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Its The Human Connection In Improvisation That Cultivates Emotional Intelligence

Improvisational acting is one of the most immediate pathways to becoming aware of, and gaining mastery over emotions, and emotions are the soul of human connection. Now some
Blog post by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT
new findings about the reach and impact of working with emotions in this way have recently come out of 
a program run by actor Tim Robbins in the California prison system. For the past six years, Robbins has worked with inmates using a method called commedia dell'arte, which involves putting on a costume and mask - or painting one's face - to depict a specific emotional state, and then improvising with other actors expressing that feeling dramatically.  "We demand the truth from them by asking them to play a character to express extreme emotion, we encourage them to use their imagination," says Robbins. "They are playing so they can express the incredible rage they feel through these characters and they can express the intense sorrow and true fear they have, and the joy that's still there."
    The evidence shows that participation in this program reduces recidivism by 50%. "By giving prisoners a chance to explore their emotions, and to gain some control over them" according to BBC reporter Kate Bissell, the inmates also have an 89% reduction in infractions and fights within the prison, "which is huge for the safety of the prison itself and the safety of the corrections officers." 
    Improvisational work in therapeutic, educational or training settings is a powerfully way to convey concepts, explore feelings deeply and examine many possible perspectives on a problem. What works to reduce the negative emotional effects of prison - and the developmental issues that led up to being there - is available for all of us if we are willing to engage. Emotional intelligence grows through increasing the connections between emotions and higher cognitive functions - experiencing emotions consciously, labeling them cognitively and acting on them choicefully. It is the use of brain and mind to engage with the tensions of a complex situation rather than react to them, and this capacity is essential to effective personal and professional interactions with others.

    Applied Improvisation trains the brain and mind to engage with the tensions of a complex situation as a way of navigating through it moment to moment. The use of games and exercises produces a temporary and low-stakes sense of uncertainty and disruption and at the same time a sense of fun and aliveness. Learning to manage emotions that emerge during the controlled sense of crisis that occurs when playing a game with others in a safe space is an ideal method for training ourselves to manage real-life situations of intensity and uncertainty without being derailed by the stress response.

     "Improv is about communication and listening," writes Patrick Graney in his article "Improv For Life" on the website ArtBreaker. "As a “think three steps ahead” kind of person, this means my brain is constantly working to figure out possible outcomes. If I do this, this happens, so then I need to do this. So while the brain is clicking, it's not giving 100% attention to what's going on around me. Improv is about letting that go. Improv is turning your brain off, being in the moment, then using whatever pops into your head to support the people around you. This, it turns out, is good for performing on any level, be it giving a speech, trying to land a new client, or even casual conversation. It's about letting go and simply being in the moment." Emotional Intelligence is a mind and skill set rooted in this principle of being and responding to the present moment without the prejudices or assumptions that come with automatic reactive emotions to stress.
    Emotional connection and the willingness to explore trump "getting it right" or avoiding mistakes.  When we are able to lose the fear of mistakes or the need for things to turn out a certain way, we are free to find our way through the unexpected twists and turns of not only the improvised scene, but the curves that real life situations throw at us. Through heightened emotional awareness, expression and connection, improvisation embeds a new pattern of responding in human interactions that is especially valuable in situations of complexity and uncertainty. When emotions are engaged as an integral part of the learning process, information and skills become much more accessible in real life situations than learning at the cognitive learning alone. "Improvisation involves using an element of creative thought, combined with an intuitive feel for what will assist in the resolution of a particular problem," writes Dr. Stephen LeBourne in Graziado Business Review. "Adept and experienced improvisers innovate at the personal level in order to leverage previous practice and existing routines to solve organizational problems. Learning is the outcome from successful - and indeed from unsuccessful improvisation." 

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a trainer/consultant and writer/performer who specializes in Applied Improvisation and storytelling in professional and personal development. She is president of Lifestage, Inc an approved provider of Continuing Education for social workers in New York State, #0270, and host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a monthly storytelling show on Long Island. Email her at 


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