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The Improviser's Tool Kit: Skills For Thinking and Acting Under Pressure March 5 2016 workshop handout

"If the future is uncertain, best learn how to improvise. 
Find out how by looking at how actors and jazz musicians do it." 
Mary Crossan, Organizational Dynamics

“Improvisation is teaching yourself new behavior, a new way to work, a new way to exist. As we ncorporate the new stimuli and information from the improv activity, the activity itself mutates and recomposes in unknown directions. We trust our intuitive instincts to take us somewhere useful, interesting and challenging. We walk the tightrope of our own minds and hearts.” 
Joseph Keefe, Founder of Second City, 
This hand-out created by
Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, M

The ability to think and act under pressure is known as emotional agility - defined by the Mind-Fitness Training Institute as the "cognitive and psychological adaptability, or the ability to think rapidly and creatively under stress, anticipate or quickly adapt to uncertain or changing situations and improvise when faced with obstacles." It is difficult to impossible to think on our feet when the stress response is flooding us with cortisol and adrenaline, and it takes nothing more than a perceived sense of threat for the stress response to shut down our prefrontal cortex. Research shows that the best approach to developing the ability to think and act effectively under pressure is to play games and engage in creative experiences that produce a controlled sense of crisis, in which the stakes are low but there is authentic emotional energy and commitment. 

The improviser has no props, no script, and no agenda, so is primed for the emotional agility that frees us to think and act in response to the present moment. The improviser's toolkit is a set of skills, a way of thinking, an understanding of the dynamics of human interaction, and generosity of spirit. Emotional connection is central to good improvisation and to the success of the important mission that social workers and other professionals who work with people carry out every day.
Training in Applied Improvisation accelerates social connection and skill development that translate into professional practice:
Social Connection: Improvisation occurs through human interaction within a set of agreements or structures that frame the field of choices. The fact that people are coming together to both play with uncertainty and learn something new can heighten the bonding experience. People do not have to open up about deeply personal aspects of their lives to feel connected through improvisation, because everyone is vulnerable, the spirit of improvisation is supportive and collaborative, and the experience itself is a way of revealing self to others. Like fans rooting for a mutually-beloved team, everyone who engages in the process of improvisation has a stake in what develops through the collaboration.
Learning that if we are not afraid to fall we will be able to learn and grow. 
If something has never happened before we might not believe it can happen at all. But history shows us that falling and flailing as we work at gaining a sense of mastery may require many attempts. Improv games train us to learn from every one of them and stay open to the unknown and unfamiliar. 
Overcoming obstacles to personal goals is not very different from the psychological obstacles faced by great innovators like Steve Jobs or the Wright brothers. Daniel Hale Williams, a black American doctor in the 1890s dealt with extreme social injustice to himself and his patients but was the first surgeon to successfully perform open heart surgery. In an improvisation, the creative process has no predictable outcome, but the process itself is an exercise in possibility.

FREEZING, FLAILING AND FAILING are the best things that can happen in improv – these characterize the most unscripted, unpretentious, unguarded and authentically human interactions we can have with others. When we FREEZE, FLAIL AND FAIL in an interaction with another person we allow them to make us an offer – and accepting their offer is an act of deep connection that we have earned by giving up the effort to control. Through such experiences we develop psychological "muscles" for navigating the uncertainties of change, or coping with the unfamiliar. We replace the need to be in control with the capacity to respond moment to moment.

The 5 fundamental skills of dynamic interaction learned through improvisation are:

  • Listening – 
  • Accepting/Receiving 
  • Yes...and
  • Agreement 
  • Collaboration

  • Practice a simple "yes...and" to each group member;
  • Combine movement, emotion and cognition to promote name recognition;
  • Demonstrate the process of the "yes..and" while learning one anothers' names in real time;

Participants stand in a circle. Player 1 begins by saying his/her name with an adjective starting with the first letter of his/her name and a movement that matches the energy of the adjective, e.g. "Mysterious Marie" with a dreamy wave of the hand, or "Fabulous Francis" with arms outstretched. The group then mirrors the adjective, name and movement. Each player does this in turn and the group mirrors back to them. After all the players' adjectives and movements are established, Player 1 heightens the play in the following way: 
Player #1 is "Mysterious Marie": "Mysterious Marie" (with movement), Fabulous Francis (with movement)
Player who is Fabulous Francis: Fabulous Francis, Nervous Ned (with movement)
Player who is Nervous Ned: Nervous Ned, Listless Linda
Play continues until there is familiarity with the names and a rhythm begins to emerge.


  • Enter into the "state of play" which is the brain's instinctive learning state;
  • Learn a new, unfamiliar task that produces new neural pathways;
  • Observe through experience how quickly the brain seeks out and forms patterns;
  • Experience the cognitive process that occurs a pattern is disrupted;
  • Experience the subtle discomfort involved with not knowing what will happen next which strengthens resilience and is central to the growth mindset;
  • Experience the opportunity to make a creative choice;
  • Share something unique about self in a creative way;
  • Build up the connections within a group and increase the sense of safety;
Everybody stands in a circle. Leader uses left arm to make a sweeping movement toward the person to his/her right as if moving energy, while saying "whiz." The next person does the same to his/her right and so on around the circle until a pattern is established. Then the leader introduces another choice: Bop, which is the left arm extended toward the center of the circle with a fist in air. "Bop" reverses the direction of "Whiz." The action resumes, with everyone moving energy in a direction until someone "Bops" in which case the person who just passed it passes is back. This continues for a few rounds. 
Then the leader introduces another option: "Boing" which is said with one foot off the ground and arms waving the head. The person whose turn it is to move the energy can decide to go "Boing" and everyone repeats "Boing" after which the person continues to "whiz" the energy to the next person. 
Then the leader introduces another option: Freakout, which is everybody starts screaming and running to a different place in the circle.
After a few rounds, the leader asks a participant to name their favorite movie or book. A phrase and movement is generated from this information, e.g. favorite movie The Wizard of Oz prompts clicking heels together and saying "There's no place like home." This becomes another option players can choose when it is their turn. As play continues,  other players contribute a line and movement based on their favorite movie, book or story.

Practice receiving information without judgment or censoring;
Practice communicating information without internal judgment or censoring;
Experience a form of social connection without roles or context;
Practice a "yes...and" process of accepting and receiving;

Players pair up, sit facing one another. A theme is chosen randomly, e.g. "toothbrushing." Player 1 then talks without stopping on that topic for 30 seconds while Player 2 listens. Then Player 2 repeats everything he/she can recall that was said. A different theme is chosen randomly, and the process is repeated, this time with Player 2 speaking and Player 1 listening, then repeating. Then a 90=second free-form improvised conversation about the experience follows. 

  • Explore the process of nonverbal "getting on the same page" with another person;
  • Experience the mental process involved with hearing and following cues that create mental associations;
  • Connect with partners through working together in a way that heightens awareness of the power of shared  experience;

Still in pairs, players do a "free association" based on a randomly chosen theme, e.g. kinds of flowers, or food. Together the players says "One, Two, Three" and on the fourth beat say a word that pops into their head. They continue to do this, saying "One, Two, Three" and then the word that pops out, until both players say the same word at the same time. 
Theme: Trees
Players 1 and 2: One
Players 1 and 2: Two
Players 1 and 2: Three
Player A: Birch    |      Player B: Christmas

Players 1 and 2: One
Players 1 and 2: Two
Players 1 and 2: Three
Player 1: Pine    Player 2: Birch

Players 1 and 2: One
Players 1 and 2: Two
Players 1 and 2: Three

Player 1: Evergreen    Player 2: Evergreen



  • Practice collaboration with the group/team;
  • Practice yes...and as well as developing an idea one step at a time;
  • Promote the capacity to think on one's feet and use what is given rather than what is anticipated;

Players sit in a circle. A "fortune" or wise saying is developed by each player adding one word at a time in order around the circle. When the sentence sounds like it is complete the group says "yes yes yes yes yes" and then the next player starts another wise saying. 



  • Practice the principles of agreement and collaboration with the group/team;
  • Practice yes...and as well as developing an idea one step at a time;
  • Promote the capacity to think on one's feet and use what is given rather than what is anticipated;

The group agrees to create an improvised conversation about a topic in which the first line starts with the letter "A," the 2nd line starts with a word that begins with "B," the 3rd line with "C" and so on. The objective is to keep a coherent thread going in the conversation.

Objectives: (see objectives for the last 2 games as well)
To develop listening skills;
To practice collaborating with others to meet an objective;
To practice working with others in a creative process;

Player #1 begins a story or conversation based on a suggestion, using 1 sentence. The last word of that sentence becomes the first word of the next players' sentence, and so on. The 1-sentence at a time story develops until it reaches some sort of conclusion. 

Explore the experience of shifting gears emotionally about the same issue or from the same character;
Explore all the emotional dimensions of a human dilemma;
Explore the complexities of an issue based on different perspectives;

A fictional problem is developed by the group (in treatment and training groups this is a projective technique, in which the creative process of crafting a character in a dilemma can be a way for group members to work together on issues of concern to all). The space inside the circle is "squared off" into 4 spaces, one for each of the primary emotions: Happy, Sad, Fearful, Angry. A player begins by standing in the "happy" square and speaking out loud from that emotional space. Another group member calls out "change" at any time, at which point the player moves in clockwise motion to "Sad" and speaks from that space about the same issue. When "change" is called the player moves to "Fearful," then "Anger," then back to "Happy." The idea is to deepen the emotional truth each time the square is revisited. Then the players in the group can begin to call out the name of an emotion rather than just "change" and the player moving through emotions must move to that emotion. 

Debrief suggestions:
  • What emotional truth was surprising about the issue under exploration?
  • What emotion was most challenging to explore and why?
  • What insights can we gain from mining the different emotions packed into a singe decision or dilemma?
  • Focus on listening without interpretation to what another person is saying;
  • Develop creative thinking;
  • Foster interpersonal skills of attentive listening and responding without judgement

Step One: A topic about which people can hold opposite positions is chosen. It is best to choose a topic that is not controversial enough to generate highly emotional responses in order to focus on the exercise and developing the skill, e.g. “I love shopping malls” vs “Shopping malls are awful.”
Two partners face each other.
Each partner shares their opinion one sentence at a time without relating to the other person, e.g.
Partner 1: Shopping malls have everything you need in one place.

Partner 2: Shopping malls are energy hogs.
Partner 1: If I want to go to Sears, or Macy's or my kids need something, it's all right there.
Partner 2: They waste space and are bad for the environment.
Partner 1: And you can go to lunch or the movies right there.
Partner 2: Shopping malls are the devil.
This continues for 90 seconds.
Step Three: Each partners shares their opinion one sentence at a time, and the partner responds by paraphrasing the sentence without using any of the same words, starting with "So what you're saying is..."
Partner 1: Some of my best memories with my kids have taken place in shopping malls.
Partner 2: So what you're saying is that there are happy times you like to think about and that many of them occurred in places where stores are all inside one big building surrounding by a huge parking lot.
If partner 1 says "yes, that's what I said," then partner 2 shares a sentence and partner 1 paraphrases.
Some questions for processing this exercise:
What was it like to try to listen to someone else at the same time as you were talking?
Can you think of times when you are trying to listen to another person while your own thoughts are racing?
What was it like to share without your partner responding to what you said?
What was it like to paraphrase what your partner said?
What gets in the way of representing what the person was saying? Were you aware of your own bias, judgements or perceptions interfering with simply re-stating their point?


Two new books that are a great resources for games and exercises that can be adapted for classes, trainings and workshops: The Playbook: Improv Games For Performers by William Hall

Easy: Your Lifepass To Creativity and Confidence by Paul Z Jackson (President of the Applied Improvisation Network)
Best-Kept Secret To Creating Social Change: Take An Improv Class by Mark Evan Jackson and Alex Gorosh. (You can hear Mark Evan Jackson improvise brilliantly and hilariously on some the amazing podcasts Superego and Thrilling Adventure Hour, as Charles Dickens on The Dead Authors Podcast and a guest on so many more).
"hold the secret to the fastest, widest ranging, longest lasting, and certainly most fun path to positive, global social change: Everyone in the world should take an improv class. I have never been more serious about anything in my life. If more people improvised, there would be no war. what improv teaches you is that it is okay (in fact, awesome) to fail boldly—to make big, sweeping and courageous decisions on the fly. And that if you do fail (which you TOTALLY will, a lot) you can always just get up, dust yourself off, get another suggestion from the audience, and try again. You are no longer responsible for having the perfect answer right away, but instead are empowered to know that armed with nothing more than your fellow participants, energy in the direction of the common good, and an open heart, there is nothing that cannot be accomplished. 

Improv removes the need to be right all the time. Improv frees one to say, “I don’t know.” And improv takes the focus off you as an individual, and places it on the group, and the common good. 
     Full disclosure: There is a down side. Improv will make you realize how awful we humans are to one another. It will point that out to you every time someone begins speaking while someone else is already speaking, and make vivid who in your life is or is not listening." READ MORE

Jude Treder-wolff, lcsw, cgp, mt is a consultant/trainer, writer/performer and president of lifestage, inc. she is host and creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, A SHOW THAT FEATURES TRUE STORIES - WITH A TWIST - TOLD BY PEOPLE FROM ALL WALKS OF LIFE, AGES AND BACKGROUNDS. pLUS MUSIC AND DELICIOUS COFFEE. fOLLOW HER ON TWITTER @jUtRwOLFF


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