Improv Games:  Story-making: Constructing Alternative Realities, Part 1 of 3

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

(This section, excerpted from Rehearsals for Growth: Theater Improvisation for Psychotherapists by Dan Wiener, is the first of a three-part series on the contribution of RfG to a narrative approach to therapy).

Narrative is a way of making sense of the totality of experience. Out of this totality we select particular sets of events and construct our “stories.” Once constructed, these stories organize cognition, attention and memory. All of us develop habitual patterns of self-referential storytelling, leading to the impression of a consistent self-image; put into theatrical terms, we develop one or more characters, operating within a limited range of plot choices. The stories clients present in therapy about themselves and their lives tend to be problem stories; that is, they are dominated by themes of obstacles, limitations, restraints.

When these same individuals operate in other relationships and different social contexts, different themes may emerge. Thus each social encounter entails a greater possibility for new perspectives, other self-images and different meanings to develop. However, relationships (of which therapy is an instance) develop their own patterns in which the partners mutually define the characters of self and other. By shifting the context of the relationship, as all psychotherapy attempts to do, change in the social reality of character and relationship becomes possible. RfG is a technique for shifting that relationship context, both in terms of the characters that participate and the rules of interaction, so that different stories emerge.

Improvised storytelling, unlike improvising as a form of witty entertaining without narrative, taps into a deeper, more universal recognition of the human condition. For persons unfamiliar with the experience of improvising it may come as a surprise that making up and enacting a story can be so involving and distressing as to evoke strong defensive processes. Keith Johnstone, [the author of Impro, reviewed in the Fall, 1991 RfG Newsletter and founder of the approach to improvisation used in RfG] points out:

Stories are always threatening to plunge the improviser into grief, or terror, or rage, or joy, or a lot of other things he’s not prepared to experience in public. This brings him into conflict with the needs of the spectators: he may want to be admired for his good looks, but they may want him hunted down by psychotic killers…The average improviser tries to avoid `trouble’ by using joke-behavior because once a scene becomes `silly’ then the `monsters’ can’t get at you. It’s normal to assume that improvisers kill stories in order to `be funny,’ but maybe they’re `funny’ in order to kill stories. (Johnstone, 1987)

Johnstone (1988) discusses twelve ways that improvisers prevent narratives from developing. These are ennumerated below as examples of what to avoid in good storytelling:

  1. Cancelling, which nullifies the offer;
  2. Sidetracking, which offers the development of a side-plot instead of proceeding with the main story;
  3. Being Original, which acts as a distraction from the mood or energy of the story;
  4. Wimping, a way of refusing to define what is present or emerging in the story;
  5. Conflict, which uses fighting (often in the form of argument) to Sidetrack or freeze the action;
  6. Instant Trouble, which ends the original story-line by superimposing some dramatic but irrelevant event;
  7. Games, or Agreed Activities, which substitute routine interaction for development of the action;
  8. Hedging, which postpones the inevitable next step of story development by including “filler” material;
  9. Gossiping, which is talking about something happening off-stage;
  10. Blocking (discussed at greater length in the Winter/Spring 1993 Newsletter Issue), which Johnstone defines as …”anything that prevents the action from developing, or that wipes out your partner’s premise.”
  11. Negativity, which slows or stops the action by negative offers;
  12. Gagging, which is using jokes in order to shift the context away from adventure within the story towards amusement at it.

Games teaching Narrative Skills

Cooperative Story-telling.

In this exercise the players sit facing one another, knee-to-knee, looking into each other’s eyes. One player (Q) provides context through questions and the other player (A) provides answers as content. For example:

Q: You’re in a dark place; where is it?

A: An old, deserted factory building.

Q: What time of day is it?

A: Late afternoon. The sun’s pretty low.

Q: You go around to the front gate. Is it locked?

A: No.

Q: You push it open a bit and peer inside. What do you see?

A: Huge, rusted machinery.

Q: There’s a sign on the machinery. What does it say?

A: ‘Danger! High-speed…’ the rest is rusted away.

Q: You become aware of someone at the far end of the factory. Who is it?

A: An old man in a guard’s uniform. [etc]

This variation gets the Questioner into the storyteller role along with the Answerer with the result that they share the adventure and may become emotionally closer. As in other improvs, it is important that each accept the other’s offers and keep the story moving forward. Notice that this is different from certain forms of guided imagery techniques in that the story is created in the moment and the Questioner follows as well as leads at times.

Family Story

This game is useful for actual families or for unrelated groups of players who play the parts of extended family members. The game is started by one member introducing a fictional event involving a fictional family member (e.g., “Do you remember the time Uncle Bruce showed up at our house with no shoes?”). Other members play the parts of family members (actual or fictional) and take turns adding details and furthering the story, often becoming major characters in the story itself. There are only two rules: everyone gets a chance to contribute, and no “blocking” (objections, denials, or negation) of anything already said is allowed. Since the story is made up on the spot, no one actually knows more than anyone else. One result is every member’s contribution is important– the story is owned by all.


Johnstone, K. Keith Johnstone’s Theatresports and Life Game Newsletter (unpublished); Volume 1, 7/87.

Johnstone, K. Keith Johnstone’s Theatresports and Life Game Newsletter (unpublished); Volume 2, 6/88.