Comedic Improvisers are known for their ability to create absurd and wacky characters, often including funny voices or strange physicalities. These performances are entertaining, as the characters might remind us of people we know, or are simply so outlandish we cannot help but laugh. In Improv Therapy, character work is a difficult skill that is often saved for more experienced groups. But encouraging patients to experiment with taking on heightened characters is a useful tool in understanding the anxieties so many patients feel when interacting with others.

When we introduce character work to a group of patients in recovery, we start with a game that can feel therapeutic itself in many ways. The game involves a participant in the center of our circle presenting a brief impersonation of someone in their life – often family or friends. Someone else will then take their place in the center of the circle and recreate the impersonation the other patient just performed. They will then present their own impersonation of someone in their own life. 

This exercise allows us to potentially relieve a bit of stress we might be feeling towards the people in our lives (many impersonations were of bossy parents) but it also helps us begin taking on new characters in performance. All the participants in a recent lesson at the Above and Beyond clinic in Chicago easily slipped into new voices or patterns of speech as they imitated their loved ones. Other still added a memorable walk, or simply changed their posture to reflect that of the person they were imitating. 

When a new participant would step into the middle and recreate someone else’s impression, they would mimic the voice and physicality they had just seen. None of us had met each other’s loved ones, but we were able to perform them as a character regardless. These introductions into character work are much more readily accepted when we are using them to portray people we know well, or to mimic another’s performance. The exercise readies us to begin working with characters we invent from imagination.

As our lesson continued, we played an exercise called “Panel of Experts,” in which participants are asked to discuss a chosen topic as if they were the top minds in the field. We encouraged the patients to create a character who might be an expert on the chosen topic and respond to questions as this character. This instruction was not enthusiastically accepted. We had a number of patients deliver hilarious performances as imagined characters, but most chose to use their own name and speak in their own voice. 

In our reflection at the end of the lesson, we discussed the hesitance to perform as an “expert” character, even after the brilliant impersonations we saw earlier in the day. Most agreed that they feared being judged for acting silly. Indeed, playfulness is a skill most adults are conditioned out of as they age. We are taught that behaviors such as speaking in a goofy voice or moving with a silly walk are immature. But then a man at the back of the room said he feels as though he plays different characters throughout his day to help him feel safe. He discussed presenting himself as a specific type of person when he is with friends, and another type of person when he is at work or in recovery groups. “Why,” he said, “is it hard to play a character onstage if it’s what we do all day long?”

At Improv Therapy Group we believe the answer is fear. We fear judgement that we believe comes with behaving differently from others or behaving in a way that is atypical to our environment. We conform to avoid judgement. Out of fear we are driven to play the character we think others want to see. And it is that same fear that made the “expert” performances so challenging. The kind of willingness and silliness that is required to invent a character onstage is not the typical behavior of patients in rehab. It runs counter to the character we feel the setting demands of us, and expressing these feelings could engender judgement. Thus, our need to play specific characters in life can discourage us from playing imaginary characters onstage. 

This is precisely the reason we perform this exercise. We believe that by creating a space where patients can feel safe to let go of their fear of judgement and perform onstage, it can help build the confidence to let go of their fear of judgement in life. Those who had adopted an “expert” character during the exercise confirmed that the self expression had felt freeing. It is our hope that in future workshops we can encourage more patients to perform in character onstage, and by taking on a character through improv they might gain the freedom to let go of the false characters they play everyday. 

Improv Therapy Group offers an applied improv approach to team building, communication, creativity and learning emotional intelligence.

A few example modules include:

  • Magic Words: Communication and “Yes, And”
  • On the Spot: Public Speaking and Performance Anxiety/Stage Fright
  • Heal Thyself: Humor and Self Care
  • Let Go: Stress Reduction Through Improv
  • Us is More: Group Mind and Team-Building
  • Feelin’ It: Emotional Intelligence and Empathy
  • and many more . . .