Lessons from Improvisation: Creating and Holding Space for Change in Group Psychotherapy

This is a guest post article contributed by: Victoria Te You Moore, MA, LPC

“Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the openings which make them useful.”

– Lao Tzu

“Get out of your head, into your space, and await the invisible stranger.”

– Viola Spolin

Improvisers and group therapists alike have shown that powerful, disruptive, and transformative group-level events can happen in spaces in which members feel safe and supported enough to take deep emotional risks into the unknown with one another. What are some unifying characteristics of such transformative group phenomena? How do we, as group psychotherapists, create rather than fill spaces in our groups? How do we approach our role and our groups such that we shape and hold spaces that provide the necessary safety, trust, and potential for change? What relevant insights, if any, can be gleaned from theatrical improvisation? These are the questions I explore in the following paragraphs.


Brief history of theatrical improvisation in the U.S.

Improvisation has many manifestations, including jazz, theater, and comedy, to name a few. The unifying characteristic of all of these types of improvisation is that you are making things up as you go. I am trained in comedic and theatrical improvisation, which in the U.S. is called “improv” and has its roots in group work and social work. Viola Spolin founded the nation’s first improv theater and created the “Spolin Theater Games,” upon which Second City was founded. The original inspiration for “Spolin Theater Games,” in fact, came from Spolin’s attempt to bridge the communication, cultural, and learning gap that she encountered while teaching drama to poor urban youths at Chicago’s Hull House, where she had trained in group social work and experimental theater with Neva Boyd (Zellner, Cubbage, & Joseph, 2013).


Embracing the unexpected and the imperfect

“The master weaver incorporated the mistakes of his students into a larger pattern.”

– Sufi saying

Improv is done completely unplanned by two or more performers, usually with some audience participation (e.g., a suggestion of a title for the show). Imperfection, surprises, and “mistakes” are inevitable in such unscripted environments involving multiple participants and open systems (i.e., the performers and the audience) that interact with, and affect, one another. In the long-form improvisation taught at Chicago’s iO (formerly Improv Olympics) theater, “mistakes” are to be embraced and followed rather than erased or rejected. Through the principle of “yes and,” the improviser is called on to accept and build upon the reality of the show co-created thus far by his or her ensemble (Moore, Hamingson, & Asher, 2014). This “yes and” principle holds true even (and especially) when what the ensemble needs to embrace and follow is an apparent “mistake” by one of its members. When the ensemble denies such a “mistake,” it scapegoats the performer who first voiced this “mistake” and creates a split in the show between that which is acceptable and that which is not. On the other hand, when the ensemble is capable of weaving this “mistake” into the show’s narrative, it gives the show the potential to move into a new and uncharted reality.

Yalom and Leszcz (2005) contend that the group therapist “who cannot be criticized openly generally is the source of scapegoating.” In other words, if a group therapist is unable to tolerate the group’s projections of incompetence as well as to tolerate his or her feelings of imperfection and fallibility, then he or she risks generating a scapegoat in the group who will contain the therapist’s and the group’s feelings of incompetence. The scapegoat that emerges is what Rutan, Stone and Shay (2014) call the “encapsulated scapegoat,” who contains feelings (e.g., of incompetence) that the group is not prepared to tolerate or explore, and who is allowed only limited participation and expression in the group. The members, in turn, act as if the scapegoat is the only one who makes mistakes.

If, on the other hand, a group is able to integrate the seeming “mistake” rather than scapegoat it, it creates the space for potential transformation. I recall an Improvised Shakespeare Company (c. 2014) show in which the ensemble’s integration of a performer’s “mistake” transformed a show and brought it to new and unexpected heights. The show had established that its protagonist, Princess H, played by performer A, was looking for a prince. Performer B then misidentified a different performer as Princess H. Accepting this new reality, the ensemble now had two Princess H’s, who eventually had a satisfying faceoff in which they found kindred spirits in one another. It would have been far easier for the ensemble to react defensively and dismiss the “mistake” rather than to accept it as a new, potentially game-changing element of the collective reality. The show that would have resulted from such a denial and erasure would have been far less destabilizing and exhilarating than that which resulted from the courageous acceptance and moment-by-moment discovery that took place from the “mistake.”

Creating the space for change

The improviser Dave Asher (c. 2013) once challenged a student of his to have the courage to stop talking in a scene. “A scene only needs what it needs,” he also said. As group therapists, we can also get trapped in a state of attempting to add more to a group, to hold onto some fantasy of control and perfection. Such a state arises from fear and is what Lacan calls the state of “impotence” (Giraldo, 2016). This state is characterized by behaviors that yield false solutions and fill up space in the group. Much like an improv scene in which the improvisers try to make thing happen rather than make space and allow things to happen, the state of “impotence,” according to Macario Giraldo (2016), can be visualized as a full grid with no room for change:



Giraldo (2016) also said that “the ability to lose is the ability to move forward” from “impotence.” In other words, the ability to accept and mourn one’s losses and limitations is what frees one up to move on, to change, and perhaps to grow. This state beyond “impotence” is counterintuitively named as that of “impossibility” and can be visualized as a partially empty grid in which one’s limitations and impossibilities are accepted and mourned, and in which there is space for movement and change:



How, as group therapists, do we help our groups to move into a space with potential for change? How can improvisational principles help guide us in putting theory to practice? The seasoned improviser Bill Murray (Raab, 2012) offers the following:

You’ve got to be able to take a chance to die. And you have to die lots. You have to die all the time…The fear will make you clench up. That’s the fear of dying. When you start and the first few lines don’t grab and people are going like, ‘What is this? I’m not laughing and I’m not interested,’ then you just put your arms out like this and open way up and that allows your stuff to go out.


So when your “lines don’t grab” as a group therapist, rather than defensively fill space in the group with make-work, consider “open[ing] way up” and holding the space for “your stuff to go out.” To paraphrase from click bait viral news: what happens next might amaze you.


Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Maureen Ford, Zack Hamingson, and Kellie Rice for their input.

Cited articles

Asher, D. (c. 2013). Improv class. Chicago, IL: iO Chicago Training Center.

Giraldo, M. (2016). From the discourse of the Other to the discourse with others. [Special Institute] New York, NY: American Group Psychotherapy Association Annual Meeting.

Moore, V., Hamingson, Z., & Asher, D. (2014). Playing in vulnerability: Using improve principles to access, explore, and connect through vulnerable moments in groups. [Workshop] Boston, MA: American Group Psychotherapy Association Annual Meeting.

Raab, S. (May 22, 2012). “Bill Murray: The ESQ+A.” Esquire. http://www.esquire.com/entertainment/interviews/a14156/bill-murray-interview-0612/

Rutan, S.J., Stone, W.N., & Shay, J.J. (2014). Psychodynamic Group Psychotherapy. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

The Improvised Shakespeare Company (c. 2014). [Performance] Chicago, IL: iO Chicago.

Yalom, I., & Leszcz, M. (2005). The Theory & Practice of Group Psychotherapy (5th Ed.). New York, NY: Basic Books.

Zellner, D., Cubbage, C. & Joseph, B., curators. (2013). Viola Spolin: Improvisation & intuition [Exhibit]. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Library.