Meet Them Where They Are
Improvisation can help social workers co-create meaning with clients.
Posted March 4, 2020 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
There’s a classic social worker saying, “Meet them where they are.” Now, I’m not a social worker, but I’ve always been taken with this simple idea—that we should accept people’s realities no matter what they’re feeling or how they’re reacting. It’s very aligned with improv thinking, so I wanted to explore the intersection between social work and theatrical improvisation.
Improv, as we know it from Whose Line is It Anyway? or the Second City, began as social work. Viola Spolin, whose Improvisation for the Theatre serves as the foundation for contemporary improvisation, studied at Neva Boyd's Hull House Settlement, one of the birthplaces of modern social work. Boyd was an expert on the benefits of play and used her recreational games to train social workers in group work. Her Handbook of Recreational Games is still indispensable for teachers today.
Spolin started developing her own dramatic games as part of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. She led recreational game workshops for low-income and immigrant children, eventually becoming a supervisor for the WPA Recreational Game Project in Chicago. Modern improvisation was born here with some early games including audience suggestions. Spolin went on to refine and develop her dramatic improv games, eventually collaborating with her son Paul Sills at Playwrights Theatre Club and Compass in the 1950s. Sills went on to found the Second City in 1959 with Howard Alk and Bernie Sahlins.
Spolin's early history is important to keep in mind when making connections between improvisation and social work. The question isn’t really, “Are there connections?” since the two are inextricably, historically linked. The question is how connections between the two fields can enhance each other.
What Experts Say
A few scholars have written about the overlap and intersection between social work and improvisation. Uta M. Walter of the Alice Salomon University of Applied Sciences in Berlin created a framework to look at certain aspects of social work as a kind of improvisation, or, as she calls it, a third space. Walter explained to me that her work doesn’t look at social work only as improvisation, but that improvisation “expands our view and understanding of what social work is and does. It makes aspects visible, speakable, trainable. and researchable that otherwise go unrecognized.”
The idea is that, though social workers follow shared theories and methods, improv helps them adjust to a given situation when they find themselves interacting on-the-spot with their clients. Walter explains, “Any co-creative, collaborative professional practice with other human beings is complicated and fluid, and the best practitioners, therefore, combine high technical skills and knowledge with an artful improvisational ability.”
Director of the School of Social Work at Carleton University Sarah Todd writes about the connections between improv and social work in terms of social worker training. She added improv elements to her students’ training and found that it helped them construct meaning with clients instead of seeking some kind of prescriptive truth. When I asked Todd about the future possibilities of the improv and social work connection, she said, “When our worries about uncertainty become loud in our head, we have a tendency to limit our listening and our exploring and instead push for solutions. I think if we wait longer, explore more, and listen more we create increased opportunities for the people we are working with to come up with their own solutions and to work collaboratively with us to create solutions that are a better fit with their reality and, thus, more sustainable.” What a great description of meeting people where they are.
I also spoke to Angela Nino and Lisa Bany of Improv Therapy Group. (Full disclosure: I recently joined their advisory board.) They facilitate workshops to train social workers and therapists to use improv’s tenets to deepen their professional practice. Nino and Bany reiterated what Walter and Todd explained: Improv provides a structure that allows social workers to better meet their clients where they are.
Nino and Bany explained how improvisation’s "Yes, and..." principle informs their work training social workers. They explain that Yes And is about validating someone else’s experience, feelings, and reality. It’s important to note that this agreement does not at all denote permissiveness. The “Yes” of Yes And is about validating the client’s reality and showing that you truly heard them, while the “And” is about wanting to explore the client’s reality, perhaps from another angle. This is not at all permissiveness, since the “And” could be another perspective altogether.
For example, if a client says they want to do drugs, Yes And doesn’t mean that the social worker agrees and hands them some narcotics. It means that the social work agrees that that is the reality their client is currently facing: They want to do drugs. The co-creation is about exploring facets of that topic, instead of shying away from it.
Improvisation Helps Social Workers Co-Create with Clients
Improvisation is a framework for collaborative meaning construction. It requires deep listening and reserving judgment. It was born from a need to help young people feel a sense of agency and belonging, and it was effective because people like Viola Spolin valued collaborative meaning construction.
Spolin writes about the importance of creating judgment-free spaces. The improviser can’t wait for the approval or disapproval of the teacher or anyone else. Satisfaction comes from the playing itself, which is exactly the kind of open-minded, meet-them-where-they-are attitude compatible with social work’s highest aspirations.
Boyd, N. L. (1975). Handbook of recreational games. Courier Corporation.
Drinko, C. (2013). Theatrical improvisation, consciousness, and cognition. Springer.
Spolin, V., & Sills, P. (1999). Improvisation for the theater: A handbook of teaching and directing techniques. Northwestern University Press.
Todd, S. (2012). Practicing in the uncertain: Reworking standardized clients as improv theatre. Social Work Education, 31(3), 302-315.
Viola Spolin Biography. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.violaspolin.org/bio
Walter, U. M. (2006). Into the third space: Social work as improvised performance (Doctoral dissertation, University of Kansas).
Walter, U. M. (2003). Toward a Third Space: Improvisation and Professionalism in Social Work, Families in Society, 84 (3), 317-322.