Humanizing Depersonalized Settings

Improvisation is a tremendous tool for humanizing and enlivening depersonalized environments. Unfortunately, it is rarely offered as part of programming for residential inpatient treatment (RTC) or intensive outpatient (IOP) levels of care. According to the research I could locate, psychodrama and drama therapists have used improvisation as a small component in their therapeutic work within RTC and IOP settings. As part of my recent doctoral research, I was provided the opportunity to facilitate improvisation workshops with clients admitted to dual diagnosis RTC and IOP facilities.  I investigated the impact improvisation had on the client’s communication.  The outcomes were incredibly positive. 

Eight, 1-hour workshops, 2-days a week were scheduled at both RTC and IOP facilities.  Data was collected from journals, one-to-one interviews, and member check-ins throughout the workshops. Facilitation was framed by Suzuki’s “Beginner’s Mind,”[1] and Rogers, unconditional positive regard.[2]  As games were played, stories told, and skits created, the improvisational rules of “Yes . . . and. . .”[3] and “making your partner look good”[4] were practiced and tremendous positivity was generated.  The clients dubbed it the “good vibes class.” The participants shared that staying present, and laughing gave them permission to be themselves without judgment and gave rise to

  • decreased social anxiety;
  • barriers being broken down;
  • “shells” cracked open and personas being dropped;
  • the creation of new social connections;
  • getting them out of their heads; and
  • exploring themselves and each other in a safe environment

Improvisation demands that planning and execution converge simultaneously. The facilitator must keep everything moving fairly quickly so that the synergy can build on itself.  If the forward movement of the game or story is blocked, manipulated or not authentic, the client quickly discovers that this choice lands unfavorably with the group. Playing becomes the order of the day and a relaxed flow permeates throughout the group.  Learning improvisation takes time and practice but magical things can happen during a participant’s first workshop experience. The Gift is an example of magic happening.  The Gift is a game where your partner hands you an imaginary gift and the receiver opens it and decides what’s in the box.  The giver then spontaneously comes up with a reason why they gave that particular gift.  Some recipients were surprised and amazed that someone had remembered something they had said in the past and actually cared –– as in giving an aspiring singer tickets to “The Voice” or an all-expense paid trip to a destination of their choice.  Some clients were touched so deeply, they cried. 

Each workshop opens with embodied, nonverbal work––breathing, centering, and warming up the body in safe but fun ways. It is important that the facilitator be authentic, playful and vulnerable.  This immediately signals to the group that we are creating a safe environment where everyone is welcome to play. Moving from embodiment, we commence basic game openers such as the Name Game, Pass the Sound, or clap, mirroring in pairs and gradually add more and more complex nonverbal work where clients create tableaus (statues with a partner and group) that depict certain themes, characters or frozen stories.  Characters can be brought to life and interviewed and the story expanded.  If this approach is falling flat, the focus can switch to storytelling with truth or lies, drawing objects from a bag, one-sentence stories, and more. 

The objects in a bag storytelling has been used in treatment where the client selects a random object and makes up a story related to his/her/their recovery.  I am teaching artist, not a therapist or resident counselor focusing on addiction, so the storytelling is used to facilitate voice, active listening, enhance the imagination, and create group mind, all of which are key components to sketch, improvisational work. 

All the while, we are continually moving the action forward. 

Practicing  “Yes . . . and” and not blocking allows individuals to be themselves and experience what it feels like to create in a group environment where there is no judgment, and no mistakes. Clients continually commented that playing in this manner without judgment released tension, distracted them from their inner critic, and provided the freedom to be themselves and feel good  about themselves. Most agreed that it helped them to remember what it felt like to be alive

Improvisation has also been used as a tool for relapse prevention.  Jones (2013) and Delva (2019) wrote compelling articles for The Fix about how improvisation helped in relapse prevention and corresponded to principles of AA such as listening, honesty, openness, and group mind through storytelling.  Trioini (2017) added that participating in improv classes helped her heal as an adult child of an alcoholic. Clearly, improvisation is a therapeutic tool that could be utilized at RTC/IOP/PHP levels of treatment and continued as an additional tool to maintain long term sobriety and prevent relapse.  Recovery improv classes are offered on-line with

Please contact me to facilitate workshops at your facilities or to train your resident counselors-techs, therapists, and mindfulness leaders in improvisation methods.  I am currently facilitating workshops at two treatment centers:  Addiction Therapeutic Services, an outpatient facility serving teens and adults in Rancho Mirage, CA and Michael’s House, residential inpatient and outpatient facilities in Palm Springs. 

[1] Suzuki, S. (1970). Zen mind, beginner’s mind: Informal talks on Zen meditation and practice. Shambhala.

[2] Rogers, C. R. (1951). Client-centered therapy. Houghton Mifflin

[3] Johnstone, K. (1979). IMPRO Improvisation and the theatre impro. Routledge.

[4] Jagodowski, T., Pasquesi, D., & Victor, P. (2015). Improvisation at the speed of life: The TJ & Dave book. Solo Roma.

Delva,S, (2019) How improv can transform your life after recovery. Palm Partners Recovery Center.

Halpern, C., Close, D., & Johnson, K. (1994). Truth in comedy.  Meriweather Publishing, Inc.

Jones, (2013). Improv and AA are the same thing. The Fix: Addiction and Recovery Straight Up.

Rogers, C. R. (1951). Client centered therapy. Houghton Mifflan

Suzuki, S. (1970). Beginner’s mind. Shambala Publishing.

Trioni, E. (2017). How improv has been an important tool in myACOA recovery. The Fix: Addiction and Recovery   Straight Up.

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