Research Paper By Lauren Flaherty
(Life Coach, UNITED STATES)
Improvisational theatre, often called improvisation or improv, is a form of theatre in which all actors are at their most present. This genre is unscripted, often comedic, in which performers accept what the other actors in the scene bring and develop the scene further through the concept of “yes and.” The idea of “yes and” is the most important rule of improv. It means that whatever idea an actor brings to the scene must be accepted and then added to or built on to further the direction of the scene.
I came to coaching with a theatre and speech communication background. Having spent 20 years performing, directing, teaching and inspiring adults and children to be more present and more creative, coaching almost found me. While attending the International Coaching Academy certification program classes and developing my style, I kept noticing how the rules and ideas in the improvisational theatre were very applicable to the world of coaching.
Sessions are unscripted
Like in coaching, in improv, powerful listening is the main objective. There is no way to plan ahead or script a scene because you have no idea what an actor is going to bring to a scene. This is one of the most difficult concepts to overcome in improv and in coaching. As I started out on this coaching journey, I kept trying to “fix people’s problems” in mentor coaching. Overcoming this need to be the problem solver took time. But as I practised presence during these sessions the skill became natural. The goal soon became one of powerful listening, reflection and observing and then offering these gifts back to the client. The same is true for improv. So often actors starting out will come into a scene with an idea of what they think is funny. How quickly scenes take a new direction and any pre-planning must be thrown out the window. Being present is crucial in improv, in coaching and in life. Listening is key.
As a coach, one of the most important skills you can bring to your client is to be an active listener. As you dance with your client in a session, you have to hear and understand what they want to accomplish through the coaching agreement. Following that, your presence is most important as you listen for subtle energy shifts. You reflect you notice, you ask a powerful question…one that will ultimately allow the client to discover something new. This discovery could help move them one step closer towards their goal. You listen some more, you observe a hesitation, a pause, you reflect, make another observation and give the client space. The dance between a coach and a client is beautiful and fluid with twists and turns that you could not predict. Those twists and turns are what make improvisational theatre just as exciting and fresh. The journey in both is what allows important discoveries along the way. It is truly the journey that often leads to a new destination, one of which the client may not have dreamed.
The History of Improv as a vehicle for social change
According to Wikipedia, “the earliest well-documented use of improvisational theatre in Western history is found in the Atellan Farce of 391 BC. From the 16th to the 18th centuries, commedia dell’arte performers improvised based on a broad outline in the streets of Italy. In the 1890s, theatrical theorists and directors such as the Russian Konstantin Stanislavski and the French Jacques Copeau, founders of two major streams of acting theory, both heavily utilized improvisation in acting training and rehearsal.In the 1940s, 50s and 60s, improvisation exercises were developed further by Viola Spolin, a theatre academic, educator and acting coach. She is considered an important innovator in 20th century American theatre for creating directorial techniques to help actors to be focused in the present moment and to find choices in improv, as if in real life.
Viola Spolin initially trained to be a settlement worker (from 1924–1927), studying at Neva Boyd‘s Group Work School in Chicago. In the mid-1920’s Boyd was an innovator, teaching group leadership, recreation and social group work. This type of work allowed Spolin to experience the concept of using traditional games to affect social behaviour in the inner city and immigrant children. This innovative idea inspired Spolin’s work in improvisation. She spent the rest of her life creating experiences and games that inspired actors to live in the present, unscripted world of improvisational theatre. One might argue that this type of work had seeds of inspiration in the world of coaching.
Spolin acknowledged she was also influenced by a man called J.L. Moreno. Moreno was the originator of the therapeutic techniques known as psychodrama and sociodrama. Psychodrama is an action method, often used as a psychotherapy, in which clients use spontaneous dramatization, role playing, and dramatic self-presentation to investigate and gain insight into their lives.
Moreno’s theory of “spontaneity-creativity” maintained that the “best way for an individual to respond creatively to a situation is through spontaneity, that is, through a readiness to improvise and respond at the moment.” Individuals are empowered to face their problems head-on and respond to them in a creative way. As they dance in the moment and address their goals directly, they may discover their own solutions. Just like in coaching.
Inspired by Moreno, Spolin’s exercises had a therapeutic impact on players. She drew on Moreno’s idea of including audiences in performances by using their ideas and suggestions. She strongly emphasized the need for the individual to overcome what she called “The Approval/Disapproval Syndrome,” which she describes as the performer blocking their own natural creativity in an effort to please the audience, director, teacher, peers or anyone else.[6.]This idea holds true in coaching, clients are leading the session. They are the ones with the answers. Coaches do not empower clients to make a change, they are a partner in the process. Similar to the Approval/Disapproval Syndrome in improv, clients cannot set goals to please their coach, they must empower themselves to take this journey and make their own change.
Accepting the current situation
Accepting their current circumstance, or accepting “where they are” in their process is crucial to a client’s experience with coaching. A client must partner with the coach to create a safe space, one for personal growth and development. Negative self- talk is often a barrier that clients place upon themselves. A growth mindset, a willingness to share and be vulnerable, and an openness for brainstorming solutions make sessions the most fruitful. The concept of “yes and” is demonstrated once again.
Creating the journey
Finally, like in improv, once a client accepts where they are, develops a plan and begins the transformation, the action plan lies within his/her capable hands. As a coach partner in this final stage of the process, observation skills, powerful listening and powerful questioning are crucial. The presence of both coach and client are critical as the session concludes and the dance is complete. There’s a strong energetic connection between the pair as they reflect on the journey but enjoy the outcome…knowing they were in the moment together the entire time.
Twentieth Century Acting Training. ed. Alison Hodge. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Elliot, Chad. “Video of Viola Spolin: Author of Improvisation for the Theater”. Seattle Improv Classes.
“Definition of psychodrama from Oxford Dictionaries Online”. Schact, Michael.
Spontaneity-creativity: the psychodramatic concept of change. In B. Clark, J. Burmeister, and M. Maciel, “Psychodrama: Advances in Theory and Practice.”
Richard Sisson; Christian K. Zacher; Andrew Robert Lee Cayton. The American Midwest.