Can Improvisation Change Your Life?

The potency of the spontaneous moment

Posted Mar 08, 2018

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Ellie sat in the therapy chair across from me and repeated things she had said many times before. “I am not good enough.” “I am not smart enough.” “I don’t know what to do.” “I feel hopeless.” The energy was draining from the room. We were both stifling yawns. Ellie wanted change. She felt trapped in a body and identity that she judged and couldn’t abide.

Out of the blue, I threw a light-blinking rubber ball at her as she was talking.  For the first time in months she said something new. 

“What the...”

Then she laughed. And threw it back to me.

So I threw it back to her while I said, “Once upon a time there lived a woman named Ellie.”  She threw the ball back and said, “She died an old woman with regret in her belly.”

Something in the room had changed. We both had more energy. The moment felt charged with a playful potential.

To improvise means to do something impromptu, unrehearsed and not routinized.  Improvisation is to act spontaneously. 

Viola Spolin is often called the mother of improvisation. In at least one way, she truly is. Her son, Paul Sills, founded The Second City in Chicago. Second City spawned Joan Rivers, Steve Carell, Tina Fey and many more.  But Spolin’s goals in improvisation went beyond comedy. Trained in the 1920s during the Progressive Education Movement by social worker and activist Neva Boyd, Spolin taught theatre games to working mothers during the Depression and to various immigrant populations via the WPA.  Later she trained professional actors. 

To Spolin, improvisation is a way out of the “approval/disapproval system” that blocks our authentic experience of ourselves and each other. Improvisation is the path that frees us from the confines of our own evaluative, self-conscious and repetitive stories. Improvisation opens us to our own aliveness, even in the smallest moments.

Through theatre games, Spolin teaches us to put our attention fully on something or someone, and then respond from our inner impulse. In this way we experience the extemporaneous energetic emergence of the intuitive. And through the intuitive, transformation is possible.


Through spontaneity we are re-formed into ourselves. It creates an explosion that for the moment frees us from handed-down frames of reference, memory choked with old facts and information and undigested theories and techniques of other people’s findings

Spolin’s improvisational methods are not just for comedians and actors, but provide space for social and psychological reform. For the most part, societal norms demand submission to the rules and narratives of the day. Teaching others to observe using their own senses and encouraging them to respond from their individual inner desire is a radical act. And yet, adaptation and development depend on spontaneous new discovery and learning. This is a paradox that we all live with, to conform or to transform.

Playing and improvising is a natural inclination that seems to be drilled out of us as we mature. We are taught that play is for children. Once we are adults we must play by the rules—so, so many rules.

Tina Seelig, in her book “inGenius,” speaks to the rules.

We make the mistake of assuming that the way we do things is the right way. For example, we believe that specific types of clothing are appropriate for different occasions, we have preconceived ideas about how to greet someone, and we have fixed ideas about what should be eaten at each meal of the day.

These fixed rules become the basis by which we judge ourselves and others. Spolin would argue they impose the approval/disapproval system that shuts down our access to direct experience and innovation. In this way, we become less inventive as we grow older.

Dr. Seelig cites a study from the University of California at Berkeley, in which preschool children are compared with college students when given the task of finding ways to manipulate and turn on an unconventionally constructed music box. The study found that the preschoolers were more apt to try unusual approaches—and generally succeeded. The college students tried the most obvious approaches to manipulating the music boxes, and they stuck to them, even though they were not successful. 

The preschoolers were improvising. They hadn’t yet been blocked by the rules of living.

For Ellie, the rules of living have taken over her natural inclination to reform herself and find new ways of turning herself on. She is getting older now, approaching 50, and finding herself fixated on what she is not. She can’t see a way forward. Her frame of reference tells her this: Women who reach her age and have not accomplished certain goals are hopeless and unworthy. Ellie is playing her part without the energy of improvisation and the excitement of possibility. She is feeling deadened by the mindset and cultural narrative she is following. 

Neuroscientist, surgeon and musician Charles J. Limb of the University of California, San Francisco, studies creativity. Using fMRI, Dr. Limb has examined the brains of the jazz musicians and hip-hop artists when they produce work that is either memorized or improvised. All of the scans indicate increased and heightened brain activity during the improvisations, as compared to the memorizations.

Like Spolin, Limb finds that creative, intuitive thinking seems to thrive on the immediacy of the improvised moment. 

It seems quite possible that discoveries made spontaneously can provide the openings for innovation and transformation that advance us as individuals, and even  as a culture.

As for Ellie, our sessions have become more infused with improvisation. She finds it enlivening and we are making new discoveries about who she is and what else she can become. She is more invested in the possibility of reinventing herself and making change. Now, improvisational games and techniques have freed up her intuitive, creative thinking. She’s got a way to go and change is hard work, but her self-discovery had been reignited.

What about you?

Can I toss you the blinking ball right now? Are you ready?