You walk into a room and before you are two empty chairs. The clock on the wall says 3:01pm. You walk around the room and take in your surroundings. The seat to the right looks comfortable so you sit. The brightness of the lights heats your skin and a few droplets of sweat rise on your forehead. In your stomach you feel anxious, not a lot, but just enough that you feel the butterflies. You are alone. Across from you you take another look at the other chair and think to yourself, Who is joining me? What will we be discussing? A moment passes, you take a deep breath and the door to your left opens. A man walks in. He will be working with you today. He is walking slowly, is slouched over, and is avoiding eye contact. With each step you begin to think, Why is he walking so slowly? He looks sad… maybe depressed? Did he have a bad day? Did he have a good day? The man now stands before the chair in front of you. Your thoughts are racing, but you continue to observe the man. What is his body language telling me? Does he feel the same warmth from the lights as I do? Where is he coming from and what brings us together today? What is this man thinking about me? What are we going to talk about? You glance at the clock again, 3:02pm.
Sound familiar? What if I told you that the above had nothing to do with a counseling session…well not yet anyways. Instead, it was the beginning of an improv scene. But Jaime, what is improv? Improv is a unique form of comedy that is performed without a script. Actors, or improvisers as they say, create scenes off the top of their heads based on the information their scene partner presents. The best example of improv comedy available to the general public is the ABC show, “Whose Line is it Anyway.” In this show Drew Carey, the host, gives the improvisers games to play with the help from an audience suggestion. Together the improvisers build relationships, discover interesting character philosophies, and apply these beliefs within the worlds they create…all before our eyes. The truth in improv comes from listening to your partner and reacting with real emotions. If I can discover what makes the characters in my scenes tick, then I know how to push them, how far we can go, and where our road might lead.
Often times we see actors improvise their way through a scene inside a whale, on a spaceship, or acting as married couple who also happen to be kangaroos. With improv it doesn’t matter the scenario, or the wild characters you are endowed to play. What matters is the relationship you create, and the chances you are willing to take with your partner. The audience watching doesn’t care about the plot; they care about the journey you take them on. They want to witness the process in which the characters truly discover who they are.
I have been studying and performing improv for over five years, and it wasn’t until I was in my practicum course years later when I realized the similarities between the two disciplines. Although there are no rules in improv, there are frameworks to keep in mind that help lead to successful scenes, and with practice these skills become second nature. As an improviser we learn that everything has a meaning. Every action done, every word said, everything can be used to discover who a character is. Improv happens in the here and now, characters don’t talk about the past or future, they deal with what is happening right in that moment. In the opening paragraph I presented an example of what an improviser might be thinking at the top of a scene. Do you see the connection? Have similar thoughts passed through your mind at the top of a counseling session?
Time for an experiment, reread this blog up to this point but replace “improv” with “counseling,” and “scene partner” with “client.”
Did you try it? What are your thoughts?
In counseling, a client walks in and we have no idea what is about to happen. All we know is that in the next 50 minutes we will experience a conversation that, like improv, has never been done before, and will never be done again. It is unique to right now. We rely on our training to guide us. We observe the behaviors of our clients, their body language, and reflect on their words. As sessions unfold, we find ourselves engaging in improvised conversations. We are two people listening and responding truthfully to each other. We take chances, and adjust to new information. There are no scripts to follow in counseling, though we may follow frameworks to stay on track, just like improv.
Think about some activities you engage in outside of counseling? Have you found any common threads?
Jaime Castillo is a counselor who works for a non-profit agency in New York City.