Fearful Of Change? Improv Training Can Help

There is an exercise called “3 Things” we use in Applied Improvisation groups and classes that perfectly expresses the spirit of radical acceptance and positivity — the fundamental “yes” — that drives improvisation as well as any other change process. Group members stand in a circle. A category is suggested, e.g. “fruit.” Player says “apple,” after which the group yells “1!” very enthusiastically, then Player 1 names another fruit, and the group yells “2!” and after the third “3!” Enthusiastic applause. The wilder and more excited the applause, the better. A new category is chosen for each player and the group does the same.

Round 2 of this game takes the same idea of radical acceptance and mixes it up a bit. A category is suggested by the group for the first player, who then “acts out” something within that category and the next player in the circle names it. The trick is that absolutely anything the person acting out does is great, and whatever label given is accepted:

Category: desserts. Player 1 jumps up and down, Player 2 says “tiramisu!” Groups shouts “1!” Player 1 points at the ceiling, Player 2 says “banana split!” Group shouts “2!” Player 1 spins around in a circle, Player 2 says “brownie!” Group shouts “3!” In this exercise, which gently breaks with usual ways of thinking in a playful ways, all choices for “acting out” a thing are correct. All identifying labels are correct. If jumping up and down means tiramisu to the person who is naming, we say “yes.” We applaud the choice. Its contagious. And it is a model for what works in improvisation as well as on the stage of life.

If an onstage improviser says “wow, you’ve really been working out, your muscles are amazing,” his/her partner says “yes, I’ve been working out twice a day, I really wanted to impress you.” And now we have the beginning of a relationship, established with a simple “yes” to something utterly unexpected. Its about the radical acceptance that drives a creative process, or a change process. Its all the same thing. This game also demonstrates the emotional contagion of joy and excitement, because even if we start out thinking the whole thing is ridiculous and silly, it is hard to hold onto that defensive posture if everyone commits to the positive choice. We need to commit, and commit hard, to counter the judgment and negativity that rises up when we are uncomfortable or challenged. The spirit of fun is powerful but it takes effort — a necessary one because letting go of conventional ideas about “getting it right”or worrying about content are harder than they sound.

This is an entirely different way to interact with other people than what we usually encounter. For most of us, some degree of anxiety will rise up in a situation where we are not in control or feel a degree of threat about what may happen. Mental habits are very powerful and all this creative freedom and support are not enough to shut them down. Anxiety is a natural response to the unknown, but it can derail creativity by focusing our inner resources on self-protection rather than expansion and exploration. A simple game like this will often demonstrate how difficult it is to simply make a choice that cannot be wrong. It can highlight the mental tendency to overthink, over-plan or slow down intuitive response in order to make sure we are getting it right. But at the same time, it offers a experience of what it can be like to just say “yes” to what is offered — even when it violates our habits of mind or reasoned responses — and play with it. And that mental agility is exactly what we need to manage the unknown. It is the creative courage to take on the difficult aspects of change, when we cannot predict what will happen next and are not in control.

The more threatened and fearful we tend to be, the harder it is to say “yes” to what is new and unfamiliar. We may recognize that change is always just around the corner. We might even know that change can be exactly what we need. But there are fears that must be faced and skills for facing them can be learned. Training in improvisation is a way to look at our internal barometer of what constitutes a threat, and learn ways to redirect the fear into a creative space. The atmosphere of extreme support we aim for in improvisation training groups is rare in other areas of our life. And the emphasis on fun and positive energy proposes a new approach for engaging with others when under pressure.

Conventional thinking has us saying “yes” after we understand what we are getting into, when we know as much as we can know. The improviser’s thinking is to be ready to say “yes” in order to understand what we are getting into, to accept the uncertainty that goes with what is new and untried. In life and in art, this readiness — this “yes” — is a form of creative power, wielded through full-throttle engagement with the present moment that shoves aside the mental agonies and preoccupations over what will happen next and how we will get through the problems we face. This “yes” is a commitment to self-responsibility, and in that commitment lies freedom from the tyranny of fear.

This “yes” has nothing to do with making a positive judgment about things. It is not about giving approval, or expressing an emotion. It is not a “like” as on facebook. What this “yes” implies is a state of mind that takes in the truth of what is happening without judgment, an acceptance of the moment as it occurs. It requires listening. This “yes” is a connection with what is. To live in that mindset is to engage with what we are given, no matter how dark or devastating and through doing this raise the possibility, no matter how remote, of building on it in order to respond consciously and creatively. “Yes…and” simply means we comprehend and recognize what is happening.

The “and” is our power to shape an outcome toward something we do approve or, agree with or want. Change may be scary and we are only in control of our own responses so it helps to have the creative energy and the skills to shape our encounters with life. Improv trains us to a philosophy and skill set that opens up worlds of possibility.

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer, writer, storyteller and songwriter. She is President of Lifestage, which offers creativity-based professional and personal development workshops and programs, and host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a game wrapped in a storytelling show that features true stories — with a twist. Follow her on twitter @JuTrWolff