Creative Arts with Patrick Moore


Improv Play Provides Natural Catharsis
June 9, 2016, 12:42 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I am preparing to teach a new kind of improv play group. The details are near the end of this post so scroll down if that interests you. Before that I will describe what’s been happening with comedy improv and psychodrama these days, and what leads me to create a new kind of improv group.

My History with Psychodrama and Improv

In the 90’s I participated in group therapy and a personal discovery group, both run by Stephen Bruno. He offered them weekly, and occasional weekend workshops. And a weekly writers’ workshop. Many of the same people attended all three which means the group was interacting from 6 to 12 hours per week. I attended them all. This went on for several years so I got, say, a thousand hours of experience in group and workshop dynamics.

Stephen sometimes used psychodrama and sociodrama (along with his unique offering of what he calls “the 7 things”: unconditional compassion, non-self-importance, non-judgment, patience, presence, vulnerability and curiosity). My group experience with Stephen was all about 20 years ago.

Psychodrama and sociodrama are play-acting improvised scenes, that reveal subconscious patterns and offer direct means to resolve issues and create new patterns. Psychodrama re-enacts scenes from an individual’s actual life events, and sociodrama enacts scenes from current events.

In 2012 I volunteered to help with “Odyssey of the Mind” at my stepson’s middle school. Part of Odyssey of the Mind includes an improvised solution to a problem. So an email was sent around to parent volunteers to go see a comedy improv show. I took my wife and her son to see this show at a coffee shop slash church, and we loved it. After the show I talked with the leader, Mike, and he told me they had just begun to teach improv workshops. All three of us began taking improv workshops in 2013. Traci and I attended all three levels Mike offered. Each was 8 weeks of 2 ½ hour workshops (totaling 60 hours) plus student performances after each level, in front of an audience.

TIM red barn patrick blur

Here I was either rushing into a scene enthusiastically, or playing the character of “blur.”

Unexpected Benefits of Improv Workshops

Once we began practicing in workshops, I noticed right away similar group dynamics from my experiences twenty years earlier in the therapy group, psychodrama and sociodrama.

One Saturday afternoon, my wife and I were attending an improv workshop in a basement, with no audience. There were probably eight of us students and the teacher. I was playing a 2-person scene with a woman. She and I began the scene simply being two characters on a bus. We got to talking about socks and as we improvised, we named each other, and it became clear we were husband and wife. The wife was irritated about the husband’s stinky socks. I imagine the teacher paused the scene to suggest she, “Heighten the intensity of emotion.” She did. She spoke louder. She expressed her character’s anger about the socks, toward her husband character, who I played. I reacted in the way I thought her husband would have in that situation, which escalated her emotion even more. I was glad to let her shout at me because it wasn’t really me she was shouting at, but the character I played. When the scene was done, the rest of the students probably applauded, and the woman felt empowered, relieved and validated. She presented herself with far more confidence. She walked lightly on her toes for the remainder of that day and still had some of that benefit the next week when we saw her again.

Traci and I also attended a number of improv practice groups at people’s houses, that were run without instructors. I noticed again how people were doing cathartic things with their play. Not anything inappropriate, but playfully dramatic and potentially healing.

I believe something is lost when you play for audience approval. Traci agrees and this is why we’ve never auditioned to be part of a troupe, even after numerous invitations. But we still go to workshops.

Remembering my previous experiences with psychodrama, sociodrama and group therapy, I began to realize comedy improv provided some of the same benefits. The difference was, in psychodrama you play your self and your known issues. In comedy improv, you play fictitious characters, and nobody came there to “work on their issues.” We are just there to play. I realized that play can be cathartic, releasing, re-energizing and empowering, even without a therapist or any guidance.

I wouldn’t say improv workshops are “therapeutic,” or even “healing,” because by definition, therapy and healing work on a particular issue from the past. Therapy requires a therapist. I would say the improv workshops have “therapeuti-ness” and “heali-ness.” It is like therapy and healing, but without consciously tracking any cause-and-effect.

Roots of Comedy Improv are in Vienna, 1920

So I did a little research. It turns out that comedy based improv developed in the 1960s has roots in Psychodrama, which I have recently learned, began in the 1920s in Vienna. Dr. Moreno, it’s inventor, would have actors on a stage with an audience. The actors would read the day’s newspaper aloud (this was during the first world war), and then the actors would play scenes based on the day’s news. This would have a cathartic effect for the players and the audience. This is sociodrama, which later became impro or improv. Psychodrama is when, without an audience, a single person’s issues are played on a stage so that person can gain insight and healing. Here in Tucson you can go see an offshoot of Psychodrama / Sociodrama called Playback Theater.

Play Therapy is Natural and Inherent in the Species

Still I believe psychodrama, sociodrama, and comedy improv are not “new discoveries of the 20th Century,” but simply reconfigurations of things humans have always done. It only seems “new” and “trendy” because our culture has suppressed it and we forgot we knew how to do it. Sort of like how the Greeks already knew the earth and planets orbit the sun, but later the church punished all beliefs but their own, so for a while humanity forgot the earth orbits the sun. Then when Copernicus came up with the equations, it seemed like a new discovery. Psychodrama and Improv are nothing new. Watch dogs play, or videos of animals playing, and you’ll see that improvised healing dramas have been happening on earth from the beginning.

Why should we be surprised at this? Kids improvise scenes. Kids naturally “play out” their issues, conflicts and troubles, deriving healing and relief from these plays. I believe this is a natural part of the immune system; when we are troubled, we use imagination to play it out in a socially acceptable way. When play is socially acceptable, that is the way we do it.

Like comedy improvisers, Children and dogs have no conscious awareness of what motivates or directs the play. They are just playing, and feel better after. Unfortunately improvised play is discouraged in adolescents and adults in our culture. Even dogs in our culture are inhibited from natural play. So things get bottled up and have to “play out” in other ways, with consequences that are never “fun.” Adults still play, but their games are competitive, where only the victors feel good afterward, and the losers feel bad. The victory does not seem to give them the same benefits of child’s play or improv comedy.

When is Play Better than Therapy?

In some ways comedy improv has a lead over psychodrama, in my opinion, for average people. Who wants to deliberately play scenes about one’s issues? Who wants to play one’s father, mother, brother or sister? Where’s the fun? And what if we are held accountable or responsible for poor choices? Children and dogs, when they want to heal from irritations within them, do not control the play by saying, “Okay, I am going to play my father when he spanked me last week, and you play me.” Instead they may play a King and the Jester, or the Alpha dog and the Omega, which is fun at the same time that it is cathartic. In this sense, comedy improv is closer to what children do naturally than psychodrama is.

Still, I have noticed the teachers of improv are sadly unprepared to assist, and often give poor guidance, even counterproductive guidance, for players whose imaginations are attempting to naturally heal. More often comedy improv instructors will stop the healing process in order to steer the person toward doing something the audience will approve of, at the future performance. In this regard, professionals certified in psychodrama are far superior, if less playful and overly serious.

Still, children and dogs seem to be able to get some healing without an expert watching and coaching them. And yet, adults are so far removed from what was once natural to them, they probably do need a highly-trained side-coach to make sure they don’t make themselves worse instead of better, while they play.

A New Kind of Improv Group – Natural Healing Play

I have been preparing for two years to start an improv natural-play group. Stay tuned, I hope to get up the courage to begin this year.

In addition to my past experience, to prepare to coach such a group I have been reading both of Keith Johnstone’s books. He is against actors attempting to act out their real issues. He feels this controlling attitude blocks the person’s natural flow of creativity. If I may interpret Johnstone, he would prefer to train adults to play like children, where nobody cares what “issues” are being played out, if any, as long as the person is expressing their authentic source of creativity. The authentic source will take care of the person, so there is no need to control it, I think Johnstone is saying. If that is what he is saying, I agree with this approach.

I am also reading Adam Blatner’s books. In his “Foundations of Psychodrama,” Blatner makes the case that psychodrama serves two distinct functions. One is to “correct” the patient’s pathogenic patterns regarding previous traumatic relationships. Clearly that is outside my scope of practice.

The second function of psychodrama, Blatner says, is education. He devotes a whole chapter to this. Education would include things like reality testing, empowerment, responding not reacting, nonjudgmental interpreting, compassionate feedback, and so forth. These are things I have been providing in my workshops for massage therapists since 2001.

I have also attended Playback Theater, and I continue to get feedback from Stephen and another therapist trained in psychodrama.

Proposed Improv-Play Group

Here are some elements I would like to present in a non-therapeutic, cathartic improv play group:

Possible Titles:

  • Expressive Improv for Vitality
  • Direct Your Own Life Through Improv

Short Description:

Improvised stories are naturally used by children to play out their hurts and heal themselves. Play is a natural process that was disciplined out of us until we forgot it, and so it was never fully developed into its adult form. This ongoing workshop does not teach you something new but reconnects you to an activity that was always potential. Canines also play out their concerns. Play is inherent within us, part of the immune system of each species.

What Happens in each workshop:

An ongoing workshop. Part of the time is spent playing fictitious characters in improvised scenes and then having group discussion after the scenes, to really understand the dynamics between the characters, relationships, partnerships, antagonists, conflicts and resolutions. Could be a closed group of a certain number of weeks, or an open group, possibly a drop-in, pay as you go.

The Purpose of the Group: We are not learning to play for an audience. This is just for us, for fun, the catharsis of natural play, and the relaxation and revitalization that comes from natural relief.

Benefits:

  • Gain enlightenment how relationships work, how humanity works, how the world works, how the spiritual universe works, by playing.
  • A fun form of “reality testing,” by experimenting in scenes as a fictitious character. So there is no penalty for experiments that go sour, but there is learning from the results. Without fear of social penalties, we can accelerate our learning dramatically.
  • Universality: we begin to learn that others have the same fears and troubles, that appear in many different guises. As we learn this we feel more a sense of belonging and relief from isolation.
  • Play (and write) more realistic characters.
  • Feel better about yourself.
  • Express a wider range of feelings in a way that is safe and beneficial for other group members and yourself.
  • Healthy expression is cathartic.
  • Relief.
  • Relaxes you.
  • Burns off stress.
  • Stretches your limits.
  • Freedom.
  • Natural play.
  • Increase your sense of being deeply alive.
  • Experience exciting fresh stories from the inside.
  • Feel a deeper fulfillment, richer perception, vaster vision, greater beauty, fuller love.
  • Be more than you were being before.

Group Structure:

  • The group maintains compassionate support, nonjudgmental feedback and confidentiality.
  • The right balance of challenge in an environment safe to experiment with personal discovery.
  • Receive validation from others, and support others in the group and outside.
  • Equality with others, including ….

Develop processes and qualities:

  • Spontaneity.
  • Passion.
  • Find and express your unique individual qualities.
  • Resiliency.
  • Flexibility.
  • Range.
  • Imagination.
  • Intuition.
  • Vision.
  • Non-self-importance.
  • Influence instead of control.
  • Experimentation.
  • Vulnerability as a strength.
  • Empowerment.
  • Self-Direction.
  • Imagination.
  • Awareness of the group mind, its suggestions and offers.

Develop skills:

  • Rediscover natural healthy play
  • “Plays Well With Others”
  • Storytelling skills / writing / directing, from a group mind overview.
  • Equality with others in the story, even those with different “status.”
  • The ability to suspend your inhibitions.
  • Tune in to the group mind
  • Spirituality of group mind:
  • Connect with a process greater than one’s individual personality.
  • Experience yourself and your played relationships “from above.”

I am interested in your comments about this proposed group so please post them below or on Facebook, thanks.

Warmly,

Patrick

 

 

 

 

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