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“Pure” and “Impure” Improv

Daniel J. Wiener, PhD, RDT-BCT

In RfG, we recognize that the dominant mode of adult mental functioning is “Survival Mind,” which focuses our attention purposefully toward the future in order to get desired results, scan for dangers, and promote the feeling
of being in control of achieving success in that future. By contrast, Adventure Mind activity is present-centered, follows what is interesting and is absorbed in living fully for the moment. From the Survival Mind perspective, Adventure Mind, when manifest in adult behavior, is an infrequent (and sometimes risky) lapse into childishness. On the other hand, from the perspective of Adventure Mind, there is a joylessness in the sole pursuit of success at the expense of fully present experiencing.

Imagine someone striving for social prestige who first works to make the money to dine at the finest restaurant, then orders food chosen by what will impress others and, while eating, thinks only about how to describe his dining experience to those others at some later time. What this person has missed was the opportunity to enjoy the meal at the time of eating! Clearly, it is possible to do all the rest in Survival Mind AND switch over to Adventure Mind once the eating begins, yet the ingrained habits of Survival Mind may result in the diner pursuing the anticipated triumph of
boasting to others to the detriment of fully tasting his food.

Confined to the context of the individual, improv may be thought of as an activity that draws both on Adventure Mind (for its absorption in the present moment) AND Survival Mind (both for its adherence to rules and being structured by an awareness of underlying purpose). Note that this blog will focus only on the mental/emotional process of the individual improviser; the complex topic of the parts played by Adventure and Survival Minds during interaction among improvisers will be addressed in future blogging.

The Relative “Impurity” of Stage Improv

So what are the differences between Stage and Therapeutic improvising with respect to their “purity” of Adventure Mind functioning? Well, on closer examination, seldom do any of us ever engage in “pure” Adventure Mind improvising. While on-stage improvisers can experience the joy of spontaneity that lies at the core of Adventure Mind functioning, it should be recognized that most improv performances draw on Survival Mind functioning as well. The primary objective of stage improv performance is typically that of entertaining an audience, where both success or failure (internal as well as external) are at stake for the performers. The tendency to “steer for” audience admiration and/or laughter may corrupt the improvisers, who may fall back on repeating elements (of topics, plotting, characters or format) that worked in the past, thereby prioritizing success over playfulness and artistry. Well-wrought, authentic examples both of competitive and uninspired improv “corruption” are displayed in Mike Birbiglia’s 2016 wonderful film “Don’t Think Twice,” where an improv troupe’s supportive friendships are destroyed by externally-imposed
competition for career survival.

My improv teacher, Keith Johnstone, repeatedly pointed out that scenes, when improvised with spontaneity, can be fascinating to an audience without having to be funny. He would sometimes call forth a “Boring Scene” to pre-empt the tendency of stage improvisers to “whore for laughs.”

The Relative “Purity” of Therapeutic Improv

I believe that therapeutic improv is closer to “pure” improv than is performance improv. By this I mean that a client who undertakes the enactment of an Exercise or Game is less likely to be striving to impress others, even though inhibitory self-consciousness is nearly always present. Indeed, I have been impressed repeatedly by the openness and daring of so many clients who went into the unknown and courageously adventured into new territory by following their spontaneous impulses. To be sure, plenty of other clients “play it safe,” either refusing to commit to entering the
playspace fully, breaking character during a Game, or blocking (often through “blanking out”) during an enactment. Such clients may merely be unconfident of their capacity to tolerate the uncertainty of having to forgo social routines and familiar ways of responding to the unexpected which often result in blocking the offer.

However, it should be remembered that improv in the therapeutic context is frequently experienced as an emotionally “high stakes” encounter for clients, given that the therapist often: (1) chooses specific games in order to “stretch” clients’ habitual boundaries; (2) deliberately offers less familiar roles; and (3) engineers scenarios that resonate with
clients’ emotionally-sensitive issues (Proxy scenes). Moreover, stage improv is performed for strangers who have no knowledge of or interest in the private lives of the improvising actors, while enactments performed in therapy take place in the presence of therapists and sometimes family members who are far more alert to both the correspondences and discrepancies between the client’s performances and his/her habitual social behavior. Improvising clients thus face a more formidable audience than do stage improvisers in front of whom to display vulnerability.

By my estimate, roughly 2/3 of clients (individuals, couples or families) will, with appropriate timing, attempt improv at all; of these, about half will accept the offer to use improv in their therapy beyond their initial one or two experiences. This remaining 1/3 who go on to enact additional RfG Exercises and Games are not distinguishable by either the severity of their presenting problems or other obvious population demographics (other than for children, who are far more willing, and adolescents, who are considerably more wary). In my 34 yrs’ clinical experience, clients who can
access Adventure Mind in therapy make more rapid and durable progress. And the “Purity” of client improvising manifests in those fascinating moments during enactments when self-conscious censorship is absent.