How “Confessions” Can Unlock Creativity In Improv And In Real Life

judetrederwolff
6 min readMay 3, 2024

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Improv scenes, entirely made up on the spot, rely on players’ willingness to surrender some of our self-protective habits of mind and behavior in order to create with other people. To generate and sustain a creative space together, there has to be enough psychological safety for everyone to lower — or shift entirely out of — defensive habits of mind and unblock the inner spring of spontaneity. From this expanded mental and emotional state, magic can happen. When it does, improvisers can discover remarkable, unexpected connections between ideas that delight them and the audience. And when applied to real life scenarios, these techniques can lead to a refreshing and game-changing openness to the new.

The creative force we tap into through improv can super-charge our sense of possibility, but it does take us out of the familiar and our defenses might put up a fight. To improvise we have to get at least a little bit weird, and be willing to play with realities that are beyond the rational and the reasonable. This poses a psychological risk of being too far into the unknown and predictable, exposing us to disappointment, pain, judgement, and rejection. Our defenses are designed to protect us from exactly this kind of psychological injury. Even when the worst that could happen in an improv scene is that it does not go well, it can still feel like the worst that could happen. We have to come at this fear of exposure, failure, and mistakes in an unusual way or we will not create anything ever.

The most direct way to bypass these habits of mind is to play with the opposite perspective.

Instead of trying to look good in a scene, choose to lose. Never try to “win the scene” by solving the problem or getting things right, unless the character is a wildly out of touch perfectionist, in which case wanting to be absolutely perfect will absolutely fail. Choose to lose.

To give a scene momentum, deepen the relationship by making a confession.

To deepen the dynamic, make it worse for the person who is choosing to lose or making a confession.

An improv scene example:

Player 1: I didn’t make a reservation because I’ve always been able to go right in, but tonight there is an hour wait.

Player 2: Oh wow, that’s a long wait. I’m starving. And it was such a long drive to get here, we can’t anywhere else quickly… (making it worse, not fixing the problem)

Player 1: This place is really good, but it’s never this busy. I feel so bad. I should have checked! (choosing to lose)

Player 2: I’m feeling weak. I didn’t eat lunch because you said this place was so good and I wanted to have room to eat all the things I saw on that menu. (making it worse)

Player 1: I was sure we would just walk right in. But boy was I wrong. The thing is, I have to confess, I just don’t believe in reservations. I think they’re a corporation forcing you to make a commitment that serves them more than it serves the customer. (making a confession, sharing more about the character having a philosophy that is a little bit weird)

Player 2: So you actively choose not to make reservations. Even when you’re on a date and promising we will have the best dinner for 100 miles. I was really really looking forward to this based on everything you said! (making it worse)

Player 1: Yeah, I also have to admit I thought they would let me jump the line even if there was one. Because I write such good Yelp reviews. I thought they’d bump me up. (more confession, adding more dimension to this character’s weird point of view)

Player 2: They probably don’t really know you just by your Yelp reviews though (making it worse)

Player 1: I have a current photo on my Yelp page. Dammit, I must be deluded!! I thought these things mattered. But I believed they would care about those reviews if they care about their business!!!***

With this exchange, we have 2 characters actively shaping each other through their choices and interaction. Player 1 making a confession expands the reality of who this person is. Player 2 deepens the dynamic by not only avoiding the “let’s-fix-the-problem” default mode that can be activated by the stress of making things up in an improv scene, but also by giving the character an emotional truth: The character is hungry, and disappointed and learning important things about their date through this situation unfolding. And the audience learns about both of them as the dynamic is discovered.

Confessions work in scenes because they reveal human wants, needs and choices without judging them for rightness or even making sense. They open a door that usually clangs closed when we make mistakes or disappoint ourselves or someone else through an error in judgement.

An improv scene is an artificial situation in which we surrender the need to be right or to win, and in this way is a safe laboratory for real life situations in which our defenses might rise up. When we experiment with this mindset in a playful way, we can look at a new landscape of possible change. We often fear or avoid change in real life because we know that in unfamiliar territory, mistakes will be made. We will mess up. We will be misunderstood even when we do not mess up. The capacity to tolerate this discomfort in order to grow can be expanded with practice and support. Imagined realities are psychologically safe spaces to explore new choices.

This is why a “confessions” exercise in an applied improv situation can be a useful exploration of accepting all of our humanity. By playing with the dynamics of disappointment in relationships, we stretch beyond the defenses easily activated when we realize a mistake, misstep or misunderstanding.

In an applied improv context, we can “choose to lose” in an imaginary encounter that has no real-world consequences but can have real-world impact. An example:

A facilitator assigns two characters a situation in which Person A is accusing Person B of something. Person B is instructed to “choose to lose” in this scenario, no matter what the accusation is. This means radical acceptance of responsibility for the thing, probably a confession and maybe some of the character’s beliefs.

Person A: I created all the power point slides for the first half of the presentation and you were supposed to do the ones for the second half but they are not here. I don’t see that you did any work.

Person B: Well yeah at this point I have to admit…I never did it. I feel just awful.

Person A: What?! This presentation is about collaboration. I don’t understand how you could just bail on it.

Person B: I did work on the slides. And every one of them was terrible. I read your slides and they were great. All of mine were just so bad I gave up. (confession, no defensive posturing, no attempts to problem-solve)

Person A: We could have talked about this. I had no idea. I would have helped you. (making it worse but not attacking)

Person B: I know. Every time I thought about asking you for help, I’d think about what to say. Then I’d hate everything I was about to say, so I couldn’t say it. (now we have a pattern which gives more insight into the character, more confessing, no attempt to minimize the problem or redirect the blame)

Person A: But this whole presentation was about collaboration and silencing the inner critic. (making it worse!)

Person B: I know. That’s why it is so awkward to talk about. My mind is trying to cancel everything I’m saying right now. You must be so disappointed in me. (digging deeper into the weird reality, confessing)

The purpose of this kind of scene work is not to find a solution for a character’s procrastination nor to make excuses nor minimize authentic responses to disappointment. It is to see how it feels to let go of defensive thinking and see what creative choices emerge as a result. When we shift focus from defending or explaining to our partner, picking up on even very subtle behaviors or words in order to amplify the dynamic and explore the discomfort, we become more available to our spontaneity. And that kind of stretch is what we take with us.

When we “choose to lose” in the simulated reality of an improv scene, we have an opportunity to expand in a unique and powerful way that can increase our capacity to “read the room” in real life situations. When less defended we notice more. When we accept our humanity and can play with the idea of being wrong, we work the “muscle” of radical self-acceptance and practice skills for creative expansion that opens us to richer, more rewarding real life choices and relationship-building.

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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