Introducing Improvisation into Psychotherapy

RfG Newsletter, Volume 5, Number 1, Fall 1995


Rehearsals for Growth:
Theater Improvisation for Psychotherapists
by Daniel J. Wiener, Ph.D.

This book illuminates the connection between theater and therapy, shows how performing improvisation enriches our understanding of social behavior, and enables players to experience greater freedom of expression and a power based on cooperation, imagination, and spontaneity. It contains detailed descriptions and instructions for use of over 150 variations of games and exercises that are applicable to group, couples, family, and individual therapy. These are illustrated by 14 case examples and numerous clinical vignettes; a discussion of how Rehearsals for Growth compares to other therapeutic approaches; and how its techniques can be integrated with other therapies.

List Price $32.00; Order at 15% Professional Discount for $27.20 from W. W. Norton. Call: 1-(800)-233-4830.

Introducing Improvisation into Psychotherapy

(This section is adopted from Rehearsals for Growth: Theater Improvisation for Psychotherapists by Daniel J. Wiener}

My practice of using improv games and exercises for therapeutic purposes developed following considerable experience with their recreational use. There may be a temptation to treat the descriptions of improv games and exercises as a sufficient instruction for applying them to psychotherapy. For several reasons, I strongly encourage therapists to enter the world of improv personally before offering these games and exercises to their clients. First, the experience of playing these games gives the therapist an appreciation of their impact, particularly the discomfort that one invariably encounters at first. Second, the selection or creation of games in clinical situations is itself improvisatory and cannot be skillfully applied without being warmed up to the play context. Yet another reason is that introducing these games succesfully only occurs when clients experience the safety of being free from the consequences of being judged; a therapist, however well trained, who has not experienced the process will make interpretations reflecting an outside, judgmental viewpoint. Indeed, in order to enter the play context, many clients need to see the therapist struggle and even fail occasionally in order to be sufficiently reassured. Lastly, the therapist must be available to demonstrate, model and (often) enter the improv enactment in order to achieve her or his goals.

When offering exercises and games it is usually best to “stretch” people gradually, offering them tasks and roles that are initially within their “comfort zone” and only later, when they have had successful experiences, offer more risky ones (an experienced improviser can usually estimate the level of both perceived and actual difficulty of an improv game or exercise). Once one member has a successful improv experience, this has the effect of “warming up” other members to attempt improv. As in psychodrama groups, the members that are the most warmed up are those to work with first, sometimes by participating in improv with those members and having the rest of the clients as an audience. 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) feel they are doing something wrong!

A number of options are available to ease players into improv enactment. One of the most useful is to have reluctant or inhibited clients serve as “understudies” to other, more able players in enactments, whereby each stands behind a player during a rehearsal scene, imitating the player’s posture and movements. The therapist/director “freezes” the scene periodically; the understudy supplies a line of dialogue which is repeated by the player as the scene continues (this is similar in structure, though not in function, to psychodramatic doubling). The next step is to have the player and understudy reverse positions and direct the players to supply the dialogue while the understudy acts the body character in the scene. A further step is then to have the understudy play both the body and voice of the character, but with the option of calling “Prompt!” if he or she gets stuck, at which point the (original) player supplies the next line or stage direction. For scenes involving emotional expression beyond the range of the understudy, the original player may repeat the understudy’s last line with slightly greater emotional intensity (rather like an amplifying double in psychodrama) or tap the understudy on the shoulder to step aside, whereupon the player performs a somewhat more forceful movement. This last technique should only be used when the players are sufficiently skilled and mature enough to intervene for the support and encouragement of the understudies without supplanting or upstaging them.

The role of the therapist/director during an improv is to be an observer and coach, to supply needed offers, and to intervene in order to make the scene work. Most often the therapist/director’s interventions will be in the service of furthering the scene (such as when one player has blocked or has broken a rule of the game), but occasionally it may be of overriding importance to interrupt the scene, particularly when the enactment has produced a breaking of character. These events do not necessarily represent a failure of the process and can become opportunities to uncover undealt-with clinical issues.

It is necessary for the therapist to have first established a rapport with clients that creates trust and establishes a safe and stable non-play context that can be departed from and returned to after playing (an anchor in conventional reality). This includes establishing not only the rules and therapeutic rationale for play but also that the therapist is responsible, sensitive, and competent–in sum, trustworthy. Otherwise, the boundaries demarcating the play context will be unclear or the therapist may be perceived as having a careless attitude toward those feelings and perceptions that the clients are attached to, that they experience as an authentic or necessary part of their life. The way I establish play boundaries in therapy is to establish in advance a time for “debriefing” during which the players return to their conventional personae and share their reactions and judgments to the improv, to their own performance, and to the performances of others.

Psychological as well as physical safety is a precondition for permitting oneself to play fully. Satir (1987), a therapist who believed firmly in the reality of an authentic self, rightly pointed out:

If patients feel that they are at risk because they feel `one down’ in relation to the therapist, they will not report their distressed feelings and will develop defenses against the therapist. The therapist in turn, not knowing about this, can easily misunderstand the patient’s response as resistance, instead of legitimate self-protection against the therapist’s incongruence. (p. 21)

In my training of therapists in using RfG, I do not often find that the therapist is judgmental or insensitive to the feelings, strivings, and vulnerabilities of the client. Nor is there likely to be a problem for therapists with clients who are reluctant to initiate play, or who play timidly. Rather, I find it an occasional problem that a therapist will not fully be open to play and is unprepared for the freedom, opportunity and paradoxical danger arising from initiating play. In these cases, the therapist usually has a specific agenda for play and will be intolerant of the exuberence or egocentrism of the playing client, thus becoming anxious, punitive and/or restrictive. Of course, it is necessary for the therapist to be clear and thorough in setting boundaries for play experience, but he or she must then be prepared and willing to go on an adventure in which “anything goes” within those boundaries.

Most experienced therapists have had the experience of clients’ (particularly in group or family therapy) challenging the therapist by disrupting the therapeutic process or by attempting to use the rules to pursue a competitive agenda. This phenomenon occurs in a distinctive way in RfG insofar as indulging in “bad behavior” may be condoned, even encouraged, in-role. Afterward, the client may not de-role readily or willingly. I have found that using another name for the player’s character makes it more effective when I address the client by name, differentiating him from his role and stage identity and firmly, though not harshly, holding him accountable for his off-stage social behavior.

As noted earlier, it is a distinct advantage for the client to see that the therapist can also engage in play and that he or she can also be on the edge and at risk of failing to do well in an improv, as well as manifesting craziness, silliness, or immature behavior. This offsets the client’s tendency to project onto a passive observer-therapist qualities of aloofness, retaining power, and being judgmental and encourages the client to let go and play fully. By seeing their therapist at play, clients also view improv as playful, not just as therapeutic technique. This raises the question as to who is in charge if everyone is playing; I solve this by working in therapy groups and workshops with a cotherapist and by clearly marking my moving in and out of role as a participant when working solo. In this solo position, however, I am not free to immerse myself fully in the playfulness of the improv, since a part of my attention needs to remain “on duty” as a watchful grown-up.