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Breaking Through Barriers To Change Through Applied Improvisation

Workshop design and facilitation by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT
The barriers to change are sometimes conscious but often are not, and can be linked to the unknowable impact that one change can have. We can be ready for one kind of change only to discover there is a ripple effect to other areas of life for which we are not fully prepared. 

Researchers James Prochaska, John Norcross, and Carlo DiClemente — developers of the ground-breaking Transtheoretical Model of behavior change — share an astounding insight into a core dilemma in the fields of counseling and psychotherapy. Their studies found that 80% of people who show up for treatment are pre-contemplative in terms of readiness to change, but that nearly 100% of treatment approaches are geared to people who are in the contemplative or action stage. This means that as a whole our training and our thinking as mental health and addiction professionals prepares us to meet the needs of 20% of the people who present themselves for help. As a result many people are labeled “resistant” and “help-rejecting” when the reality is that our methods are sometimes simply not adequately matched to their needs and degree of readiness. 

 We might see clearly that a change is urgently called for, and we might be right about the best way to go about it. Information and techniques that are highly effective with people who have the will and skill to move toward something new are too much for people who are not ready. 
THE CONDITIONS FOR CHANGE: Improvisation training has a dual value for therapists and agents of change. The games and exercises are ideal methods for attuning closely to others, for receiving and accepting whatever a person is expressing without judgment. From that open and ready mindset, we enhance the ability to stay in the moment, slow down overthinking and assumptions and respond to a person exactly as they are. 
In addition, improvisation exercises can be used in clinical situations to promote trust, stimulate creative thinking and strengthen the ability to see things from different perspectives.
Improvisation is fueled by positive emotional connections between players and a sense of fun that is ideal for skill development. Every new experience forms new neural pathways, and the more exciting, positive and emotionally rich an experience, the more powerful its impact on the brain. The social bonds and positive emotion combined with imaginative activity are a way to explore ideas - including ideas about change and its challenges - while producing the brain chemistry associated with reward and success. The social-emotional and thinking skills learned through Applied Improvisation can be directly applied to the therapeutic process of change. They strengthen the ability to consider new ways of thinking and navigate the unknown. Improvisation turns on the ability to create and sustain effective, supportive relationships and build something new with others. 

Applied Improvisation trains us to a new way of thinking that is quite different from the conventional world we engage in day to day, a way of thinking that emphasizes a positive and receptive mind set that redirects automatic self-protective habits of mind to connection with a supportive group. They are designed to bypass the internal "editor" and heighten awareness of what we bring to the unpredictable and unplanned experience. This awareness offers sometimes dramatic insight into what interferes with readiness to make an important change. The experience of improvisation cultivates the emotional and psychological conditions for thinking new thoughts and discovering previously unknown capabilities, and demonstrates the power of our creative mind to shape our experience and discover our lives moment to moment.


Practice receiving an unpredictable idea from another person and completely saying "yes" to it;
Experience what it is like to surrender to an interaction and co-create rather than try to control it;
Experience letting go of the need to know what is going to happen next as a barrier to change;
Strengthen skills in creative thinking moment to moment;

ROUND 1: In pairs, player 1 imagines a specific detail about their partner, a completely made up detail that does not exist in reality. Player 1 assigns this detail - floor-length hair, for example, or an eye patch - and expresses it by saying, for example "I see by your eye patch that you are a pirate." Player 2 then immediately assumes the identity of a pirate with an eye patch and responds as such, e.g. "Yes, I am here to pillage this town and I'm starting with you!" Each interaction is just those 2 lines with possibly a third line by Player 1 in response.

ROUND 2: 2 players stand up. Player 1 strikes a strong physical pose. Player 2 then labels that pose and assigns ameaning to it by saying a line in response. E.g. Player 1 stands with arms outstretched toward the sky looking up. Player 2 says "Just a little longer Moses, we're still crossing over but I'm sure we'll be done soon." Player 1 then responds as Moses, e.g. "I have to go to the bathroom sometime." Player 2 can complete the scene with a third line.

One barrier to change is simply fear of the unknown and discomfort with the unavoidable periods of uncertainty that accompany it. The principle of this game to is to accept what another person tells us is our role in that moment and play with it. 

I AM A TREE - Story picture edition
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 developing an idea or a story beat by beat;

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," taking a pose that expresses this. Next player adds something to the scene, e.g. "I am a bird-watcher" striking a pose that suggests this. Next player adds something to expand the story, "I am the bird-watcher's binoculars," also striking a strong physical pose. The addition of new elements to the scene continues until the group feels the story is complete. The person who initiated the scene choose a player to remain, starting a new scene from the same pose they are holding, making that pose into something else entirely. Play continues from there, building stories beat by beat, players making strong poses that are then reframed into something new for each scene.

Practice managing uncertainty;
Practice skills in accepting the unexpected and letting go of control;
Collaborate with a partner in real time;
Let go of the idea of control and replace with flexibility and creative courage;

Before the workshop begins, as people gather, ask participants to write 1-sentence lines of dialogue that might be used in ordinary conversation on separate slips of paper e.g. "Go to bed" "That's going to hurt" "I'm not a mind-reader" "Life is short so lets just do it." Each slip of paper is folder up and put into a bowl or basket. The game begins with a 2-person interaction based on a suggestion of a relationship or 2 people in a specific location. A third person holds a chime and at any moment rings it. At that moment the person who was last speaking must pull a line from the bowl, use at the next line of dialogue in the scene and justify it. In whatever way the line impacts the characters' interaction, both players must adjust. This continues in this way until "scene" is called.

VARIATIONS - with teens for example. The group could be asked to write lines of good advice, bad advice and worst advice, and set up the scene to be one between best friends talking about a serious problem, a teacher/student, parent/child, or counselor/client. Or the lines could be made up self-help books or seminars - good ones, bad ones and completely terrible ones. It is important to play with the ideas so that players in the scene have something interesting to react and adapt to.

Practice collaboration and close listening;
Experience co-creating an interaction moment-to-moment;
Accept conditions that parallel the process of change - the environment or other people impact us to behave and there are times we must adapt and explore;
Play with the process of moment-to-moment spontaneity and change;

Two players agree to be the characters in a scene. These players do not speak. They relate to each other through behavior and facial expression. Each player has a partner whose role is to vocally express his/her inner thoughts. The scene unfolds as the "inner thoughts" are the directives for the players to behave, and to relate to one another. Also, the way the "inner thoughts" guide how the players express themselves through behavior and facial expression can inspire the partners expressing the "inner thoughts."

Experience spontaneous interaction with other players;
Co-create within a time limit, which forces choices to be made on the fly;
Experience the process of picking up cues from a partner at a fast pace;
Have an experience that prevents overthinking, editing or predicting;

Two players are assigned a relationship or a location by the group. Based on the suggestion, they improvise a scene for 1 minute. After time is called, they improvise the same scene, including all the moments and transitions, in 30 seconds. Then they do it in 15 seconds, then in 5.

Debrief - what was it like to speed up the scene? What happens to the editing/censoring functions in your thinking when doing this? What happened with your scene partner? Were you on the same page about the beats in the scene? What is it like to discover you are on the same page with a partner but didn't discuss it ahead of time? Does this experience challenge a preconception that you had? If so, how might we apply this to breaking through the barriers to change that involve holding preconceptions about what our capabilities and potential to move through it, or to do something we have not previously imagined.

Collaborate with a group to co-create a dynamic interaction;
Explore the ripple effect of change in a group;
Explore how social relationships are impacted by change;
Look at the impact of social networks on choices and decisions;

The group objective is to create a town comprised of stock characters - as would be found in a soap opera or other specific genre - one character at a time. Play begins with a participant stepping into a role and introducing him/herself by name and fleshing out his/her identity, e.g. "I am Rosemarie Heinz, the town beauty. I'm 40 years old but I tell everyone I'm 32 and I'll always be 32 and I'll always look 32. No one comes close to my beauty and desirability in this town. I am married to the mayor." 
This sets the tone for future characters to be created in relationship to this one, e.g. "I am Rick Heinz, the mayor of this town. I was the football hero in high school and I married the lead cheerleader. We run this town."
The next character might be the football coach who used to be the mayor's hero but now has a lower status, Rosemarie's hairdresser, Ron's mechanic, etc.
When all but one of the players has a role inspired by the town dynamic as it develops, the final player becomes the "new guy in town." Based on the drama and dynamic established as these characters were identified, a new character is introduced who throws a curve to the group, e.g. "I'm the FBI agent who's here to investigate Ron Heinz for fraud," or "I'm the child Rosemarie gave up for adoption when she was in high school." The out-of-town character can have individual scenes with each player, setting up a narrative of change and how each change impacts other relationships. 

This game can look at how relationships create networks and how networks are made up of alliances both hidden and visible. Change in one area of a network has a ripple effect into many others. The soap opera or genre-specific approach makes the scene work fun and intense while providing material for looking at how a social world can itself present barriers to change. 

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant trainer, and writer/performer. She is host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a game wrapped in a storytelling show that is performed monthly on Long Island and NYC. She will perform her new solo storytelling show This Isn't Helping in the Speak Up! Rise Up! storytelling festival at The Connelly Theater in NYC.


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