in which their characters needed a second chance. So close to home was the material however that they got very bogged down in the hopeless reality of this limited existence. Dramatically, it lacked vitality and humor. The artists who led the group had the idea to ask the clients to choose a mythological and historical characters and to decide what kind of second chance they might want. The play took off. The metaphor of these characters provided a necessary distance through which the clients could more playfully explore their situations. Each wrote a small scenario which was then linked up to a larger production.

Three men in particular developed scenes in which they developed characters that resonated to problematic life themes: “Peter Pan,” who wanted a second chance to grow up, created a scene in which he couldn’t pay his bills and wanted to remain a child; “Jason,” who sailed around the world with a view to stopping and settling down (he opened a store from which he nurtured others who stopped in); and “Ulysses,” who re-enacted his voyage around the world in order to make contact with people this time.

After each of the separate scenes had been enacted the group created a musical about a bunch of homeless men in a park. After an improvised chorus, “We Need A Second Chance,” one member was chosen to have gotten out of the park. Returning to the group, he interviewed the others about what they would do with a second chance. Everone became animated, playful and funny. One member told the “returner” that he would become a TV news reporter who would do an entire show about all the people in history who wanted second chances. The group polished their musical play and toured other local VA hospitals, performing it.

Throughout the process the men displayed considerable improvement in their maturity, self-esteem, and confidence. Peter Pan did grow up; Jason became of service to others; Ulysses developed friendships.

The CANY method does not concentrate on pathology but rather on the strengths and capabilitities of the clients. The aim of the work is to mobilize the healthy parts of people, the parts that can create, have impact on others and to accomplish tasks. Through joining the disciplines of theater and group work CANY clients find a strong, supportive community, a place where, perhaps for the first time, they can feel a true sense of belonging. Here they receive the care and encouragement to find their own voices and, hopefully, to enhance the quality of their lives.

[ For further information about CANY, call: (212) 241-6636 ]