Playing, Not Using: Using Improvisation to Develop Healthier Responses to Substance Abuse Triggers

As an experienced improvisation instructor and coach, Lisa Kays knows that the skills that make an excellent improviser are in many ways the same that make an excellent partner, friend, and colleague: listening, mutual support and trust, willingness to take risks, ability to collaborate, capacity to both lead and to follow, and a sense of spontaneity and fun.

In her presentation as part of the Williamsburg Place Lecture Series, Kays guides the audience through a few brief exercises to illustrate those qualities. Not only can good improv skills make you a better partner, friend, and colleague, they are also great tools to support recovery from addiction.

When she started coaching people with addiction, Kays noticed that improv had “some good overlays because the principles that make you a good improviser also help with recovery. People who start out in recovery basically learn how to live in a new world,” says Kays. “They’re living in a new reality. By its nature, improv gives you the opportunity to practice and try things out in a different reality.”

They can also relearn how to have fun without substances. “Games give them access again to that feeling of fun and they realize ‘Oh, this is in me. And if it’s in me, it must be something that I can access outside while still sober and not using substances.’ Sometimes it’s hard to remember that,” says Kays “But improv activities can regenerate that sense of ‘Oh, that’s in me’ and that memory and that knowledge can be powerful in itself.”


I Got your Back!

The starting point of good therapy is creating an atmosphere of trust. “Improv is based on support and trust; it doesn’t work unless we commit to that,” says Kays. “We never push ourselves to do anything we’re not comfortable with. Much of this is about accepting who we are, where we are, working with what’s real, what’s in the room, and doing the same for the people around us.” As an icebreaker, the improvisation coach could do the following exercise: Everybody who would like to participate walks around the room and pats people on the back, while looking them in the eye, saying “I got your back.”

“Just imagine how your relationship with a patient would be if you had a ‘No matter what, I have your back’ contract,” says Kays. “Especially in addiction, there can be a lot of judgment, shame, and guilt. It’s interesting what happens when we take that out and say whatever happens, I got you.”

There are caveats, though. When a woman in the audience mentioned the fact that many addicted people with trauma don’t want people to touch them physically, Kays clarifies that improv coaches should always make it very clear that patients don’t have to do the exercise.  “Whenever we do improv for clinical purposes, we always give permission to opt out. I do like people to stay in the room but if you don’t like the touching part, don’t do it. You don’t want to yell, that’s fine.”

In addiction treatment, we encounter high rates of trauma, fragility, and a lot of insecurity in the initial phases of sobriety. “We could even work with that,” suggests Kays. “Even if they say ‘I don’t want to do that,’ they may have the comfort level to talk about why they don’t want to do a certain activity.” But therapists should definitely always use their clinical judgment to decide what’s appropriate for each patient.

A Short Story

The seven-line story exercise is all about cooperation. Participants are asked to write an opening sentence starting with the words “Once upon a time.” After writing one sentence only, participants hand the paper to the person on their right. That person then writes the next sentence and passes the paper on. This continues—without talking about the story—until seven people have each contributed a sentence. The story is then read aloud by a person who was not involved in writing it.

One story members of the audience came up with read: “Once upon a time in a far-away land there were three children. And every day they grew and grew. Until one day there was no food. And because of that they learned to plant seeds and grow plants to eat. And because of that they had food every day. And finally, they had so much, they could share it with others in the community. And ever since then they have been happily working and running a coop in their community.”

This exercise is about cooperation and giving up control. “We think very linearly but the fun comes from the group process, so this exercise challenges that linear thinking,” explains Kays.

Where do we find the patient’s story in this structure? “Look for the phrase ‘until one day.’ It often points to the start of the trauma or the addiction,” says Kays. “You could ask them to tell their recovery story in this format and ‘until one day’ sort of maps the journey. This is the day everything changed.”

For people with anxiety issues simply reading the story out loud could be a good entry point. Some people may be reluctant to participate in the writing but may still be prepared to read a story because it has nothing to do with them. It is a low threshold that may lead to more once they trust the process more.  

Painting A Picture

The drawing exercise is especially effective for couples. In this case, each pair of participants gets one sheet of paper and different-color crayons. Each partner takes turns drawing a line on the paper. This is done without verbal communication. At some point one of them may feel the drawing is done. To signal that it is done, they write a letter. The letter is going to be the beginning of the title of the drawing. The partners then take turns writing letters until one of them stops at which point the drawing is finished.

There is more going on than meets the eye in this improv activity. “It can be activating, emphasizing that the pair is in a partnership,” says Kays. “But sometimes people think ‘you’re screwing up my drawing.’ So, this one can be more intense.” In a duo, you cannot simply sit back. People will gauge how much they can accomplish, and how much they must accommodate the other person.

One question therapists can ask in this exercise is “Why can’t you just be in the moment, even if it turns out to be nonsense?”  Often, we impose unnecessary standards on ourselves. “We have this thing to make it a thing,” says Kays even though the instructions never said it had to make sense but “we put all these expectations into it.”

To conclude the presentation, several participating pairs “explained” their drawing. This part of the exercise can yield interesting insights into the relationship dynamic. In therapy, the partners sometimes get contentious, arguing over what the drawing represents. If handled appropriately, it can be fun and another valuable piece to process.