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Mental Notes
Musings on creativity, psychology and living better

Improvising Family. Moving from "Yes, but…" to "Yes, and…"

Monday, March 24 2:18 PM

I doubt my family is that much different from many others. We repeat routine interactions as we go day to day. Things become rote, routine, familiar, automatic. Family roles become fixed.

You see me as…
I see you as…
We are…

The beauty of the arts, and drama in particular, is that it can bring a new way of experiencing ourselves and others. When families come in for therapy facing a crisis or dilemma, they are frequently locked in their day-to-day dynamic. Something is not working. Something needs to shift. For example, “Danny is oppositional, we can’t get out the door without a tantrum or fight!” or “He’s too angry, I’m always trying to keep everyone happy.”

It is my “job” to fix the problem. Or, as some parents hope, to simply “fix” the child.

But perhaps fixing your family is not my job. I actually think that my job is to “un-fix” things. What do I mean by that? “Fixing” implies that something is broken (i.e. The doorknob fell off) and it needs to be repaired to work the way it has always worked. To Un-Fix a family means that using dramatic therapeutic play gives families a chance to find new ways of being together and understanding each other. It’s not just a repair job that takes them back to the same-old same-old. It introduces something new. Maybe even something better.

I am talking about the power of dramatic improvisation in helping families re-connect and re-experience themselves in a way that empowers everyone to work harder toward a common goal. Instead of talking in circles about family problems or grilling the “identified patient” to change, the therapist and the family actively use the time together to engage in dramatic improvisation. This approach allows for an exploration of both problems and solutions from multiple perspectives. We improvise together, including changing roles and playing out what it’s like to be another member of the family.

“Dad, you’re going to play your son. Mom you're going to play dad. Go!” Suddenly, the regular routine is shifted and the roles are unlocked. Family members observe themselves through the lens of their loved ones, and everyone learns what it feels like to be in the other person’s shoes. It’s like Freaky-Friday in the therapy session (but without Lindsay Lohan or, going way back, Jodie Foster).

Improvisation heightens the “family drama” which helps to reveal the purpose and goal for the family to work toward, all while keeping things playful.

Engaged in power struggles? Let’s pretend there is a rope here between you. Let’s literally and metaphorically play Tug-of-War. Push - Pull - Push - Pull. What happens if you just drop the rope? What if you refused to pick up the rope?

Constant conflict in the morning routine? Let’s play out the scene as it goes normally. But this time, anyone in the family can freeze it and make a change, offer a solution, try an alternative.

Feel like you speak a different language, that no one listens to you? Let’s have each family member introduce their week in gibberish. The person to your left is going to translate. Did they get it right?

These are just some examples of small moments of dramatic improvisation and interaction that can have large impacts on families in therapy. Did it work? Did we all work together, were we able to play together? Family members get seen, heard, and experience themselves having fun, working together, and problem solving in a way that feels very different from the depressive, possibly toxic, ways they were relating to each other.

The beauty of improvisation lies in a single rule called “Yes, and…” The scene only works if the next actor takes what is offered him and plays off that. If he does not accept it, the scene dies. In the same way, if a family does not accept what is offered, even its hurtful dynamics, the life of the family will breakdown. The basic assumption of improvisation is that the story will continue, that it will change, and that it must be accepted in order to make way for the next change. The challenge and excitement in working with families is to acknowledge that yes, there is you, and you, and this dynamic, and that issue. With improvisation we can acknowledge all of that with a resounding YES, before working together to find an AND.