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The Therapeutic Role of Improv

Improv games can offer wonderful insights into the unconscious, including observing the way in which we ‘block’ or ‘accept’ our partner’s suggestions. So why should theatre practitioners have all the fun? Supervision trainer Robin Shohet gets playful as he shares his growing interest in improv as a therapeutic tool.


In a previous blog, Brett Kahr wrote about a journalist who attended a psychotherapy lecture he was giving, and said he had never been in a room with such ugly people. I think I understand what the journalist might have meant. We don’t play enough in our work.

Enter stage left improv. I start an improv workshop by asking people to pair up and introduce each other without saying a word of truth. I love the paradox here, because of course the character we invent says a lot about us. As one participant who was new to improv put it, it “hijacks the unconscious”. She invented herself as a Spanish princess complete with accent and haughtiness, and for a moment I really believed she had been one before she became a therapist. In another pair, a hitherto very proper woman became a prostitute and oozed sexuality. She asked, rather nervously, “what does that say about me”, and we agreed not to analyse. Very important. Improv takes us to a different part of our brains.

Keith Johnstone, in many ways the father of improv, in his classic book Impro writes:

‘Students need a ‘guru’ who gives ‘permission’ to allow forbidden thoughts into consciousness… They agree that for years they have been suppressing all sorts of thinking because they classified it as insane.’

Improv is all about being in the moment and cooperating. Johnstone writes that the improviser needs to understand that his first skill lies in releasing his partner’s imagination, and accepting the offer your partner has made.

There is a wonderful game where two people are asked to sell something that the audience has decided on. Say it is pink elephants. One (Mary) starts and then at some point the other (Fred) enthusiastically says, “Yes that’s right, Mary” and develops her idea. Whereupon she in turn says, “yes that’s right, Fred” and continues. Knowing your partner will enthusiastically accept whatever you say and develop it releases the imagination, and the audience love seeing them combining and getting more and more absurd.

Johnstone’s book is full of really wonderful insights into the human mind, as he watches how people block and accept both their partners and parts of themselves. I only know of one book that specifically relates improv to therapy, Daniel J Wiener's Rehearsals for Growth. The subtitle of Alison Goldie’s excellent The Improv Book has the words ‘Improvisation for Theatre, Comedy, Education and Life’ on the front cover. Yes, it is for life. When I hear people say they have not laughed so much in years, this is the kind of therapy I want to be associated with.


Robin Shohet

Robin Shohet is the author of many books on clinical supervision, including Passionate Supervision (2007) and is co-author of the seminal training text for supervisors Supervision in the Helping Professions (with Peter Hawkins). Robin has supervised for over thirty years and co–founded the Centre for Supervision and Team Development in 1979.

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