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Good Games Are Great For Growth: Why Improv Is Therapeutic

by Jude  Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT
In his article "The Tao Of Improv" psychotherapist Robert Taibbi describes his introduction to improvisation at a particularly challenging period in his life. "I had just finished emotionally marching through a some significant losses – the death of my father, then my first wife – the hospitalization of my daughter," he writes. "I was also bored with my job – lots of long-winded, stagnant community meetings, worries about the morale among my 40+ staff, sweating the quarterly budget review, and having little time for clinical work. I felt dazed, dull. Then one day I stumbled on a sign posted in a store window. A woman was offering improv classes, and to my own surprise, I called, and then actually showed up. The class was a good mix of men, women and backgrounds – a computer guy, an aikido instructor, a research biologist, a salesman, a musician, a poli-sci student – folks very different from my usual world." 

This very accurately describes what is distinctive and special about an improv workshop: it brings together people from diverse worlds, ages, and backgrounds. At the same time however, it emphasizes the here-and-now encounter with very little discussion of our roles, labels or status in the world outside. The creative process of improvisation certainly calls upon our unique knowledge and skills which we bring to the encounter but at the same time it strengthens our capacity to come from a more authentic and unmasked part of self. The experience itself is a way to rediscover that we can be original and made new. Self-expression and self-discovery occur naturally if we honestly enter into a common creative struggle through uncertainty. There is freedom - to try things out, to contribute to a story, to communicate ideas and emotions - and form, which gives rules and structures that help everyone stay on the same page. Improv works when we are willing to share focus with our partners while at the same time shining out in the most courageous, interesting ways, and in this way trains us to core relationship skills that translate into being better partners at home and work. 
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As with any game, if we enter into an improv game or exercise with acceptance and commitment a shift in mood and mental state takes place organically. Neuroscience tells us that play, when combined with the trust-building woven into all successful improv experiences, builds "pro-social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways." This is essential for kids who must navigate an increasingly complex and socially diverse world, but it is equally important for adults who hope to grow or are dealing with an important but difficiult change. Especially adults who tend to overthink. (I'm raising my hand right now, full disclosure). "Our teacher gave us different exercises and challenges each week, and I found myself playing characters much like my clients – drug dealers, hyperactive children, depressed moms," Taibbi explains. "In contrast to regular lives, we were encouraged here to not to plan or even think, but simply do. What came out was often strange, off-the-wall stuff... I wasn’t bored. I wasn’t calculating. I wasn’t worrying. And most everything we did seemed hysterically funny, a good antidote to my low-grade depression." In addition to the personal growth he continues to experience through improv, Taibbi finds that in his clinical work he is "less cautious in some ways, more focused on process than content, more energetic and interactive in sessions. In sessions, I trust what I feel might fit the mood and moment and choose to be honest and vulnerable. My clients and I are creating a relationship together; I'm discovering what does and doesn't help them move forward in her life. There are no mistakes for any of us." Read Taibbi's post "What Therapist Can Learn From Improv" on Psychotherapy Networker blog.

Some Applied Improvisation and storytelling resources as close your closest internet-connected device, like the one you are using right now, for example:
Funny Parents podcast - hosted by husband-and-wife team Mary Theresa Archbold and Pat Shay, both brilliant stage performers as well as facilitators in their work using improv with parents and children. 
Getting To Yes...And - by Second City, which features interviews with leading thinkers, visionaries and creators about applications of improv training to life and work.

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer. She designs and facilitates professional and personal development workshops using applied improvisation, storytelling and other creativity-generating experiences through Lifestage, Inc the company she co-directs with her husband Nick Wolff. She is host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a game wrapped in a storytelling show.

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