What Therapists Can Learn from Improv

Three Rules for Being More Energetic and Interactive in Sessions

Robert Taibbi

"Hey, Mike! Give me a hand with this, will ya? It's heavy."

"Sure, Joe."

Apparently my name is Mike and I've decided to call Brad, Joe. We both crouch down and mime picking up a roughly 4-by-4 imaginary concrete block. We creep slowly, bent knees, our arms outstretched, taut. "Let's put it down here," Brad/Joe says. Be careful of your back."

"I got it, I got it," I say, huffing.

I'm at the weekly practice of our improv troupe, The Improfessionals, and Brad and I are starting a three-person scene. The third member, Ann, stands on the sidelines waiting for a good time to enter.
In typical improv fashion, our fellow actors have set up the scene by giving us suggestions: Brad and I are brothers who run a concrete factory, and Ann is surprisingly free to be any character she likes. But to ramp up the challenge, they've endowed each of us with a phobia: mine is a fear of bold print, Brad's is a fear of aftershave lotion, and Ann's is condiments. Somehow we need to work these into the scene and our characters.

You probably know at least a bit about improv—a Second City show, Drew Carey's Whose Line Is It Anyway? on TV, unscripted movies like Waiting for Guffman or The Mighty Wind. Watching this type of comedic improv gives you the impression that the actors on stage are comic geniuses, on heavy doses of really good medication, or both. They're loose, witty people who have the uncanny ability to think on their feet—to make up Country Western songs about toothpaste on the spot and create incredible scenes about OCD accountants balancing books while floating in outer space. Great stuff!

But, like most arts, what seems so easy and natural actually requires lots of hard work. Beneath the quips are hard-learned skills, and beneath these skills is a structure that's supple yet indiscernible. These are the rules of improv upon which the actors build their scenes and create the experience.

Improv is like its cousin jazz, in that what drives the musician isn't some impulsive, random banging of notes, but a careful, yet spontaneous, construction, built around chord progressions and melodic lines. It's like therapy: both goal-directed and unrehearsed—a different conversation from the one you might have with the neighbor you meet at Walmart.

Once Joe and I put the imaginary block down, we both stand with hands on knees, puffing like racehorses.

"Hey," says Joe, carefully walking around the "block" toward me. "I took a glance at the new invoices this morning. Doesn't look good. There's a bunch of bold print in a lot of them. You better let me take care of them."

"Whoa, thanks man," I say, patting him on the back. "The companies never used to do that so much. But now . . . . I was going through those receipts last Thursday—it just sneaked up on me. Right in the middle of the page, in something like 48-point font. Freaked me out! I had to put it down as soon as I saw it, and it took me forever to settle down." I shake my head as though trying to dislodge the memory.

"I know, I know," says Joe, hugging my shoulders. "Don't worry about it."

I started improv several years ago. I'd just finished marching through some significant emotional losses: the death of my father, the death of my first wife, and the hospitalization of my daughter. I was bored with my job—lots of long-winded, stagnant community meetings; worries about the morale among my 40-plus staff; sweating the quarterly budget review; and having little time for clinical work. I felt dazed and dull. Then one day, I stumbled on a sign posted in a store window. A woman was offering improv classes, and to my surprise, I called, and then actually showed up. The class was a good mix of men, women, and backgrounds—a computer guy, an aikido instructor, a research biologist, a salesman, a musician, a poli-sci student—folks well outside my usual world.

I liked the energy of the group. As we got to know each other, I started to feel the way I did in high school, having a gang to hang out and fool around with. Our teacher gave us different exercises and challenges each week, and I found myself playing characters much like my clients: drug dealers, hyperactive children, depressed moms. We were en¬cour¬aged not to plan or even think, but simply do.

The rules of improv paradoxically showed me how to be freer and more creative. They provide a unique way of approaching relationships that's generous rather than closed, supportive rather than competitive, organic rather than scripted. While the theory and skills of therapy form the foundation of clinical practice, we have little foundation for the improvisation, the creativity that good therapy demands. Doing improv made me wonder whether applying these rules might make me more creative in my work and personal life.

Rule No. 1: Yes . . . and. This is it, the Holy Grail, the mantra of improv. Yes . . . and means that you accept whatever your fellow actor offers, rather than blocking, denying, ignoring, or changing what your partner just said. If Brad calls me Mike, I don't say, "Hey wait, my name is Alex!" When he asks me to help lift the heavy block, I don't say "I'm busy right now," or "Come on, it isn't that heavy." We follow each other's lead, rather than competing for the lead, and, in the process, discover and create our relationship and reality. We find out in a few moments that, in the skit, we're brothers who help each other; that Brad tends to be protective and tries to shelter me from the bold print that he knows upsets me; that I may have a bad back.

You fully commit yourself to the reality you both create. You don't forget about the imaginary block is in the middle of stage and absentmindedly walk through it; you stay within your character and don't suddenly stand upright after you just said that your back hurts.

Yes . . . and is a Zen-like state of mind. You work with what life offers rather than fighting against it. It's the counter to the Yes . . . but, the No, the defensiveness and anger that we usually hear from clients struggling with their relationships.

As therapists, this is what we're fundamentally about—active listening, Rogerian unconditional positive regard—and we do our best to try and pass this along to our clients. The notion that a client's problem somehow makes sense, that solving it means unraveling and understanding it, rather than forever pushing it away, may be part of our clinical philosophy. But even then, our own anxiety sometimes takes over and the Yes . . . and becomes Yes . . . but.

Rule No. 2: Act and react. Everyone on stage should be always working to contribute to the scene. If Yes . . . and is about attitude and acceptance, this rule is about taking responsibility and confronting fear. You do this by being courageous and following your instincts. Put something out there and trust that your fellow actors will follow your lead. Take the risk. Don't hold back, but make bold choices. Don't talk about taking action; don't wait for the "right" moment. Act now and see what happens. Pick up the block, stand on a chair, and then justify why you're doing that.

The opposite of all this—caution, hesitation, not pulling your weight—is what creates scene death. Instead of acting and adding to a scene, you malinger, pretending to smoke a cigarette while waiting to see what your teammates do, adding little to the content and energy. The worst form of this irresponsibility is known as "pimping" your partner. It means that rather than stepping up to the plate, making a clear choice, and being assertive, you waffle, wimp out, and manipulate your partner into shouldering all the responsibility for moving the scene forward.

We all know in our clinical work how easily responsibility in relationships can get abandoned or distorted. Frank runs the show at home and in your office, and his wife Ellen never speaks up, always going along. Sue binge-drinks all weekend, and Eric calls up her boss on Mondays to tell him she has the flu. Brian and Teresa talk about dividing up household chores more equally, but never do it and only continue to complain.

Our job is to counter their inertia and fear to bring a little fresh air and spontaneity into their scenes. When clients begin to withdraw, we encourage them to take risks, to act differently, right here and now; to say what's on their minds and in their hearts. We ask the hard questions—"Do you think about suicide?" "Do you want a divorce?" "Do you worry that this is your fault?"—that, hopefully, nudge them to talk about the underlying pain, the undisclosed secret, the unremitting anxiety.

Rule No. 3: Look good by making your partner look good. A famous adage in improv is that everyone is a supporting actor. That's what makes improv relationships so generative. Rather than looking out for yourself, you're always looking for ways to support the other actors, knowing that they'll do the same for you when you start to flounder, just as Ann did when Brad and I were running out of ideas. By stepping up and offering something to Brad when he starts to feel queasy, he and I discover together how his character is going to handle this aftershave fear. If he looks good, he helps me look good, and we have a successful scene. Like soldiers in combat, we're a team; we're looking out for our buddy. Whatever we do, we do together.

This contrasts with the stinginess and distrust we see in many relationships. Mike and Loren are discussing what they might do together over the weekend. The discussion quickly assumes the feel of a poker game. Mike is willing to do something on Saturday afternoon, if she'll let him watch the ballgame on Sunday. Loren is willing to go for a hike, if Mike promises to take the kids to soccer practice on Saturday morning. They're strategizing and posturing and bluffing, rather than being honest and committed to each other as a couple. Each has learned over the years to look out for him/herself, because they each believe their partner won't.

From an improv perspective, we can say to Mike and Loren what we see: that they seem emotionally stuck because they're putting their energy into cutting slicker deals or getting the other to go along with what he or she is offering. Instead, we want to help them change their perspective and attitude to one in which there are no deals or power struggles—where they're emotionally sitting together on the same side of the table, rather than across from each other. We encourage them to experiment with generosity—to step up and offer to take the kids on Saturday morning—without the expected payoff, and see what happens. We help them see that by changing their mindset, they can change their world.

Off-Stage Improv

The core of my clinical work hasn't changed—I still follow the same models and theories that I've used in the past. But, since I started improv, I find that I'm less cautious in some ways, more focused on process than content, more energetic and interactive in sessions. In sessions, I trust what I feel might fit the mood and moment, and choose to be honest and vulnerable. My clients and I are creating a relationship together; I'm discovering what does and doesn't help them move forward in her life. There are no mistakes for any of us.


This blog is excerpted from "The Tao of Improv" by Robert Taibbi. The full version is available in the January/February 2009 issue, Face to Face: The Art of Connection in the Age of Screenworld.

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Topic: Creativity

Tags: 2009 | clinical creativity | creative | creative counseling | creative counseling techniques | creative therapy | creativity | creativity in counseling | improving communication skills | play | playfulness | Robert Taibbi | role-playing

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Saturday, May 5, 2018 3:23:33 PM | posted by Jeanne Walker
My friend's new book is "Applied Improvisation: Leading, Collaborating and Creating Beyond the Theater", by Theresa Dudeck and Caitlin McCkure. Check it out! Using improv in therapy can be so helpful!

Thursday, May 3, 2018 1:32:38 PM | posted by
Your article didn't actually address your headline until the last paragraph.

Saturday, June 10, 2017 5:36:57 PM | posted by
A large part of my undergraduate work was in Theater and I think training as an actor gave me a huge leg up on being able to employ accurate empathy with my clients. After all, the heart of an actor's craft is putting ourselves in the lives of our characters. The reality that you can simply change out "characters" in that sentence for "clients" (or "patients") demonstrates how closely connected the two professions are. Now, as a counselor educator, when I teach pre-practicum (or "communication skills") I don't mess about with all the microskills stuff. Instead, I give my students an article about how actors create their characters, have them select a character from a film they know well, write a character sketch, and then portray that character as a client in their class role-plays. Given this, I greatly appreciate Robert's articles.

Sunday, May 21, 2017 2:06:38 PM | posted by Nancy Locke Capers, LMFT"41057
Having worked for 3 yrs in the film/theatre industry, I was going to write an article about this very topic. Having improv skills under my belt made working with clients almost a breeze. I think improv teaches us to trust ourselves in a way that's difficult to learn when one first starts seeing clients, so I felt I had a leg up as an intern. Nice article, thanks!

Saturday, May 20, 2017 1:13:16 PM | posted by Ellen Oler, LCSW
I love this! I've been wanting to take an improv class (with all the free evenings a private practice affords 😳) and having read this wonderful article I'm committed to finding one and signing up!