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Therapeutic Coaching of Clients During Improv Enactments

Daniel J. Wiener, PhD, RDT-BCT

Clinical effectiveness in RfG does not require executing protocols faithfully or flawlessly. For this reason, RfG training does not make use of drills or insist on memorization to improve the fidelity or completeness of giving directions/instructions. RfG therapy is effective when the therapist:

1) is attuned to her/his own playfulness and spirit of adventure;
2) is observant of the client(s)’ state of receptivity/readiness for adventuring;
3) experiences alignment/rapport within the therapist-client system;
4) is aware of a rationale for selecting the particular G/Es to be offered to clients;
5) understands the ‘essential components’ of what is needed to instruct clients through the enactment;
6) finds a balance between permissive curiosity and coaching/correcting client performances.

Akin to a theatre director’s functioning to shape the actors’ performances during play rehearsals, coaching refers to the therapist’s purposeful intrusion into the playspace of enactment. The therapist’s choice whether to intervene with coaching depends on the purposes for which the enactment is being staged.

Coaching takes a number of forms:

  1. Encouraging players to continue when they end, or appear to be ending, an enactment prematurely;
  2. Adding a detail, or repeating instructions that are not being followed (In “Mirrors,” correct a Leader who moves too rapidly or abruptly);
  3. Stopping the action if they are off-track or have omitted an essential element of the instruction, then starting them over (In “Mirrors,” if the Follower fails to mirror or lags mirroring the Leader’s movement by more than 1 second);
  4. Add a new instruction that builds upon what they have established—this could be done to intensify an emotional expression or to remind them of a feature of their role/character they could activate (In “Mirrors,” adding moods/emotions to shape the players’ current motions, such as “SCARED!” or “SEDUCTIVE!”;
  5. Inject an offer (usually verbally) into a scene that functions as one coming from within the playspace (e.g., “You realize she’s drunk!”). Sometimes, particularly during a Game like “Directed Story” (The RfG Book, pp. 102-3), players are instructed beforehand to expect these off-stage offers;
  6. Entering the playspace physically as an object or a character to further the action of a E/G in progress. Sometimes, the therapist can play a minor character to enhance the specificity of the scene’s location, such as walking on as a waiter during a scene set in a Restaurant; At other times the therapist might enter the scene as a character that was referred to but has not been seen, such as ‘one character’s absent Father.’

Another function of coaching is hypothesis-testing. Are the clients departing from the given instructions because of some deficit in their capability to carry out these instructions? Are they inattentive? Are they confused over the shift in roles demanded by the instructions? Is their blocking of the therapist’s offer isomorphic to their blocking of one another? Shifting the context to self-observation, did the therapist her/himself omit or distort some instructions or convey (perhaps subtly) some demand or judgement that affected client performance? Often the best way to put such hypothesizing to the test is to coach the clients to start over and observe what differences manifest in outcomes from their initial performance to subsequent ones.

Finally, it should be considered that, whatever its other benefits, any intrusion into the playspace will switch the clients’ mindset from Adventure Mind to Survival Mind. There are circumstances in which the choice to intervene/coach is nearly always ill-advised, such as when clients new to improvised enactment are playing enthusiastically even though they are departing from the instructions. Then, it is more important that clients have a success experience of enjoying improvising with one another than that they perform according to the therapist’s other objectives.