Can You “Hack” The Tensions Of Change? Improv Says Yes

judetrederwolff
8 min readJun 15, 2024

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The tensions of change are amplified as the pace of change accelerates. Improv is here to help.

Creativity is at the heart of our capacity to be agile, adaptive, able to pivot when circumstances shifts unexpectedly, and find novel approaches to unforeseen problems. In a world gone wild with rapid change, we are dealing with curveballs and sudden twists of fate that shape our present and make the future even more unpredictable. The capacity to let go of what we thought would happen next and respond to the unexpected is essential. Improv is a kind of creativity “hack” because even the most basic improv skills are deceptively powerful, making the unknown and unfamiliar not only manageable but fun, producing profound shifts in the way we think and connect to each other. (Also, improv is part of some key scenes in the Hacks season 3 on HBO Max, a brilliant show about comedy. And relationships. And curveballs).

A new study published in the Journal Of Creativity shows that tapping creativity through comedy boosts the capacity to think and act effectively in response to the unexpected, because at the heart of comedy is a phenomenon called “expectation violation.” Uncertainty and ambiguity — the conditions for “expectation violation” — are baked into any change process and are part of some of the most fun, fascinating things in life: Sports. Games. A specially-wrapped gift. Hacks season three (all right yes, that’s true of any season of all great serial television but Hacks season three is a standout). Any movie (even hate-watching a bad one is better than someone spoiling how it ends).

But uncertainty and ambiguity are also baked into the painful and stress-filled realities of change. To recognize that a relationship is toxic can feel important and liberating, but to move on from it sad and destabilizing. Every unhealthy habit is attached to a hidden conflict or insecurity that rises up with renewed intensity when we try to change. When a long-pursued dream becomes a real-life possibility, it can also mean a loss of the familiar that can derail determination and dredge up self-doubt. Also true of Hacks season 3 — because the central relationship has some toxic elements, and the characters are transformed by one another in a surprising way that leave you wondering “where will this go from here??”

Improv engages our own creativity in a group experience designed to embrace and play with the tensions of change. Uncertainty is baked into it. Expectation violation makes improv unique as an art form and useful as a way to strengthen psychological “muscles” for navigating the unknown. Ambiguity — because there is no way to know which of many possible directions the action will go — in a positive social experience sparks interest and attention.

Researchers in To Improve The Academy: A Journal Of Educational Development write that “improv players must make decisions within a short time, they must focus and stay in the present, and they must accept each other’s ideas without questioning. In summary, they must be able to handle expected and unexpected input equally well. Obviously, these abilities are not only useful on stage but also in real-life when it comes to act flexibly in social interaction.”

Like with a good game, or a riveting season of a groundbreaking series on HBO Max (did I mention Hacks season 3?) what captivates us is the gap between knowing and not-knowing. Where anxiety and dread are ready to jump in, we inject joy and creativity in an intentional way. Instead of studying and understanding some new idea in order to say yes to it, the improv approach is to say yes in order to understand it. This is essential right now, when the old ways of finding stability are unreliable or disappear altogether.

“As we enter an age of uncertainty, firms are desperately searching for the tools to keep pace. The problem is that most of our existing frameworks, developed during a more stable era, don’t work as well in dynamic conditions. This isn’t to say the old frameworks and the tools that went with them are completely irrelevant. There will always be a need to understand industry structure or to use your resources to create new advantages, but when the world is changing fast, we need different tools.” Strategy In An Age Of Uncertainty, Harvard Business Review

Some simple improv exercises that “hack” the tensions of change:

UNUSUAL USES FOR ORDINARY THINGS. Group members pull an item from a pocketbook or backpack — a pen, umbrella, charging cord, water bottle — and hand it to another person, who must demonstrate 5 unusual uses for that item. A pen becomes a screwdriver, a tiny sword, a mascara wand, a mini pool cue, a telescope, all based on how the person plays with it. Uncertainty is the psychological space between looking at a pen and letting go of what we think about a pen. Ambiguity is in the possibilities that emerge. Expansion occurs when we go beyond the conventional knowing and play around, unlocking spontaneity that is then available for other situations.

OUT OF CONTEXT: Everyone in the group takes a single line from a text on their phone and writes it on a piece of paper. The papers are placed in a bowl or box. Each group member pulls one and initiates a conversation with one other member using that line. The “receiving” player responds as if this line makes complete sense in this moment and in this (made-up) relationship, and a dialogue develops, inspired by this line. An example:

Line pulled from someone’s text: “At this point, only Todd will even consider getting up there.”
Player 2: Todd is so brave. All wedding toasts are a bit of a minefield but this one especially.
Player 1: Everyone is afraid they’ll say the wrong thing about either the bride or the groom. They’re such perfectionists.
Player 2: Todd has to have the toast pre-approved by both of them.

The idea is to listen closely, connect to the new idea a scene partner offers, and let a conversation unfold. Uncertainty is not knowing what the words on the paper will be, how the person receiving it will respond, and what will come next. Ambiguity is in the many different directions the conversation might take. The same line could inspire an entirely different dialogue:

Player 1: At this point only Todd will even consider going up there.
Player 2: It’s an attic. What makes you all so afraid of attics?
Player 1: Um..only every single movie with an attic in it.

The speed of change means there is much about the future that we cannot predict. When things could go in many possible directions, skills for managing complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity can leverage the creative power to make the most of the moment.

In improv scenes, there are 2 levels of tension:

  1. The creative tension between players engaged in the act of making things up together in real time. To co-create an imagined world and the characters and relationships within it requires a set of high level thinking and emotional skills. Improvisers make and keep agreements about the structure of the game or scene, and honor others’ choices and ideas. Listen closely. Pick up on behavioral cues. Share focus. Notice everything. Players always say “yes” to one another.
  2. The tension between the characters, produced by their different quirks, wants, points of view, and the situation they are in. Characters do not have to say “yes” to each other, and can have vastly different perspectives that feed a dynamic reality between them. Through scenes and characters who impact one another in all kinds of weird and wonderful ways, improv is a rich opportunity to play with, and lean into, tensions with no obligation to resolve them. This might mean leaning into deeply conflicting wants, or traits that drive the other character crazy.

Instead of fixing a conflict or solving a problem a character is facing, we can mine it for comedy. Heighten the pressure. Lean into the ways characters are weirdly impacted by one another, and discover a made-up reality that no one controls, but to which everyone involved contributes. When we react in this heightened way, we stretch emotionally in ways that translate into a psychological freedom from logical constraints. In a time of radical change, we need experiences that tap into the unusual or irrational so we are better prepared to say “yes” to the unexpected in real life.

As an example, imagine a scene in which two characters are in a small rowboat after one of the oars has floated away. The characters might fight over who is to blame, and see where that takes the scene. The temptation in a scene like this is often to reduce the tension by solving the problem. Fetch the missing oar. Figure out how to creatively use the remaining one. Drum up an imaginary sail out of nowhere, and “win” the scene.

But suppose the players embrace the uncertainty and ambiguity. One character stakes out a weird point of view:

Player 1: I read about how positive vibes between people can actually move molecules. Like together our minds can move energy. I read a situation exactly like this in Oracle magazine.”
Player 2: I prefer to rely on actual science. Like the cloud cover plus the currents here tell me we could be drifting out to open water right now.
Player 1: It actually feels good to be out on the water with you. I just absolutely trust we are going to drift in a good direction.
Player 2: This is not how I pictured us finding time to really get to know each other.
Player 1: I’d like to jump in and swim around.
Player 2: There are dangers beneath the surface of this water I do not want to think about. But the entire time we’ve been out here I can think of nothing else.
Player 1: We should just enjoy a nice relaxing afternoon.
Player 2: This is how I enjoy things. Relaxing has nothing to do with it.

While real people stuck in a rowboat with one oar would most likely be using their collective resources to solve the problem, the relationship dynamic will be a powerful part of how decisions are made. Approaching a situation from an improviser’s mindset, we can deal with both levels of tension at once. We make imagined people seem real, and mine that for layers of human dynamics. Characters who are messing with each other also impact each other. They may be changed by one another, or at least develop some unanticipated insight. But that only happens when, instead of seeking resolution to a problem, we play around with what lies beneath the tensions: conflicting wants, strongly-held beliefs, philosophies.

“Improv removes the need to be right all the time. Improv frees one to say, “I don’t know.” And improv takes the focus off you as an individual, and places it on the group, and the common good,” Marc Evan Jackson, Best-Kept Secret To Creating Social Change: Improv

In these times of rapid change, “fixing” problems and reducing tensions is less useful than enlarging our capacity to play with ambiguity and uncertainty. New designs for living will emerge and we can meet those challenges through practicing “expectation violation” in a fun and fascinating way. And watch Hacks for inspiration.

Jude Treder-Wolff is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Certified Practitioner of Applied Improvisation, writer/performer, storytelling coach and improviser. Her new solo show FASTER — comedic storytelling about the impact of the pace of change on our mental health — is part of the Turn On The Lights Fest at the off-Broadway Playhouse 46 at St. Luke’s in NYC.

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judetrederwolff

LCSW, CGP, CPAI, writer/performer, storyteller, storytelling coach. Improviser on team AURA at Magnet Theater in NYC. Storytelling coach for individuals & orgs