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CHANGING MINDSETS THROUGH APPLIED IMPROVISATION-Hand-out for the workshop presented at the 2014 World Conference of The Applied Improvisation Network, Austin, TX

“Self-knowledge is no guarantee of happiness but it is on the side of happiness and can supply the courage to fight for it.”   Simone deBeauvoir

by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP
  An individual’s mind set has been found to be a powerful driver of perceptions about self and others as well as one’s capabilities and place in the world. "They guide the whole interpretation process," according to researcher Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

The perspective of a “fixed” mindset is that innate intelligence and talent are more central to successful learning and change than effort and commitment. Dweck's work demonstrates that we can develop what she calls a “growth” mindset – centered in the belief that our most basic abilities can be enhanced through hard work and dedication, “that brains and talent are just the starting point.”  Research shows that even seemingly small social-psychological interventions that target limiting, self-negating thoughts and feelings can lead to deep, sustainable change. 
Mind and attitude change occurs through direct experience, and social factors can be designed to influence our sense of connection and possibility. Group work of any kind-therapeutic, educational, training, and particularly any groups related to behavior change-turns on the core human needs to belong and know that we belong, and to believe that our minds as well as our fortunes can be improved through effort. Now is a pretty great time to be a therapist and trainer, with so much new and exciting scientific evidence that empowers all change agents to help people shift their thinking in ways that can redirect their lives. 

Applied Improvisation and mindset: Shifts in mindset can occur rapidly through a combination of cognitive and emotional heightening with some form of action or experience. The research shows that a shift in mindset is the best predictor of sustainable, long-range change in behavior. Applied improvisation and interactive methods are uniquely powerful for promoting the internal and social conditions that promote development of the "growth" mindset, including:

  • Interpersonal connection that produces a sense of belong;
  • Development of skills that enhance the sense of personal competence;
  • Direct experience with social-emotional learning;
  • Strengthening the capacity to manage uncertainty and pilot through emotional stresses without being overwhelmed by them;
  • Strengthening skills in listening and effective self-expression; 
  • Cultivating mental acuity and flexibility in response to the new;
  • Development of skills in collaboration that are essential to implementing new learning;
  • Commitment to the creative possibilities of a role or position, which is a pathway to understanding subconscious structures and beliefs;
  • Skills in listening, receptivity and focusing, which are are real-time training in a flexible, open mindset;
  • Avenues for imaginative, novel interaction that engage the "reward" centers of the brain and enhance neural activity associated with learning and change;
  • Co-creation of a positive emotional, supportive atmosphere that rewards effort and risk-taking and produces a sense of belonging;

"Mindsets frame the running account that's taking place in peoples' heads. There is no relation between students' abilities or intelligence and the development of mastery-oriented qualities. Some of the very brightest students avoid challenges, dislike effort, and wilt in the face of difficulty. And some of the less bright students are real go-getters, thriving on challenge, persisting intensely when things get difficult, and accomplishing more than you expected."
"GROWTH" vs "FIXED" MINDSET: "Students who believe that intelligence is a potential that they can develop do fare better when faced with challenge. For example, they often blossom across a challenging school transition when their fellow students with the fixed view are busy doubting themselves and losing their edge."
We have found with students of all ages, from early grade school through college, that the changeable view can be taught. Students can be taught that their intellectual skills are things that can be cultivated -- through their hard work, reading, education, confronting of challenges, etc"
"Researchers (for example, Joshua Aronson of the University of Texas) have even shown that college students' grade point averages go up when they are taught that intelligence can be developed. "How Can Teachers Develop Students' Motivation-and Success? An Interview with researcher Carol Dweck

The parallels between the "growth" mindset and the practice of applied improvisation: from Derek Sivers blog
In a fixed mindset, you want to hide your flaws so you’re not judged or labeled a failure. In a growth mindset, your flaws are just a TO-DO list of things to improve (or
Read "Fixed vs Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives on Brain Pickings
In a fixed mindset, you stick with what you know to keep up your confidence.
In growth mindset, you keep up your confidence by always pushing into the unfamiliar, to make sure you’re always learning (jump into uncertainty, experiment).

In a fixed mindset, you look inside yourself to find your true passion and purpose, as if this is a hidden inherent thing.
In a growth mindset, you commit to mastering valuable skills regardless of mood, knowing passion and purpose come from doing great work, which comes from expertise and experience.

In a fixed mindset, failures define you.
In a growth mindset, failures are temporary setbacks (in improvisation, we embrace failure and honor it).

In a fixed mindset, you believe if you’re romantically compatible with someone, you should share all of eachother’s views, and everything should just come naturally.
In a growth mindset, you believe a lasting relationship comes from effort and working through inevitable differences.

In a fixed mindset, it’s all about the outcome. If you fail, you think all effort was wasted.
In a growth mindset, it’s all about the process, so the outcome hardly matters.

Improvisational Theater For Exploring and Shifting MindSets
Research in successful health-related behavior change shows that shifting mindset involves exploration of prevailing attitudes about the health condition or behavior pattern, beliefs about one’s own vulnerability and specific skills for prevention. The references cited in an article I wrote for The International Journal of Arts In Psychotherapy:  "The Use Of Interactive Theatre In AIDS-Preventive Education" are evidence-based studies about what works best to shift attitudes about health-related behavior that is intricately linked to one's relationships, sense of self and of belonging in the social world. An excerpt from this article:

Interactive theatre combines the multilayered but emotionally safe experience of live theatre with the possibilities of sociodrama, in which participation in the action can be used for purposes of role training. Steinberg and Garcia (1989) discussed the role-training
potential of sociodrama, the opportunity it affords for safe exploration of new behaviors and skills within a spontaneous interaction. This approach is particularly useful in addressing the cultural norms, beliefs and attitudes that guide decision-making about
AIDS-preventive behavior. Role-training offers opportunities to rehearse or refine a role specific to a task or need and to experiment within a supportive group process (Blatner & Blatner, 1988). 

Blatner, A., & Blatner, D. (1988). Foundations of psychodrama: History, theory and practice (pp. 48-49, 5658, 176-176). New York: Springer. 
Steinberg, P., & Garcia, A. (1989). Sociodrama: Who's In Your Shoes (pp. 14-25) New York: Praeger

    Most recently in my work this knowledge is put to active use in a workplace smoking cessation program in a large, complex, not-for-profit organization on Long Island and burn-out prevention programs in publicly-funded institutional settings. In the smoking cessation program, for example, we use interactive, improvisational theater exercises to explore the mindset attached to smoking cigarettes and to work with - and not against - the defenses that often accompany discussions about change, especially with regard to a complex habit such as nicotine-addiction that is driven by emotional, social and environmental forces. The mindset of any health-related behavior is both conscious, in that we are aware of engaging in the behavior and what we feel about engaging with it, and subconscious in that there are emotional components that are hidden from awareness by the habitual behavior itself, as well as relationships that are impacted by any change we make and social forces that either help or hinder it.

  • Identify the components of a mindset through direct experience;

  • Identify the social and internal forces that produce a mindset;
  • Explore the dynamics between relationships, social networks and mindset;
  • Explore the dynamic impact of change in one area of thinking or of life on other areas and other people;
  • Identify ways the improviser's mindset can facilitate shifts in thinking that are beneficial to personal and professional growth;
Mindsets are the frames we develop that streamline our choices for how to behave, what we value most that then shapes our priorities. They are drivers of thinking and perception that combine belief, emotional investment and personal experiences within the environment. 

Behavior change does not necessarily produce a change in mindset, e.g. a person can lose 50 lbs on a new diet plan and then gain it all back if the emotional relationship to the old eating patterns remains the same or a geographical move can produce a change of scenery but not a relief from stress if we continue to react to the world in the same old ways. But a change in mindset will produce a sustainable change in behavior. The cognitive and emotional shift involved with a change in attitude and perspective shifts priorities and the scope of possible choices that results in change that "sticks." 
Interactive, improvisational theater can be used to explore the impact of change - both saying "yes' to it and allowing its ripple effects to occur and saying "no" to it and managing the status quo - and to examine the underlying connections to people, places and conditions that influence our thinking about it.

The research and the knowledge about attitude change helps us understand an organizational mindset on the behavior and priorities of people within it. Improvisation can generate creative energy individuals can use to examine the impact of organizational or cultural dynamics on their lives and choices. Through the creative process and group interaction, improvisation can help empower individuals to recognize possible choices - even if those seem small and insignificant in the face of daily stresses and obstacles - available resources and ways to tap into collaboration with others.

The experience of improvisational, interactive theater is a group collaboration focusing on:

Characters: shaped by what they want, why they want it and how they try to get it;
Conflict: Obstacles to the characters’ attempts to get what they want;
Change: How the characters are transformed by their interactions and/or working through the obstacles;
Impact of change: What happens in relationships and/or in the environment as a result of making change? What happens in relationships and/or in the environment if the change does not occur?


The group co-creates the characters and places the characters in a scene that has a setting and stakes. Anyone in the group can call FREEZE when he/she wants to stop the action and direct the players to go in a different direction, or discuss the portrayal of the characters and any enhancements that can be added. The scene must stop while the group discusses these issues and resumes when the group member says ACTION. It is best to have the group practice calling for a FREEZE and giving direction to the players, using low-stakes scenes improvised by the actors. 


The group is the playwright and director. The facilitator takes the groups suggestions to create a composite character: 
Gender, age, home, life situation, and a change that is about to occur in this character's life;
For the purpose of the scene, the group must determine:
  • What does the character want in light of this change (e.g. he/she is about to be laid off, a child is leaving home, an elderly parent is unable to care live alone); 
  • What are the obstacles to this character getting what he/she wants? 
  • What are the external forces impacting this change and this character?
Group identifies another character who is impacted by the choices the main character makes:
  • What is the relationship between the main and auxiliary character?
  • What are some traits of and facts about this auxiliary character?
The group creates the conditions for a scene between the 2 characters, which is then played out in a dynamic improvisation. Group members follow as well as direct the improvisation, calling out FREEZE to discuss the direction the scene is going, redirect a character etc and then resuming the action. The facilitator engages the group and the actors to explore a variety of outcomes to the scene, searching for:
  • Underlying emotions both characters bring to their feelings about the pending change;
  • Understanding the conflict in light of both hidden and known emotional realities;
  • A range of possible paths for each character to take within the scene;
  • Understanding the emotional and social framework impacting the change;
The collaboration among improvisers on the stage, the group members observing and directing and the facilitator produces a rich exploration of the forces that impact an individual's mindset and the power an individual has to impact the world through one's own choices. 
This exercise can be used to bring content and information related to the theme to life, e.g. in the Smoking Cessation Program we may have an interaction between a player representing R.J. Reynolds - a leading tobacco company that manipulates the product to make it more addictive and therefore harder to give up and uses marketing to manipulate mindset about the product and a maker of Nicotine-Replacement Therapy products. Facts about both products are shared through the characters having some kind of face-off created by the group.

Read on this blog: "MINDSET: The Template For Successful Learning and Change"

 Retraining Our Reaction to Failure" Dr. Woody, FOXBusiness, June 3, 2014 

“Social-Psychological Interventions in Education: They're Not Magic” by David S. Yeager and Gregory M. Walton, Review of Educational Research  June 2011, Vol. 81, No. 2, pp. 267–301 

“Traditional Lecture or Experiential Learning:Changing Student Attitudes” by Karen E. Pugsley, MN, RN; and Laura H. Clayton, MSN, R in Journal of Nursing Education, November 2003, Vol. 42, No. 1 at 

“Who Gets To Graduate” New York Times magazine, May 18, 2014 

      Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP is co-owner with her husband Nicholas Wolff of Lifestage, Inc, a training and consulting company providing classes, workshops and seminars for personal and professional development. She facilitates applied improvisation and other creativity-based training seminars and is host and creator of the storytelling show (mostly) TRUE TIHINGS.   Follow her on Twitter


  1. This exercise can be used to bring content and information related to the theme to life, e.g. in the Smoking Cessation Program we may have an interaction between a player representing R.J. Reynolds - a leading tobacco company that manipulates the product to make it more addictive and therefore harder to give up and uses marketing to manipulate mindset about the product and a maker of Nicotine-Replacement Therapy products. pandora bracelet germany , pandora bracelet usa


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