Recovery and Improv: Just Say “Yes”
Perhaps “recovery” and “improv” seem odd in the same sentence.
Improv is usually associated with comedy and entertainment. Shows like Whose Line Is It Anyway? and comedy clubs like The Second City come to mind. But did you know improv techniques were originally designed to build life-coping practices?
Before it was entertainment, improv was therapy.
Viola Spolin, one of the first innovators of Improvisation Theater in the 1920s-1970s, worked with inner-city and immigrant children. She used theater games in groups as a way to build confidence and social skills in troubled kids. She believed play unlocks capacity for self-expression—and self-expression leads to healthier lives.
What skills does improv build?
“Well, you are about to start on the greatest improvisation of all. With no script. No idea what’s going to happen, often with people and places you’ve never seen before. And you are not in control. So say, ‘yes.’ And find people who say ‘yes’ back.”-Stephen Colbert
The main concept behind improv is “Always say ‘Yes.’” If the improv prompt says you’re a beet farmer on Mars, then put on your imaginary spacesuit and pick up your imaginary shovel. Always say yes, even if it’s ridiculous. If you expect your improv partner to say, “This is a stick-up, give me all your money,” but he actually says, “Look, I found a cave. Let’s go in it,” then you must drop your expectations, go with it, and say something like, “I just saw a bat in this cave!” Always say yes, even if you thought a scene was going to go another direction. Improv teaches adaptability.
Improv activities that build adaptability (for groups of 3-15 people):
- Yes, Let’s: Start with a situation such as throwing a party. One person in the group then suggests an action, for example, “Let’s bake a cake for the party!” Then the rest of the group says, “Yes, let’s!” and acts out baking a cake. Then another player says, “Let’s _____” and gives another action. The group responds as before. This continues until everyone in the group has gone. This is a good activity to warm-up the group to a “yes” mentality.
- Freeze: Start with a situation, such as hiking through the woods. Two people from the group start a scene “off the cuff.” Anyone from the group can say, “Freeze!” at any time and the people in the scene must freeze. The person who said “Freeze!” taps one of the people in the scene on the shoulder and takes their place. Then the scene continues.
How is adaptability helpful to someone in recovery?
Imagine a woman in recovery at Victory Addiction Recovery Center. Through individual and group treatment at Victory, she understands she needs distance from her ex-boyfriend who used to sell her cocaine. So she plans to avoid the neighborhood he lives in, mutual friends that they have, and places he hangs out. She has a script in her head of what she’ll say if she sees her ex again. Imagine that she follows her plan perfectly and successfully avoids both her ex and a relapse. But six months clean, she makes a new friend who offers her cocaine. She is not expecting this. Despite having the best, healthiest plans, she has to improvise.
Maybe it doesn’t seem that amusing improv games will help this woman with real-life situations, but the ability adapt is crucial in recovery. Because when does life ever follow a script?
So far, I’ve used comedic examples of improv games, but improv doesn’t have to be funny. You can create scenes that approach heavier issues.
A serious improv exercise (for a group of any size):
- Fill a bag with random household objects. Go around the group and have each person blindly pick an object from the bag. Then have each person give a two minute monologue about recovery. Have the person imagine they are telling a specific person—a parent, a friend, a child—about their experience in recovery. They have to incorporate the object into the monologue. For example, if someone picks a spatula out of the bag, the person might mime making pancakes for breakfast while they pretend to explain to their child what recovery is like. The objective of this exercise is to make a situation feel more real with physical action.
Even if an exercise doesn’t build a deeper skill, improv can be a great warm-up for meetings:
A great way to bring energy and concentration to a group is an improv exercise that gets people out of their chairs or gets their brains working. Plus, being a bit silly can help people open up and relax.
There are tons of resources for simple warm-up activities, but here are a few suggestions:
- Name Game: Each person introduces themselves with an action they think represents them.
- Emotion Orchestra: Someone becomes the “conductor” and assigns an emotion to each person in the group. When “conductor” points to each person, the person makes a sound of their emotion. The conductor points to different people like a conductor of an orchestra.
- Character Walk: The group walks around the room freely. When the leader calls out a word, the group walks like they embody that word. For example, monkey, tired, old, springtime, revenge.
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