When most people hear the word “improv”, they think of the game show “Whose Line is it Anyway?” or any of Michael Scott’s tragic attempts at improv classes on The Office.
Although these examples do capture some of the glory that is improv comedy, there is a lot more to improv than it may seem.
For example, household names such as Amy Poehler and Ed Helms started their careers through improv, proving that it is a true springboard for a career in comedy.
In the same vein, writers of Saturday Night Live have spoken on using improv techniques to generate skit ideas. Improv is even prevalent in the real world, shown by it’s increasing method for business team-building.
From an individual standpoint, improv can also be applied to teach people to cope with the stress that comes from social situations or job interviews. In this article, I hope to highlight some of the common ground between this unique type of performance and powerful therapy.
So, What is Improv?
In my last semester of college, I took an improv class that changed the way I understood this type of performance.
As I learned the basics of improv and worked alongside my ensemble, I realized that the behaviors that lead to a great performance could also be applied to my life outside of class.
Although by its very nature, improvisation is unplanned and spontaneous, there is real thought and practice that goes into the performances of true improvisers.
Improv performances consist of both “short form” and “long form” pieces that rely on the creativity and experience of the performers.
“Although improvisation is unplanned and spontaneous, there is real thought and practice that goes into performances.”
A short form scene looks more like the quick, funny games of “Whose Line…” where improvisers are provided with a quirky premise or rule that must be followed throughout the game.
In a typical improv show, performers would engage in short form games for a few minutes and then segue into the real “meat” of an improv performance. This is known as long-form improv.
At both performances and rehearsals, long-form work makes up the majority of the work that improvisers do. These scenes are spontaneous and often inspired by audience suggestions. In long form, performers must establish the reality of their scene (the who, what, and where) as quickly as possible.
Then, they identify an unusual character, funny behavior, or entertaining pattern, which becomes the game of the scene.
“Long-form work makes up the majority of the work that improvisers do.”
Although scenes are unplanned and have never been rehearsed by an improv ensemble, there are some guidelines that all improvisers should follow to develop a great scene.
The Intersection of Improv and Therapy
In order to guide performers through the process of establishing their reality and finding the Game, improvisers follow a few critical rules.
These rules were developed to help ensembles cooperate and create hilarious scenes that audiences love.
As I learned the governing rules of improv, I noticed a parallel between them and the tools and techniques that are taught in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, also known as DBT.
DBT is a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy that focuses on identifying problem behaviors and developing new ways to cope with negative emotions, improve interpersonal skills, and teach mindfulness.
Often used to treat personality disorders, self-destructive behavior, and depression, DBT is a useful and effective therapy for many people with varying mental health issues.
“As I learned the governing rules of improv, I noticed a parallel between them and the tools and techniques that are taught in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy.”
DBT and improv may seem like they belong to two vastly different realms, but there are some key similarities.
While an improviser’s main goal may be to entertain an audience, they do so by cooperating with others, accepting their partner’s choices, and adding positive contributions to help the scene thrive.
These functions of improv fit with the goals of dialectical behavioral therapy, and the specific techniques of improv and DBT go hand-in-hand.
Acceptance and Balance
The first rule that every improviser learns is to avoid saying no.
When an improviser says no, they are denying the reality that their scene partner is trying to establish, therefore confusing the audience. Instead of saying no, an improviser should accept whatever their partner offers them for the sake of cooperation—and the scene.
This kind of acceptance is also encouraged in DBT.
In DBT terms, this is known as “radical acceptance”. Radical acceptance is the behavior of accepting your reality and understanding that there are things about the world and others that you cannot change.
“Instead of saying no, an improviser should accept whatever their partner offers them for the sake of cooperation—and the scene.”
Invalidation of your experience (whether it is emotional, physical, or interpersonal) prevents you from properly coping with and progressing from your current situation. Denying your reality, much like denying the reality your scene partner establishes, causes conflict and negative emotions.
In improv, performers are told not only to radically accept what their partner proposes but to add onto a scene and give back to their partner.
This technique is called “Yes, and…”.
When a performer responds to their partner with a “yes, and…”, they are accepting their partner’s action while also contributing their own thoughts and ideas. When partners both agree and add on, a balance is struck in the scene; no one partner dominates or overshadows the other.
“Denying your reality, much like denying the reality your scene partner establishes, causes conflict and negative emotions.”
Thus, the success of a scene does not rely solely on one person’s ideas. An entire improv show dominated by a single performer would become very boring very quickly! Balance is a key factor that DBT encourages.
As its name suggests, DBT focuses on the dialectics that exist in relationships and our lives. In DBT, people are taught to balance the extremes of their emotions and relationships. DBT discourages black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking and emphasizes that finding the middle ground is the best way to decrease conflict and succeed interpersonally. Improvisers gain practice in balancing their interactions with their scene partners.
“Performers gain experience interacting with others.”
Although the spontaneous relationships that are built in an improv scene are much lower stakes than the relationships that we navigate in real life, performers gain experience interacting with others.
For example, it is very unlikely that we would ever end up (let me think of a great improv scene…) working in a graveyard with Elton John, but perhaps the experience of improvising this scene may make future encounters seem less stressful and overwhelming.
In the Present
Another key rule of a long-form improv scene is to remain in the present.
Whether you are a seasoned improviser or not, you may recognize that it is a lot more interesting to witness something rather than hear it retold or planned out. Because of this, improvisers are taught to not base their scenes in the past or in the future, but rather, focus on developing the here and now.
This focus on the present parallels the fundamentals of mindfulness at the core of DBT.
Mindfulness involves being present, aware, and in the moment. Practitioners of DBT are encouraged to take in their surroundings without making judgments or thinking about their implications for the past or future. When you are mindful and in the present without making judgments about what is happening to you, you can avoid the anxiety that results from judgments and expectations.
Although dialectical behavioral therapists teach many ways to be mindful, they may consider adding improv as a mindfulness technique because of its spontaneous nature. When performers focus their efforts on establishing the present reality and staying in it, they are both great and mindful improvisers.
Through radical acceptance, balance, mindfulness, and much more, DBT helps people develop skills to cope with negative emotions and decrease conflict.
Through parallel techniques, improvisers not only create entertaining scenes but also have the opportunity to develop similar skills. Because of these similarities, improv may move beyond the realm of simple entertainment.
Although it is not the empirically-based therapeutic intervention that DBT is, improv may be a stepping stone towards learning these skills to improve your life.