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Developing Resilience Through Improvisation Workshop Handout

Workshop designed and facilitated by Jude Treder-Wolff LCSW, CGP, MT
 “Creativity is the ultimate integration tool. And the best part is that it’s built in.” In other words, we all have the power to create. And it’s in the act of doing and making a thing that you go from knowing a thing to living it." Brene Brown, How Creativity Can Make You More Resilient

Resilient people share 3 common traits, according to research discussed in Harvard Business Review:
  • acceptance of reality;
  • deep belief that life is meaningful;
  • an uncanny ability to improvise;
HOW IMPROVISATION DEVELOPS RESILIENCEThe psychological "muscle" developed through improvisation strengthens our ability to adapt to shifting circumstances and to find what is useful in any situation. Knowing that we can adapt removes a layer of anxiety about what might happen next - in life and in improv - and redirects it toward a greater confidence that we can use the tensions of uncertainty to tap into creative resources. 
     The essence of improvisation is the focus on the person or group right in front of us and on the present moment which produces an alive, unrehearsed interaction. The exercises and games that train us to be able to improvise are a practice in embracing the unknown and engaging with uncertainty by playing within a structure that everyone involved has agreed to honor. 
     Improvisation works best when the players abide by the agreements. The fundamental "yes...and" rule of improvisation means we will accept both the rules of the game and what a partner offers us in the moment, make the most out of what is given, do whatever we can with it, and let go of agendas so that something new can develop. Within the improv game or exercise, we are both vulnerable (because the "yes" means we do not know what another player or the group director will give us to work with, nor how the whole thing will play out) and empowered (the "and" which is our opportunity to add something that shapes the interaction). 
  • Improvisation poses both challenges and threats within a carefully-crafted structure that produces safety in which to explore and experiment;
  • The experience of improvisation generates heightened sensitivity to others and to social-emotional cues;
  • Improvising enhances self-knowledge by raising awareness of our inner monologues and directives;
  • Improv games and exercises cultivate useful relationship and thinking skills;
  • The effort and intention to try, to dig into something entirely new and to play according to the agreements set out by the improv trainer are enough for anyone to strengthen their capacity to respond to the unexpected and unpredictable in novel and useful ways. 
HISTORY OF IMPROVISATION AS A METHOD OF SKILL/SELF-DEVELOPMENT - "The games emerged out of necessity...When I had a problem I made up a game. Then another problem came up, I just made up a new game." "Improv Theater Was Invented To Help Immigrants Assimilate" 
"In 1939, an actress and educator named Viola Spolin became a drama supervisor for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Recreational Project in Chicago—an effort made possible by the New Deal, Franklin D. Roosevelt's groundbreaking response to the Great Depression. Spolin worked primarily with children and recent immigrants to the United States, most of whom knew very limited English. Luckily, Spolin had learned to teach from Neva Boyd, who taught that simple play could ingrain children with lessons in language, cooperation, socialization, and other important skills. Since lectures and other traditional teaching methods were useless with people who couldn't understand her, Viola Spolin turned her acting lessons into games. According to her website, Spolin once recalled, "The games emerged out of necessity...When I had a problem I made up a game. Then another problem came up, I just made up a new game." From these groups emerged the first improvisational theater performances, replete with scenes based on audience suggestions." "Improv Theater Was Invented To Help Immigrants Assimilate"

"Creativity lies at the heart of resilience,' according to the website ABCs For Therapists. "What's resilience? Merriam-Webster's online dictionary defines it as 'the ability to become strong, healthy or successful again after something bad happens.' Responding to new threats and challenges with adaptive and inventive solutions is how the human brain problem-solves its way beyond those threats and challenges in order to thrive. Face it: if we only encountered the same old threats and challenges, they wouldn't really be threats and challenges - wed already have formulas in place for managing them. But when we're confronted with the unfamiliar, the unthinkable, the unimaginable, we have nothing to fall back on but our ability to innovate and improvise. Your clients come to you seeking creative responses to their circumstances. If you don't think you're creative, how can you help others find their creativity?" "Creativity and Resilience" on ABCs for Therapists

"At the heart of resilience is a belief in oneself—yet also a belief in something larger than oneself. Resilient people do not let adversity define them. They find resilience by moving towards a goal beyond themselves, transcending pain and grief by perceiving bad times as a temporary state of affairs… It's possible to strengthen your inner self and your belief in yourself, to define yourself as capable and competent. It's possible to fortify your psyche. It's possible to develop a sense of mastery." Hara Estroff Marano, "The Art Of Resilience" Psychology Today
More traits associated with resilience include:
  • Courage
  • Perseverance
  • Resourcefulness
  •  Perspective
  • Creativity
  • Flexibility and Adaptability
  • Self-awareness
  • Communication skills
  • Grit


Pass The Clap: Everyone stands in a circle. One player starts by focusing attention on the person to his/her right and "passing" a hand clap. The person passing and the person receiving attempt to clap at the exact same moment. The less time between claps, the more successful they are. That person then "passes" the clap to the right, and so on. 
Play this till the clap really flows nicely around the circle. Then tell the group that players may decide to pass the clap back to the neighbor they got it from. Try it and notice how disruptive this can be.
Focus attention on a partner in an attempt to synchronize movements;
Develop the skill to keep group energy moving around the circle just as it must keep moving in an improvisation scene or real-life situation;
Get out of the over-thinking mental habits of mind;
Produce a playful mindset in the group;

Stage 1: Standing in a circle, have each group member say their name in the order in which they are standing. Ask group members to look at each of the other group members as they say their name. Pick up the pace so the names are being stated rapidly. 

Stage 2: The game begins with the group leader "throwing" to another group member by making a gesture of throwing or tossing and saying that member's name. That member then "throws" or "tosses" to another group member by saying their name. This continues around the circle until everyone's name has been "thrown" a few times.

Stage 3: Group members "throw" to one group member by establishing eye contact to make sure that person is ready to receive, while saying the name of someone else. The name that is spoken goes next, doing the same: establishing eye contact with another player and "throwing" to them, but saying a different person's name. This goes on until everyone's name is thrown a few times.

Combine cognitive (name recall) physical action and social connection in one exercise;
Connect group members through an engaging activity;
Demonstrate the "yes...and" principle of improv in action - giving and receiving, keeping the energy through active participation, focusing attention through uncertainty;


The group identifies 3 iconic figures who inspire everyone in a similar way, e.g. Madame Curie, Michelle Obama, Patti Smith. A strong identifiable pose is created to represent each of these individuals. The group breaks into teams of 3. In the style of "rock, paper, scissors" everyone counts out loud "1, 2, 3" and then on the next beat assumes one of the postures. The goal is to get one of each icon represented at the same moment. 
Experience the "high" of a "win" that can be experienced when the goal is achieved;
Observe what happens internally over the course of a few or more attempts to achieve the goial;
Identify internal shifts as each turn progresses, which are attempts to achieve the goal as the game proceeds;


This game is played in groups of 3. Players 1 and 3 sit on each side of Player 2 who is the Mind Reader. Player 1 says a word (any random word). Player 3 says a word (any random word). Player 2 then must connect those words as quickly as possible. Allowing any images, associations, song titles, whatever, to rise up in his/her mind and using those to connect the 2 words. 
To practice receiving from others and playing with unedited responses;
To practice using what is given in some creative way (resilience)
To practice flexibility and mental agility (resilience)
To connect with other players in a structured game and honor their contributions by building on them
Still in pairs, players do a "free association" word game. This can be based on a randomly chosen theme, e.g. kinds of flowers, or food or with no suggestion. Making eye contact, the players say "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
  • 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;

The group sits in a circle and one person begins a story with a 1-sentence opener that starts with either "Fortunately" or "Unfortunately." e.g. "Fortunately, I was able to buy tickets to see Hamilton." The next player must continue the story based on the information given and start their sentence with "unfortunately," e.g. "Unfortunately, I got the flu and was unable to attend." Player #3 must build on that piece of information and begin with "Fortunately." This goes on around the circle until a story is completed. 
Experience a creative process that develops moment to moment in collaboration with others;
Practice shifting gears in real time as the story progresses in potentially unpredictable ways;
Look at the same situation from a variety of angles;
Practice perspective-taking;
  • Develop a story moment-to-moment;
  • Replace over-thinking and planning with moment-to-moment responsiveness;
  • Collaborate with others to create a story without planning or over-thinking;
  • Focus awareness on emotions;
Player A stands in the center of the circle and says "I am a tree." Next player adds something to the tree, e.g. "I am a bird in the tree." Next player adds something to the bird, e.g. "I am a piece of birdseed in the bird's beak." Next player adds something to the birdseed, e.g. "I am the lady throwing birdseed on the ground." Next player adds something to the lady throwing birdseed, e.g. "I am the bench the lady is sitting on. And so on until everyone is in the story. The story can continue, starting with the last offer that was made: "I am the bench the lady is sitting on," followed by "I am a cell phone that's been left on the bench, " etc

YOU ARE A ________________
This game builds on the "I Am A Tree" concept but in this version, a player assumes a physical posture in the center of the circle or onstage, e.g. standing with hand outstretched. Another player then assumes a complementary position - e.g. grabs the hand and shakes it saying "You are the new vice-president of this company!" followed by another player doing something entirely different that is inspired by the post, e.g. standing as a dance partner might saying "You are going to win So You Think You Can Dance this time!" and so on. The player who assumes a position is the "clay" that is then "molded" to mean different things based on others' response to it.
  • To explore seeing the same thing from a variety of perspectives (resilience);
  • To play with the concept of receiving an offer (the physical pose assumed by the player in the center) and making something out of it (the response) - resilience principle;
  • To practice using imagination in an active way to make something out of what is offered (resilience);
  • To practice letting go of preconceived ideas about what is in front of us by seeing a variety of interpretations;
  • To develop the group as a resource for problem-solving;
Establish 2 or 3 different movie theme songs from films that deal with stories about resilience or overcoming overwhelming obstacles to achieve a goal e.g. Mission Impossible, Rocky, Chariots Of Fire. Sing the first recognizable parts of each theme song out lout as a group as a warm-up to the exercise. 
Two players sit side by side as on a park bench. Player #1 chooses one of the movie theme songs to be sung while he/she takes one of the chairs that make up the "park bench." Player #1 recounts a personal experience of something they have done in their life that at one time they believed they could not do - a true narrative with a beginning, middle and end. They are instructed to tell the story one or two sentences at a time, in a bland, boring way. Player #2 repeats each sentence in a very emotional, animated way, amplifying the energy of the information. If it is a sad moment shared by Player #1, Player #2 amplifies the sadness (the "yes..) and then adds an "and" which is adding a layer of support, e.g.
Player #1: My daughter moved across the country and it broke my heart. I thought she wanted to get as far away from me as she could.
Player #2: Your daughter moved all the way across the country and you were just heart-broken. You thought meant she wanted to get away from you and it was just so painful.
Player #1: When she invited me to come out and stay with her for a week I thought I'd have to be on my best behavior. But I couldn't figure out what she liked and didn't like about me.
Player #2 : When she invited you to come out and stay with her you so wanted it to work out well, but you were really struggling. You wanted to get along with her so much, and you thought you had to figure out what she wants from you. It was so confusing!!
The interaction continues until the story is complete. The idea is for Player #2 to support Player #1 by supplying energy and empathy, and Player #1 can use the energy, empathy and hearing the details being repeated to become very aware of the story's meaning and depth. The exercise can heighten the struggle and the strength the storyteller is sharing about and demonstrates a fundamental listening skill - really taking in what someone is communicating - the "yes" - and building on it in a way that enhances and expands on the emotional truth - the "and." 
Practice focused listening;
Practice the fundamental principle of successful human connection - the "yes..and" that makes improvisation possible;
Share stories on the theme of resilience;
Acknowledge the strengths that can arise from overcoming adversity:

This game involves 2 players who interact based on a suggestion and become the "clay" for the group in a sense because the group observes the interaction and then discusses the dynamic between the characters. Using the rules of improv, players accept what the other player "offers" them in terms of identifying who they are. Whatever has been established as true in the scene must remain true (if the movement inspires a player to say "its freezing in here" both players must continue as if it is freezing wherever they are).
     Working in pairs, 2 players are assigned a simple movement. They begin doing the movement (waving a hand, stretching arms over head, looking at the ceiling, etc) together without speaking for at least 20-30 seconds. The idea is to allow some emotion and imagery to rise up in one or both players that helps to establish who these characters are and what they are doing - not coming from a cognitive idea first, but more organically coming from body-inspired emotion and creativity which then becomes an idea. One player is allowed to speak when given the okay by the director, and the other player must accept the characterization of the movement and "yes...and" it, e.g. an arm stretched upward becomes a kid raising their hand in school, and one player says "I love sitting next to you in home room" while both characters have their arms up, we know these 2 players are friends who are in middle or high school together. The dialogue goes from there until the group knows something about:
who the characters are to one another
where the characters are 
what is the dynamic (or struggle) between the two characters or that they 2 characters are engaged with?

When the group has some clarity about the 3 scene elements, there is discussion about the dynamics between the characters and how these were expressed. The idea is to look at subtle ways people convey their responses to others, emotions, and ideas, the complexity of human connections, and how small interactions between people express larger issues. 

For the improvisers and the group this is a large-scale collaboration and practice in letting go of an idea in order to honor what someone else offers, as well as making a strong initiation in order to help move the scene forward. Self-awareness develops from recognizing how we edit or hold back when playing with others in a scene like this. 

Observe how subtle behavioral cues convey depth of meaning;
Observe the range of perspectives generated from the same experience;
Discuss human dynamics expressed by these interactions;
Explore how a group can be a resource for solving the problems expressed by these characters;
Explore clinical issues expressed by the struggle these characters seem to be in;

Here is a brief podcast that discusses the value of play and creativity for therapists and counselors: Two Guys On Your Head: Creativity

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer. She is President of Lifestage, Inc, a training company providing professional and personal development workshops, classes and seminars to organizations, conferences and individuals. Lifestage is an approved provider of Continuing Education for social workers by New York State, provider #0270. She is host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a game wrapped in a storytelling show performed on Long Island, NYC and around the country.


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