Improv Therapy seeks to apply the principles of comedic improvisation as valuable life skills and use improv games and techniques in therapeutic settings to teach and encourage healthy mental and social behaviors.
It is a bold new field which has been emerging in psychological scholarship in the past decade as a promising art therapy applicable to depression, anxiety and addiction disorders.
Improv Therapy has many similarities to Drama Therapy, an older but still growing practice within the field of art therapy. All art therapies utilize the freedom of artistic expression to create a positive environment in which healing can occur. Drama Therapy specifically will often include improv games as an early warm up to help generate an atmosphere of support and joviality. Where Improv Therapy and drama therapy differ is in the specific application of the exercises to the patient. While Improv Therapy focuses mainly on developing life skills, drama therapy delves deeper into the personal experiences of the patient.
Drama Therapy sessions often include structured improvisation in which patients will act out scenarios that are pertinent to their individual life, and then discuss how their behavior is affected by the “roles” they tend to play in those scenarios. The scene might then be played again with the patient being encouraged to explore new outcomes. If the patient is often fearful and timid around their employer, for example, they might act out scenes in which they can experience speaking confidently and authoritatively to a boss figure. The goal of Drama Therapy is to reimagine the patient’s relationship to themselves and to their place in society. In doing so the patient may hopefully discover avenues to transform these relationships for the better.
As a field, Drama Therapy emerged in theoretical lectures and publications in the early to mid 20th century. Dramatists and Psychologists authored texts theorizing the possible therapeutic applications of group dramatic participation. In 1979 the North American Drama Therapy Association (NADTA) was incorporated as a governing organization for North American dramatherapists to provide greater standardization in quality of treatment. Since then the field has grown considerably. Today there are five accredited universities offering degrees in Drama Therapy. The NADTA requires completion of a degree from any of the five universities as well as an examination to be certified as a Registered Drama Therapist.
Where Improv Therapy and drama therapy differ is in the specific application of the exercises to the patient. While Improv Therapy focuses mainly on developing life skills, drama therapy delves deeper into the personal experiences of the patient.
Improv Therapy presently does not have nearly the same infrastructure as Drama Therapy nor the scope. It is an experimental field much like Drama Therapy once was and in some ways still is. There is rapidly increasing scholarship on the mental health benefits of regular improv practice, and a growing number of professionals dedicated to bringing improv lessons into rehabilitation centers and mental health institutions. The practice is developing slowly but with positive results.
Improv Therapists connect many of their teachings to the concept of “Yes, and.” In improv comedy, “yes and” is a motto to remind improvisers that in performance they should support any new information supplied by their partner and then build on it with their own ideas. It is designed to create improvised scenes that develop and progress quickly. In Improv Therapy, “yes and” is used as a central theme towards radical acceptance and healing. Improv Therapists teach that applying “yes and” to daily life allows us to accept new situations as they are - without judgement - and allows us to take action within our new circumstances that lead us toward healthier, more fulfilling lives.
Both Drama Therapy and Improv Therapy use exercises typically associated with theatrical performance and apply them to a healing setting. They create environments in which participants can feel safe and supported as they take risks and behave in ways which may be counter to their normal habits. The goal in doing so is to enable the participant to develop skills that will help them achieve their emotional, social and interpersonal goals. While Drama Therapy achieves this through role playing in situations specific to an individual’s diagnostic needs, Improv Therapy reinforces universal life skills which are frequently beneficial to those working towards better mental health.