Resilience Is Hope With “Muscle” — And Improvisation Training Is The Work-Out That Works

If improvisation training sounds fun and fascinating, that’s because it is, which is not to downplay how seriously important it is for developing the psychological “muscle” for navigating struggles and challenges. Resilience is the capacity to stay the course during periods of stress and strain, and to recover from adversity. The capacities associated with resilience are best learned through situations that have built-in — but entirely made up — challenges through which we can practice thinking and responding when the pressure is on. In the same way that puzzles and games train the brain to search for strategies in response to a dilemma and solutions to problems, improvisation exercises train us to think and relate to uncertainty as a creative challenge.

The psychological “muscle” developed through improvisation strengthens our ability to adapt to shifting circumstances and to find what is useful in any situation. Just knowing that we can adapt removes a layer of anxiety about what might happen next — in life and in improv — and redirects it toward a greater confidence that we have the capacity to tap into creative resources at any time.

Improvisation is most famously associated with entertainment and performance but its roots are very much in real-life communication of life-altering ideas and information over significant barriers. In 1939, an actress and educator named Viola Spolin became a drama supervisor for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Recreational Project in Chicago — an effort made possible by the New Deal, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s groundbreaking response to the Great Depression. “Spolin worked primarily with children and recent immigrants to the United States, most of whom knew very limited English,” according to “How Improv Theater Was Invented To Help Immigrants Survive” on curiosity.com. Spolin was a student of sociologist and dramatist Neva Boyd, who taught that “simple play could ingrain children with lessons in language, cooperation, socialization, and other important skills. Since lectures and other traditional teaching methods were useless with people who couldn’t understand her, Viola Spolin turned her acting lessons into games.” Spolin once recalled, “The games emerged out of necessity…When I had a problem I made up a game. Then another problem came up, I just made up a new game.” The first improvisational theater performances emerged out of these games that had significant impact on the resilience of people challenged with adapting to an entirely new world and way of life. It was play that gave them a sense of belonging.

The elements of improvisation are a template for groups and cultures that promote healthy growth of the traits associated with resilience.

The “yes” factor. Resilience is the capacity to accept the reality that confronts us, which reserves mental and emotional energy for responding to it. The essence of improvisation is the embrace of what is happening in front of us, and saying “yes” without. This “yes” produces an alive, unrehearsed interaction with the other players that we cannot control but have an active role in shaping. Within the improv game or exercise, we are both vulnerable (because the “yes” means we do not know what another player or the group director will give us to work with, nor how the whole thing will play out) and empowered (the “and” which is our opportunity to add something that shapes the interaction).
Collaboration. To collaborate is to give fully and receive openly, to contribute with commitment and have enough flexibility to experiment with others’ ideas. The capacity to co-create has benefits far beyond the improvised game or scene. It is the secret to successful relationships and partnerships of all kinds.

Creativity. In “How Creativity Can Make You More Resilient,” Brene Brown describes one of the most powerful effects of improvisation training, the expansion of our creative capacities. “Creativity is the ultimate integration tool. And the best part is that it’s built in. In other words, we all have the power to create. And it’s in the act of doing and making a thing that you go from knowing a thing to living it.”

SOME GAMES AND EXERCISES THAT STRENGTHEN RESILIENCY TRAITS:

Pass The Clap: Everyone stands in a circle. One player starts by focusing attention on the person to his/her right and “passing” a hand clap. The person passing and the person receiving attempt to clap at the exact same moment. The less time between claps, the more successful they are. That person then “passes” the clap to the right, and so on.

Play this till the clap really flows nicely around the circle. Then tell the group that players may decide to pass the clap back to the neighbor they got it from. Try it and notice how disruptive this can be.

Objectives:

Focus attention on a partner in an attempt to synchronize movements;

Learn to just pick back up and keep going when things go wrong, the clap gets dropped, or any other mix-up;

Get out of the over-thinking mental habits of mind;

Produce a playful mindset in the group;

THROW A NAME
Stage 1: Standing in a circle, have each group member say their name in the order in which they are standing. Ask group members to look at each of the other group members as they say their name. Pick up the pace so the names are being stated rapidly.

Stage 2: The game begins with the group leader “throwing” to another group member by making a gesture of throwing or tossing and saying that member’s name. That member then “throws” or “tosses” to another group member by saying their name. This continues around the circle until everyone’s name has been “thrown” a few times.

Stage 3: Group members “throw” to one group member by establishing eye contact to make sure that person is ready to receive, while saying the name of someone else. The name that is spoken goes next, doing the same: establishing eye contact with another player and “throwing” to them, but saying a different person’s name. This goes on until everyone’s name is thrown a few times.
OBJECTIVES:
Combine cognitive (name recall) physical action and social connection in one exercise;
Connect group members through an engaging activity;
Demonstrate the “yes…and” principle of improv in action — giving and receiving;

Increasing tolerance for uncertainty;

THREE ICONS
The group identifies 3 iconic figures who inspire everyone in a similar way, e.g. Madame Curie, Michelle Obama, Patti Smith. A strong identifiable pose is created to represent each of these individuals. The group breaks into teams of 3. In the style of “rock, paper, scissors” everyone counts out loud “1, 2, 3” and then on the next beat assumes one of the postures. The goal is to get one of each icon represented at the same moment.
OBJECTIVES:
Experience the “high” of a “win” that can be experienced when the goal is achieved;
Observe what happens internally over the course of a few or more attempts to achieve the goial;
Identify internal shifts as each turn progresses, which are attempts to achieve the goal as the game proceeds;

MIND READER
This game is played in groups of 3. Players 1 and 3 sit on each side of Player 2 who is the Mind Reader. Player 1 says a word (any random word). Player 3 says a word (any random word). Player 2 then must connect those words as quickly as possible. Allowing any images, associations, song titles, whatever, to rise up in his/her mind and using those to connect the 2 words.
OBJECTIVES:
To practice receiving from others and playing with unedited responses;
To practice using what is given in some creative way (resilience)
To practice flexibility and mental agility (resilience)
To connect with other players in a structured game and honor their contributions by building on them

MIND MELD

​Still in pairs, players do a “free association” word game. This can be based on a randomly chosen theme, e.g. kinds of flowers, or food or with no suggestion. Making eye contact, the players say “One, Two, Three” and on the fourth beat say a word that pops into their head. They continue to do this, saying “One, Two, Three” and then the word that pops out, until both players say the same word at the same time.
Example:

Theme: Trees
Players 1 and 2: One
Players 1 and 2: Two
Players 1 and 2: Three
Player A: Birch | Player B: Christmas
Players 1 and 2: One

Players 1 and 2: Two
Players 1 and 2: Three

Player 1: Pine Player 2: Birch

Players 1 and 2: One

Players 1 and 2: Two
Players 1 and 2: Three

Player 1: Evergreen Player 2: Evergreen

Objectives:

  • Explore the process of nonverbal “getting on the same page” with another person;

FORTUNATELY/UNFORTUNATELY
The group sits in a circle and one person begins a story with a 1-sentence opener that starts with either “Fortunately” or “Unfortunately.” e.g. “Fortunately, I was able to buy tickets to see Hamilton.” The next player must continue the story based on the information given and start their sentence with “unfortunately,” e.g. “Unfortunately, I got the flu and was unable to attend.” Player #3 must build on that piece of information and begin with “Fortunately.” This goes on around the circle until a story is completed.
OBJECTIVES:
Experience a creative process that develops moment to moment in collaboration with others;
Practice shifting gears in real time as the story progresses in potentially unpredictable ways;
Look at the same situation from a variety of angles;
Practice perspective-taking;

I AM A TREE

Objectives:

  • Develop a story moment-to-moment;

Player A stands in the center of the circle and says “I am a tree.” Next player adds something to the tree, e.g. “I am a bird in the tree.” Next player adds something to the bird, e.g. “I am a piece of birdseed in the bird’s beak.” Next player adds something to the birdseed, e.g. “I am the lady throwing birdseed on the ground.” Next player adds something to the lady throwing birdseed, e.g. “I am the bench the lady is sitting on. And so on until everyone is in the story. The story can continue, starting with the last offer that was made: “I am the bench the lady is sitting on,” followed by “I am a cell phone that’s been left on the bench, “ etc

YOU ARE A ________________
This game builds on the “I Am A Tree” concept but in this version, a player assumes a physical posture in the center of the circle or onstage, e.g. standing with hand outstretched. Another player then assumes a complementary position — e.g. grabs the hand and shakes it saying “You are the new vice-president of this company!” followed by another player doing something entirely different that is inspired by the post, e.g. standing as a dance partner might saying “You are going to win So You Think You Can Dance this time!” and so on. The player who assumes a position is the “clay” that is then “molded” to mean different things based on others’ response to it.
OBJECTIVES:

  • To explore seeing the same thing from a variety of perspectives (resilience);

PARK BENCH
Establish 2 or 3 different movie theme songs from films that deal with stories about resilience or overcoming overwhelming obstacles to achieve a goal e.g. Mission Impossible, Rocky, Chariots Of Fire. Sing the first recognizable parts of each theme song out lout as a group as a warm-up to the exercise.
Two players sit side by side as on a park bench. Player #1 chooses one of the movie theme songs to be sung while he/she takes one of the chairs that make up the “park bench.” Player #1 recounts a personal experience of something they have done in their life that at one time they believed they could not do — a true narrative with a beginning, middle and end. They are instructed to tell the story one or two sentences at a time, in a bland, boring way. Player #2 repeats each sentence in a very emotional, animated way, amplifying the energy of the information. If it is a sad moment shared by Player #1, Player #2 amplifies the sadness (the “yes..) and then adds an “and” which is adding a layer of support, e.g.
Player #1: My daughter moved across the country and it broke my heart. I thought she wanted to get as far away from me as she could.
Player #2: Your daughter moved all the way across the country and you were just heart-broken. You thought meant she wanted to get away from you and it was just so painful.
Player #1: When she invited me to come out and stay with her for a week I thought I’d have to be on my best behavior. But I couldn’t figure out what she liked and didn’t like about me.
Player #2 : When she invited you to come out and stay with her you so wanted it to work out well, but you were really struggling. You wanted to get along with her so much, and you thought you had to figure out what she wants from you. It was so confusing!!
etc.
The interaction continues until the story is complete. The idea is for Player #2 to support Player #1 by supplying energy and empathy, and Player #1 can use the energy, empathy and hearing the details being repeated to become very aware of the story’s meaning and depth. The exercise can heighten the struggle and the strength the storyteller is sharing about and demonstrates a fundamental listening skill — really taking in what someone is communicating — the “yes” — and building on it in a way that enhances and expands on the emotional truth — the “and.”
OBJECTIVES
Practice focused listening;
Practice the fundamental principle of successful human connection — the “yes..and” that makes improvisation possible;
Share stories on the theme of resilience;
Acknowledge the strengths that can arise from overcoming adversity:

MOVEMENT-INSPIRED SCENES
This game involves 2 players who interact based on a suggestion and become the “clay” for the group in a sense because the group observes the interaction and then discusses the dynamic between the characters. Using the rules of improv, players accept what the other player “offers” them in terms of identifying who they are. Whatever has been established as true in the scene must remain true (if the movement inspires a player to say “its freezing in here” both players must continue as if it is freezing wherever they are).
Working in pairs, 2 players are assigned a simple movement. They begin doing the movement (waving a hand, stretching arms over head, looking at the ceiling, etc) together without speaking for at least 20–30 seconds. The idea is to allow some emotion and imagery to rise up in one or both players that helps to establish who these characters are and what they are doing — not coming from a cognitive idea first, but more organically coming from body-inspired emotion and creativity which then becomes an idea. One player is allowed to speak when given the okay by the director, and the other player must accept the characterization of the movement and “yes…and” it, e.g. an arm stretched upward becomes a kid raising their hand in school, and one player says “I love sitting next to you in home room” while both characters have their arms up, we know these 2 players are friends who are in middle or high school together. The dialogue goes from there until the group knows something about:
who the characters are to one another
where the characters are
what is the dynamic (or struggle) between the two characters or that they 2 characters are engaged with?

When the group has some clarity about the 3 scene elements, there is discussion about the dynamics between the characters and how these were expressed. The idea is to look at subtle ways people convey their responses to others, emotions, and ideas, the complexity of human connections, and how small interactions between people express larger issues.

For the improvisers and the group this is a large-scale collaboration and practice in letting go of an idea in order to honor what someone else offers, as well as making a strong initiation in order to help move the scene forward. Self-awareness develops from recognizing how we edit or hold back when playing with others in a scene like this.
Objectives:
Observe how subtle behavioral cues convey depth of meaning;
Observe the range of perspectives generated from the same experience;
Discuss human dynamics expressed by these interactions;
Explore how a group can be a resource for solving the problems expressed by these characters;
Explore clinical issues expressed by the struggle these characters seem to be in;

Improv training will strengthen the psychological “muscles” associated with resilience through a highly rewarding creative process. “Resilience is a reflex, a way of facing and understanding the world, that is deeply etched into a person’s mind and soul,” writes journalist Diane Coutu in “How Resilience Works” published in Harvard Business Review. “Resilient people and companies face reality with staunchness, make meaning of hardship instead of crying out in despair, and improvise solutions from thin air.”

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer. She is President of Lifestage, Inc, a training company providing professional and personal development workshops, classes and seminars to organizations, conferences and individuals. Lifestage is an approved provider of Continuing Education for social workers by New York State, provider #0270. She is host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a game wrapped in a storytelling show performed on Long Island, NYC and around the country.

LCSW, CGP, MT & Certified Practitioner of Applied Improvisation, consultant/trainer and writer/performer. www.lifestage.org, www.mostlytruethings.com

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