The Tao of Improv

Embracing life on the edge

Magazine Issue
January/February 2009
The Tao of Improv

“Hey, Mike! Give me a hand with this, will ya? It’s heavy.”

“Sure, Joe.”

Apparently my name is Mike and I’ve decided to call Brad, Joe. We both crouch down and mime picking up a roughly 4-by-4 imaginary concrete block. We creep slowly, bent knees, our arms outstretched, taut. n “Let’s put it down here,” Brad/Joe says. Be careful of your back.”

“I got it, I got it,” I say, huffing.

I’m at the weekly practice of our improv troupe, The Improfessionals, and Brad and I are starting a three-person scene. The third member, Ann, stands on the sidelines waiting for a good time to enter.

In typical improv fashion, our fellow actors have set up the scene by giving us suggestions: Brad and I are brothers who run a concrete factory, and Ann is surprisingly free to be any character she likes. But to ramp up the challenge, they’ve endowed each of us with a phobia: mine is a fear of bold print, Brad’s is a fear of aftershave lotion, and Ann’s is condiments. Somehow we need to work these into the scene and our characters.

You probably know at least a bit about improv—a Second City show, Drew Carey’s Whose Line Is It Anyway? on TV, unscripted movies like Waiting for Guffman or The Mighty Wind. Watching this type of comedic improv gives you the impression that the actors on stage are comic geniuses, on heavy doses of really good medication, or both. They’re loose, witty people who have the uncanny ability to think on their feet—to make up Country Western songs about toothpaste on the spot and create incredible scenes about OCD accountants balancing books while floating in outer space. Great stuff!

But, like most arts, what seems so easy and natural actually requires lots of hard work. Beneath the quips are hard-learned skills, and beneath these skills is a structure that’s supple yet indiscernible. These are the rules of improv upon which the actors build their scenes and create the experience.

Improv is like its cousin jazz, in that what drives the musician isn’t some impulsive, random banging of notes, but a careful, yet spontaneous, construction, built around chord progressions and melodic lines. It’s like therapy: both goal-directed and unrehearsed—a different conversation from the one you might have with the neighbor you meet at Walmart.

Once Joe and I put the imaginary block down, we both stand with hands on knees, puffing like racehorses.

“Hey,” says Joe, carefully walking around the “block” toward me. “I took a glance at the new invoices this morning. Doesn’t look good. There’s a bunch of bold print in a lot of them. You better let me take care of them.”

“Whoa, thanks man,” I say, patting him on the back. “The companies never used to do that so much. But now . . . . I was going through those receipts last Thursday—it just sneaked up on me. Right in the middle of the page, in something like 48-point font. Freaked me out! I had to put it down as soon as I saw it, and it took me forever to settle down.” I shake my head as though trying to dislodge the memory.

“I know, I know,” says Joe, hugging my shoulders. “Don’t worry about it.”

I started improv several years ago. I’d just finished marching through some significant emotional losses: the death of my father, the death of my first wife, and the hospitalization of my daughter. I was bored with my job—lots of long-winded, stagnant community meetings; worries about the morale among my 40-plus staff; sweating the quarterly budget review; and having little time for clinical work. I felt dazed and dull. Then one day, I stumbled on a sign posted in a store window. A woman was offering improv classes, and to my 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 well outside my usual world.

I liked the energy of the group. As we got to know each other, I started to feel the way I did in high school, having a gang to hang out and fool around with. 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. We were en­cour­aged not to plan or even think, but simply do. What came out was often strange, off-the-wall stuff—grown-up fantasies involving traveling to work on a giant soap bubble, a bar scene where we had to wear a three-cornered hat to get served, a bizarre reinterpretation of Snow White, in which she had a heavy romantic crush on Dopey and the evil stepmother was actually a brush salesman. I wasn’t bored. I wasn’t calculating. I wasn’t worrying. Almost everything we did seemed hysterically funny—a good antidote to the low-grade depression that had been building in me.

Brad and I are talking about the big block order that has to go out that day. We’re doing the talking-heads thing—standing around, mumbling. The energy in the scene is draining; we seem a bit lost. Ann enters to come to our rescue.

“Hi, guys,” she says, stepping onstage, talking in that slight southern accent that she does so well. “My name’s Trish. How are you boys today? I’m your local Mary Kay representative,” she says with a big smile, pointing to an imaginary name badge. “Nice concrete plant you got here,” she says, circling her hands around the room. “I just love these cinder block walls—so gray and . . . solid. So, I was in the neighborhood and wondering if you’d be interested in seeing some of our latest Mary Kay products?”

After a year of lessons, our class decided to start a performance group, and like every garage band in the country, we took any gig we could get—10:00 p.m. Tuesday at a local bar, Thursday afternoon at the public library, the annual vegetarian festival in the park, the random high school reunion, an out-of-the-way coffeehouse—usually for gas money, with an occasional beer or coffee thrown in. Sometimes we were hot, other times not, but I found that I liked being onstage, like lots of introverts do.

The rules of improv paradoxically showed me how to be freer and more creative. They provide a unique way of approaching relationships that’s generous rather than closed, supportive rather than competitive, organic rather than scripted. While the theory and skills of therapy form the foundation of clinical practice, we have little foundation for the improvisation, the creativity that good therapy demands. Doing improv made me wonder whether applying these rules might make me more creative in my work and personal life.

Rule No. 1: Yes . . . and. This is it, the Holy Grail, the mantra of improv. Yes . . . and means that you accept whatever your fellow actor offers, rather than blocking, denying, ignoring, or changing what your partner just said. If Brad calls me Mike, I don’t say, “Hey wait, my name is Alex!” When he asks me to help lift the heavy block, I don’t say “I’m busy right now,” or “Come on, it isn’t that heavy.” We follow each other’s lead, rather than competing for the lead, and, in the process, discover and create our relationship and reality. We find out in a few moments that, in the skit, we’re brothers who help each other; that Brad tends to be protective and tries to shelter me from the bold print that he knows upsets me; that I may have a bad back.

You fully commit yourself to the reality you both create. You don’t forget about the imaginary block is in the middle of stage and absentmindedly walk through it; you stay within your character and don’t suddenly stand upright after you just said that your back hurts.

Yes . . . and is a Zen-like state of mind. You work with what life offers rather than fighting against it. It’s the counter to the Yes . . . but, the No, the defensiveness and anger that we usually hear from clients struggling with their relationships.

As therapists, this is what we’re fundamentally about—active listening, Rogerian unconditional positive regard—and we do our best to try and pass this along to our clients. The notion that a client’s problem somehow makes sense, that solving it means unraveling and understanding it, rather than forever pushing it away, may be part of our clinical philosophy. But even then, our own anxiety sometimes takes over and the Yes . . . and becomes Yes . . . but.

Mary says that she’s decided to stop taking her meds, or that she cut herself again yesterday when her supervisor said she was late, and you find yourself saying: “Hmmm, Mary, I don’t think that stopping the meds is such a good idea. You know, your depression symptoms will probably start coming back” or “I thought we agreed you were going to call your sister when you got upset.” Mary makes a face, gets quiet, and stares at her shoes or starts to sound defensive. Rather than really listening to what she’s saying so we can build on her reality—”I understand what you’re saying, Mary. Can you tell me why you decided to stop your meds; why you felt you needed to cut?”—we seem critical and controlling, and undoubtedly sound to her very much like her supervisor. Rather than “moving the scene forward,” we’re in danger of stopping it in its tracks and creating a clinical impasse.

Brad and I start acting like teenagers competing for a girl’s attention. “We don’t get many pretty visitors like you,” says Brad, “more fat truck drivers and guys with tool belts. Have a seat,” he says, dusting off the chair onstage. “You want a cup of coffee? It’s fresh.”

I physically nudge him aside. “Hey, Trish, I know what you’d like. How about a nice ketchup sandwich? It’s Heinz.” I say, smiling and holding up the imaginary meal. “Just made some for lunch. I have extra.”

Ann lets out a gasp. “Did you say ketchup?” She’s hamming it up. “Oh, God!”

“That’s okay. If you don’t like ketchup, I also have a mustard and relish sandwich,” I say, straight-faced.

Ann lets out a yelp as Brad moves in to help calm her down. I struggle to keep from laughing.

Rule No. 2: Act and react. Everyone on stage should be always working to contribute to the scene. If Yes . . . and is about attitude and acceptance, this rule is about taking responsibility and confronting fear. You do this by being courageous and following your instincts. Put something out there and trust that your fellow actors will follow your lead. Take the risk. Don’t hold back, but make bold choices. Don’t talk about taking action; don’t wait for the “right” moment. Act now and see what happens. Pick up the block, stand on a chair, and then justify why you’re doing that.

The opposite of all this—caution, hesitation, not pulling your weight—is what creates scene death. Instead of acting and adding to a scene, you malinger, pretending to smoke a cigarette while waiting to see what your teammates do, adding little to the content and energy. The worst form of this irresponsibility is known as “pimping” your partner. It means that rather than stepping up to the plate, making a clear choice, and being assertive, you waffle, wimp out, and manipulate your partner into shouldering all the responsibility for moving the scene forward.

You ask open-ended questions—”So where are we?” “What’s your name?”—rather than making a clear statement—”I’m so glad the hot air balloon was able land here in the Sahara Desert” or “I’m Tom, and I don’t think I’ve ever met a leprechaun like you before.” Instead of telling a joke, you say to your partner, “This is the funniest joke I’ve ever heard,” and then hand him an imaginary piece of paper. “Why don’t you read it out loud?”

While you don’t want to hang back and never act, you also don’t want to make the other improv mistake of always acting and never reacting and yielding. This is known as driving the scene, and actors who do this seem like control freaks. They dominate the action, don’t listen, and do “yes . . . buts.” While their ideas may be funny or interesting, the scene doesn’t work because their overassertiveness ultimately undermines any possibility of success. The other actors feel dismissed and emotionally pummeled; they may go along as best they can, but don’t care, because one person is pushing an agenda and ignoring everyone else. The scene quickly gets stilted and loses energy, so the audience gets irritated or bored. The action becomes a little too much like real life.

We all know in our clinical work how easily responsibility in relationships can get abandoned or distorted. Frank runs the show at home and in your office, and his wife Ellen never speaks up, always going along. Sue binge-drinks all weekend, and Eric calls up her boss on Mondays to tell him she has the flu. Brian and Teresa talk about dividing up household chores more equally, but never do it and only continue to complain.

Our job is to counter their inertia and fear to bring a little fresh air and spontaneity into their scenes. When clients begin to withdraw, we encourage them to take risks, to act differently, right here and now; to say what’s on their minds and in their hearts. We ask the hard questions—”Do you think about suicide?” “Do you want a divorce?” “Do you worry that this is your fault?”—that, hopefully, nudge them to talk about the underlying pain, the undisclosed secret, the unremitting anxiety.

If we’re good at our job, we model this courage. But sometimes—like improv actors—we wimp out. Frank really is intimidating, and rather than challenging him or finding out how Ellen is feeling, we act like her and let him go on with his rant. Sue probably is alcoholic, but we’re tired and don’t really know much about addiction treatment, so we rationalize to ourselves why we should just continue with our standard list of assessment questions. Brian and Teresa once again start complaining about chores, but instead of nudging them to take concrete action, we only half-listen till they wind down, then change the topic and ask how the kids are doing. We give up our leadership and sink into the client’s emotional climate and ways of coping, rather than taking active steps to help them change. It’s our anxiety and fear that stops us. We choose to stay in our comfort zone, rather than taking the risk of busting out and seeing what happens.

“Well, you guys just caught me off guard there with all your hospitality. Whoo-ee!” Ann shakes her head. “Just a little problem I’ve had since I was a little girl. I’m fine now.” She stands up and pulls down on the front of her imaginary suit jacket. “Well, now,” she says, regaining her saleswoman composure. “How about I show you both our new spring line of men’s aftershaves?” Her voice is bubbly. She mimes opening a large sample case.

“Uh, I need to go to the back and check that block order,” says Brad on cue, in a shaky voice. He begins to back up.

“Hold on, Joe” I say, patting him on the back. “Don’t leave. We can do this.”

Rule No. 3: Look good by making your partner look good. A famous adage in improv is that everyone is a supporting actor. That’s what makes improv relationships so generative. Rather than looking out for yourself, you’re always looking for ways to support the other actors, knowing that they’ll do the same for you when you start to flounder, just as Ann did when Brad and I were running out of ideas. By stepping up and offering something to Brad when he starts to feel queasy, he and I discover together how his character is going to handle this aftershave fear. If he looks good, he helps me look good, and we have a successful scene. Like soldiers in combat, we’re a team; we’re looking out for our buddy. Whatever we do, we do together.

This contrasts with the stinginess and distrust we see in many relationships. Mike and Loren are discussing what they might do together over the weekend. The discussion quickly assumes the feel of a poker game. Mike is willing to do something on Saturday afternoon, if she’ll let him watch the ballgame on Sunday. Loren is willing to go for a hike, if Mike promises to take the kids to soccer practice on Saturday morning. They’re strategizing and posturing and bluffing, rather than being honest and committed to each other as a couple. Each has learned over the years to look out for him/herself, because they each believe their partner won’t.

As therapists, we try not to play such emotional poker with our clients, but we certainly do with our colleagues. We hold tight to our clients; we promote ourselves and feel competitive toward other therapists in town, other programs like our own.

In the improv world, the number of chips isn’t limited, and we’re playing not against each other onstage or in a scene, but for each other. I give you what I most need, and believe that you’ll give it back. I can lean into the relationship because I know and trust that you’ll catch me.

So, from an improv perspective, we can say to Mike and Loren what we see: that they seem emotionally stuck because they’re putting their energy into cutting slicker deals or getting the other to go along with what he or she is offering. Instead, we want to help them change their perspective and attitude to one in which there are no deals or power struggles—where they’re emotionally sitting together on the same side of the table, rather than across from each other. We encourage them to experiment with generosity—to step up and offer to take the kids on Saturday morning—without the expected payoff, and see what happens. We help them see that by changing their mindset, they can change their world.

Brad is looking down. “Are you guys okay?” asks Ann. “Did I say something wrong?”

“No, it’s okay,” I say, holding up my hand. “Just give us a minute.”

I put my arm around Brad’s neck. “I understand that you feel responsible for Dad. But you didn’t know that putting on too much aftershave would trigger his heart attack.”

“But I was the one who gave him the aftershave for his birthday,” says Brad, now pretending to cry. “If I hadn’t given it to him, he’d still be here. It was my fault.”

“Joe, it wasn’t your fault. Don’t feel guilty,” I say quietly. “Remember what Dad said in the hospital: Ômen are more than big muscles and sweat. You don’t have to smell of concrete dust all the time.’ He didn’t blame you. He wanted us to be like him. He always wanted us to know that it was alright to . . . smell good.”

Rule No. 4: Be truthful, be vulnerable. One of the mistakes that new improvisers make is trying too hard to be funny. It never works. Instead of funny, go for vulnerable. Stay in character and be honest. This is always more interesting for the audience, moves the scene along, and more often than not, turns out funny anyway.

We know how being truthful and vulnerable apply to our work and know how hard it is for clients and us to do it. Telling the truth and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable are ways of confronting fear. Clients often test the emotional waters by initially tossing us a low-risk problem. Sarah comes in saying that she’s struggling with getting her kids in bed. Lou says he’s having trouble sleeping and thinks it’s work stress. After a few sessions, Sarah mentions her childhood sexual abuse, her nightly bingeing behavior. Lou talks about the big argument he and his wife had over the weekend, and his nightly fantasies of walking out and leaving her and the kids.

Sometimes we freeze up ourselves. A client reminds us of our mother or has been referred to us by the top therapist in town, and we find ourselves stepping into our “professional” role. We try to impress—making what we think are cleaver interpretations, giving mini lectures to show how much we know. We worry about how we’re doing, rather than listening to the client. We make sure we have eye contact and work hard to look concerned, rather than relaxing and seeing what comes up inside us in the moment.

The message in this rule of truth and vulnerability is that honesty should always be the default position. In a pinch, when you don’t know what to say, you say you don’t know what to say. Rather than scrambling in your head to make the right interpretation in the moment, you stay close to the process and talk about how you feel—”I’m worried,” “I’m confused,” “I’m feeling frustrated”—which allows the client to be in the moment and to do the same. You don’t hide behind pat answers—the mini-lecture on anxiety or anger—but push yourself toward authenticity and immediacy. You take the lead and help clients follow it

Brad stands up straight, wipes his eyes one last time, and pumps his arm. “You’re right,” he says “Let’s do this for Dad.”

“Trish,” I say, “sorry to keep you. Let’s see what you got in that case. . . . Oh no, bold print!”

End of scene.

Rule No. 5: There are no mistakes. In a good improv scene, everything is incorporated, nothing falls to the wayside. A character’s anger, someone’s limp, the joke that falls flat, the imaginary cup that gets dropped, all get acted out and reacted to. You work with what others offer, and trust that you’ll all somehow pull it off. Everything is grist for the mill. You see what evolves; focus on what’s being created in the moment. Like poets, improv actors seek to connect the odd and seemingly out of place—concrete and cosmetics, aftershave and guilt.

None of us knew where this scene was going when it started—that Brad and my relationship would be close rather than antagonistic, that Ann would be selling cosmetics instead of delivering sand or being a dog, that we’d wind up talking about loss and grief instead of fraternity parties or ways to knock out one of the walls in the factory. While it turned out to be a pretty strong scene, it could have fallen flat, with each of us wandering around, not listening, staying safe, and doing nothing of interest.

It doesn’t matter how it all “turns out” and what kind of story or characters evolve. All we’re doing is practicing our skills, practicing being ourselves, and most of all, playing and having a good time. Some clients get stuck in their relationships and their lives because they worry about making mistakes or are haunted by past failures. Couples find themselves in stale marriages because they choose to stay in their comfort zone, and use routine and distance to replace spontaneity and confrontation. Some clients, and undoubtedly some therapists, become preoccupied with following what they imagine to be the one path toward the one goal. They scold themselves when they feel they’ve strayed, when things don’t turn out as they imagined they would, rather than patting themselves on the back for taking risks and realizing that life is about the art of improvisation.

Off-Stage Improv

A few years after taking up improv, I quit my job. After 30 years of agency work, I decided to go into private practice. I started to do workshops on family therapy and supervision, finding myself putting my improv skills to good use—spontaneously acting out the personalities of clients, complete with different voices, when presenting case examples. Having never traveled overseas before, I took a three-week trip across China. I got remarried.

A new client, Diane, has come to see me for therapy because her husband walked out on her after 20 years of marriage. She’s trying to make sense of what happened. She sits in my office tearful as she remembers one of her last conversations with her husband before he suddenly left. She feels guilty, she says, because she was tired and irritable, and paid little attention to his rant about his boss. She now thinks that if she’d listened and provided the support he was seeking, he wouldn’t have remained so frustrated, and maybe, just maybe, he wouldn’t have left.

I’m about to tell her that big decisions usually don’t work that way—that it’s not one thing but an accumulation of incidents and feelings over time that causes a rupture of this dimension—but then I remember my father in the hospital. I begin to tell her how I felt when I knew he was dying, knew in my therapist head it was my last opportunity to say to him the things I appreciated and loved about him, but instead I said nothing at all. He died several hours later. I still feel bad, I say to her, that I never spoke up. I try to tell myself that we always do the best we can in the moment. On good days, that thought helps; on other days, it doesn’t. Diane nods her head and becomes quiet, trying, it seems, to absorb what I’ve said.

The core of my clinical work hasn’t changed—I still follow the same models and theories that I’ve used in the past. But, since I started improv, I find that I’m less cautious in some ways, more focused on process than content, more energetic and interactive in sessions. I’m sure a few years ago I wouldn’t have told this story to Diane. But I went with the process, trusted what I felt might fit the mood and moment, chose to be honest and vulnerable rather than analytical. Was it helpful? I’ll find out next week when I ask, listen, and see how she responds. We are, after all, creating a relationship together; I’m discovering what does and doesn’t help her move forward in her life. There are no mistakes for either of us.


Robert Taibbi

Robert Taibbi, LCSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with over 40 years of experience primarily in community mental health working with couples and families as a clinician, supervisor and clinical director. Bob is the author of Clinical Supervision: A Four-Stage Process of Growth and Discovery and Clinical Social Work Supervision; Doing Couples Therapy: Craft and Creativity in Work with Intimate Partners; Doing Family Therapy: Craft and Creativity in Clinical Practice; Boot Camp Therapy: Action-Oriented Brief Treatment of Anxiety, Anger & Depression; and The Art of the First Session.