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Stuck in a therapy rut?

Maybe you should improvise instead of analyze



"Through spontaneity we are re-formed in 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. Spontaneity is the moment of personal freedom when we are faced with a reality and see it, explore it and act accordingly."

-- Viola Spolin

About 10 years ago, I was in danger of becoming the poster child for Prozac.

I interviewed Peter Kramer, author of Listening to Prozac, a book that helped popularize the antidepressant that I was taking then. A month later, I received a call from someone with "Sally" asking me if I would be willing to come on the program with Kramer. I agreed. I should interject here that I have been indifferent my whole life to television. It's nothing snobby. I just find it excruciatingly boring and, hard to believe, I had no idea of the actual content of such shows.

Sally's people called to conduct a "pre-interview." The highly personal nature of the questions shocked me. "You aren't going to ask me questions like this on the air, are you?" I asked, incredulous. I balked when she said "yes." She asked me to think about it, to tune in to an episode and see if I didn't feel better about it.

I tuned in. I watched a horrendous freak show about people who had turned strange accidents into positive experiences. For example, a woman whose lip was bitten off by a horse developed a line of cosmetics for lipless women. I imagined sitting on stage with her, holding one another and congratulating ourselves while Sally asked hard questions. No thanks.

I tell you this story, pursuant to my column last week about therapy to demonstrate the extent to which we live in a culture that insists on intimate but not spontaneous confession. In the world of television talk shows, especially Jerry Springer now, confession is orchestrated. We like to think that the tearful breakdown or the hurling of a chair on these shows are spontaneous cathartic acts. But they are nothing of the kind. They are entirely predictable reactions (compared to acts) that satisfy the intention of the television producers.

Psychotherapy and the classroom often exhibit the same dynamics. The successful student learns how to polish the teacher's apple and therapy clients often learn to reward the therapist with the cathartic moment, the rote insight, the claim to a "shift." And like those television shows, reiteration of the process inflates its importance.

Viola Spolin, the author of the quote that starts this column, is widely regarded as the mother of improvisational acting in this country. A genius, she died in 1994, leaving behind over 200 exercises she created to help actors become more spontaneous by relying more on their bodies than intellects.

By so doing, they respond to the particular situation in an intuitive way instead of by habit of memory. "When energy is absorbed in the physical object," Spolin writes, "there is no time for 'feeling' any more than a quarterback running down the field can be concerned with his clothes or whether he is universally admired." Countless actors agree that such an approach, while it sounds harsh in its perspective toward feelings, "brings clearer sight and greater vitality."

Spolin's work provides many clues to how psychology could become more effective. Following are a few that have occurred to me. I hasten to note that their success depends on the willingness of clients to move outside the paradigm of conventional therapy. (It may be a misnomer to call such a radical departure therapy.)

The process should be as fundamentally playful as possible. By "play," I'm referring to a willingness to imagine anything. Clients should be encouraged to imagine and enact reversals of the habitual (of good and bad) -- both in symbolic play during sessions and in homework. The client learns to play with the invisible presence -- the unspoken.

It should involve the body since it is the senses, not the intellect, with which we primarily negotiate the environment. The client learns to see, not ruminate, to act, not react. I have a musician client with fabulous academic training who finds it difficult to "occupy" the stage powerfully. When he began experimenting with movement while playing his instrument, his playing became fresher. You can't talk yourself into presence.

The environment needs to be as free of implications of power as possible. It should be alterable. Some therapy needs to move out of the conventional consulting room. You can't play in a doctor's office with a sign like "conduct disorder" around your neck.

The therapist has to shed authoritarianism. Otherwise, there can be no play. Instead of working on the "transference," the therapist and client should agree that they are playing together. One way of sabotaging the authoritarian impulse is for the therapist to disclose his own issues relevant to the client problem.

Because developing spontaneity and intuition -- creativity -- are necessary conditions for loosening the past's stranglehold, such therapy is always an aesthetic undertaking.

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