Levels of Involvement with Improvisation

RfG Newsletter, Volume 2, Number 2, Winter/Spring 1993

As RfG workshops continue to be taken by an increasing number of therapists we have observed that differences exist in both interest and degree of application of these techniques. What follows is a preliminary effort at classification.

Enrichment of the Therapist’s Own Life

At one level, therapists are attracted to Improvisation (improv) in order to refresh and enhance their use of Self: using one’s playfulness, enjoying the re-discovery of imagination, appreciating the absurdity of breaking conventional logic and getting past social convention (particularly, getting to be “bad”).

A related aspect of improv games and exercises is the stretching of our faculties, such that we cannot take our usual functioning for granted. An example would be calling things by their wrong name, which makes the habitually familiar world novel again, re-inducing childhood’s vividness of sensation and absorption of attention and effectively counteracting therapist burnout.

Improvisation as a Clinical Tool

At another level, therapists apply those improv games and exercises that they have experienced to their clinical work. Here, the therapist becomes an improv director, introducing and coaching clients in the enactment of improv exercises for one or more of the following purposes:

  1. experiencing the same benefits as therapists at the abovementioned level
  2. identifying defenses and limitations of individual clients
  3. assessing relationships – how clients interpret the task
  4. assessing how well clients function in an exercise (e.g., emotional range, use of body)
  5. noting differences in functioning during an exercise with one, rather than with another person (group member, Th/leader, family member, stranger, etc.)
  6. discovering how flexibly a performance can change with coaching
  7. teaching principles of good relationship functioning: cooperation/support, giving up over-control, going on shared adventures, playfully getting others in trouble
  8. making interventions to change relationship functioning: expand emotional range, heighten empathy, experience new possibilities (which might be termed “expanding dramatic range”).

To be effective as an improv director the therapist needs to appreciate the timing for offering improv exercises and be willing to allow for unpredictability without making the client(s) wrong!

Improvisation as a Systemic Intervention

At yet a different level, the therapist makes use of improv games and exercises to empower a shift in the therapeutic context – to change mood, energy, and status relationships during sessions by means of self-enacted changes in the therapeutic role. The therapist who operates at this level ventures beyond his/her habitual range of taking risks and spontaneity. The primary difference between this level and the previous one is that the therapist is him/herself the initial focus of the change, rather than standing outside to observe or induce client change.

Improvisation as Therapeutic Artistry

At the next and final level under discussion, which will be called “artistry,” the therapist improvises novel scenarios that advance the therapeutic work. For artistry to occur the therapist has both to be versed in the technique of using improv and “warmed-up” to his/her own spontaneity.

The essence of artistry cannot be captured by technique alone, for it entails an intuitive grasp of the possibilities for change in the moment as well as a vision of how that present context might be shifted. The therapist aspiring to artistry will need to attend to his/her own senses of boredom, danger, and playfulness (to name but a few) as well as to screen out risky, intuitive choices in cases where s/he has known counter-transferential issues with the client(s).