Improv Goes to Moscow

RfG Newsletter, Volume 1, Number 1 Fall, 1991

by Gloria J. Maddox

On May 23rd Dan, his oldest son Javan (a Russian language student) and I flew Finn Air to Moscow. We were met by Natasha Udensiva, a psychologist who had taken our Improv workshop at the AAMFT conference in Nov., 1990 in Washington, DC. She had found it so valuable that she invited us to Moscow’s Association for Practical Psychology to teach improv to therapists from Moscow, Leningrad, and as far away as Tashkhent and Riga. Natasha was tireless in her efforts, handling the logistics of our lives there. After three days of rest and sightseeing the time came to go to work.

There were 20 people the first day and 26 the second. We have a delightful video tape of participants sitting in a circle communicating thru gibberish and telling stories a word or phrase at a time, in Russian, laughing freely at their creative efforts. Teaching through an interpreter was a new adventure for us. The first morning we were talking very loudly, but by the afternoon we had calmed down and let the interpreter do her work. Everyone agreed that we managed quite well.

In the approximately 16 hours we spent with them we presented exercises in status, played many of the games we use at conferences and trainings in the USA, always tying them into practical use in therapy. The Soviet therapists, to our suprise, were quite individualistic, finding it as difficult to accept offers as their American counterparts. When I led the group through deep relaxation exercises at the beginning of the second day the quality of the exercises following improved remarkably.

It was fascinating to see how much could be communicated within improv without knowing the language. Often, Dan and I could tell that there had been the blocking of an offer from inflection and body language alone. We did, however, run into a minor problem with the game, “Gibberish Insults.” In this game, an ordinary scene is played, with a gibberish word added at the end of each line. The other player repeats this “word” with intensity, taking it as an insult, adding a gibberish word of his own at the end of his conventional line, and so forth. The trouble was, we didn’t understand Russian, so we couldn’t be sure that a gibberish word had been added!

In the afternoon of the second day we worked with a clinical problem offered by one of the therapists. She reported that she felt angry toward an infantile male client who was obstructing marital therapy. We had her role-play a bit of a session with the couple first. Observing that she inhibited expressing her anger, Dan set up a game in which she played a “Queen” who ordered everyone else in the room about. If anyone displeased her for any reason, she called out “Umert!” (“Die!”) and that person perished on the spot. Everyone enjoyed this game immensely, dying very theatrically, and our Queen became much freer in killing off people. When we returned to the clinical role-play, she was able to declare the infantile client to be “no prince” of hers, and gave this “baby” back to the wife.

Many of the therapists had never had a workshop like ours (their training tends to be quite academic) and were enthusiastic. We were invited to return to give further workshops and to present our work in St. Petersburg and Riga as well as Moscow next time. While the enormous changes taking place in the Soviet Union make it difficult to predict how this would work Dan and I are planning to return next Summer. PRIVET!