Improv Theater’s Impact on My Work as a Visceral Manipulation Therapist - By Esther Martin
"My vision is a world of accessible intuition." - Viola Spolin
Playing my first game in a beginning level Improv class, I had no idea this acting form would so deeply influence my work and development as a bodyworker. As time has gone on, I have found the practice of calm awareness and presence necessary to effectively play in the setting of Improvisational theater to be an ongoing source of grounding and inspiration in my bodywork practice; particularly in the Visceral Manipulation work which requires attunement and listening to the client's body, as it exists, in the present moment.
In this blog post, I'd like to share with you how the power of improvisation has changed the way I approach bodywork and helped me become a better listener and healer.
How I discovered Improv theater
I came to Improvisational theater almost ten years ago when I lived in New Orleans, after I found that my long-standing dream of doing an open-mic comedy set of just three minutes nearly induced a panic attack. The few times in my 20s that I attempted that type of performance, I don’t even think I performed terribly for my experience level, but what was noticeable was how painful it was to be on stage all by myself; feeling like I should have done "better," and going through the resulting performance with a fine-tooth comb for where I could have tweaked my delivery.
Driven to strengthen and improve my stage presence, I found Improv classes at my local theater. I immediately felt like I had found a home within the security of knowing that my fellow players would have my back in however we landed a scene. We were not only in it together, but the playfulness of the performance hinged on a way of being, rather than memorizing and routinizing a specific script. This innate prohibition from a performance being "perfected" was a delicious antidote to perfectionism that in other circumstances would feel crippling in my life. In an improv performance, what happens happens; all players have a stake in sharing the outcome; and no set portrays the same scenes, or lines, or characters. This type of performance is innately ephemeral, with the outcome being at best a delightful ride on the focus of a scene. Either way, the slate is wiped clean when the scene is cut.
In the years since my first improv class, I have played and performed with a handful of troupes, with different styles and parameters. A few years ago, I was introduced to the works of Viola Spolin, a largely unsung hero in the development of the improv theater as the art form it is today. Born in 1906 and passing in 1994, her life's work has deep threads in the notoriously "jokey" (and honestly; easily potentially cheesy,) improv acting form of the present era. She contributed significantly to the founding of the Second City theater in Chicago, largely viewed as a birthplace of the form of theatrical Improv.
Viola Spolin is renowned for pioneering a revolutionary system of actor training that redefines the way theater and performance art are taught. Her illustrious career as an actress, educator, director, author began with her epoch-making book Improvisation for the Theater which has since become an indispensable part of American dramatic arts history. Published in 1963 by Northwestern University Press and using unique "theater games" devised by Spolin herself to cultivate organic understanding of formal theatrical rules it continues to influence generations almost six decades later.
Spolin viewed performance as a deep engagement with both the environment and other players, the audience, and the self. In Spolin's world, the goal is to have the environment be a supportive partner in how a scene unfolds. She teaches to leave behind the paradigm of "Approval/Disapproval."
Categorized "good" or "bad" from birth (a "good" baby does not cry too much) we become so enmeshed with the tenuous threads of approval/disapproval that we are creatively paralyzed. We see with others' eyes and smell with others' noses.
Having thus to look to others to tell us where we are, who we are, and what is happening results in a serious (almost total) loss of personal experiencing. We lose the ability to be organically involved in a problem, and in a disconnected way, we function with only parts of our total selves. We do not know our own substance, and in the attempt to live through (or avoid living through) the eyes of others, self-identity is obscured, our bodies become misshapen, natural grace is gone, and learning is affected. Both the individual and the art form are distorted and deprived, and insight is lost to us.
- Improvisation for Theater, Third Edition, p. 7
Through her exercises and theater games, she guides the players to a non-judgemental awareness and embodiment. In this state, we find the focus of a problem, and can volley it around; between our fellow players and the environment. We practice letting these aspects of the present moment support us; as well as our own participation in turn. I find it to be a workshop in the best-case scenario for the true non-hierarchical experience: nothing and no one is in charge; because in turn, everything and everyone are equally in charge.
How Improv theater has shaped my work as a Visceral Manipulation practitioner
At its core, Improv is about being present in the moment and responding quickly to whatever comes your way – be it an unexpected line of dialogue or an unexpected turn of events. As Spolin said, "See things through the eye, not with the eye." Effectively, to plan is to leave the present moment. To find the confidence and intuition that comes with being grounded in the present requires leaving our story, our "logical understanding", behind.
As a Visceral Manipulation therapist, I employ these same principles when working with clients. Instead of having a predetermined plan for how each session should go, I allow myself to be open and responsive to what comes up in each session, and how we can best work together in the time we have, today. This allows me to provide tailored care that meets the needs of each individual client rather than relying on one-size-fits-all techniques. There is not a specific formula, since we are working at all times from the present moment.
In the practice of Visceral Listening, I am tuning into the lines of tension in another person's body, which is most discernible when I am conscientious and grounded in what the shape and feel of my own self and the environment already hold. For me, the groundedness I need to best serve my clients is most accessible when I am settled and at peace with my surroundings and self.
The state of aware acceptance of what exists is fundamental to how I approach bodywork. I view the Spolin exercises as a training in how and where to apply one's attention; with some guidance into pulling that attention into the present moment and allowing the focus of the attention to freely exist. As joyful and fun as that makes the play that can happen in a group of people in a workshop or on stage; I find that focused attention to be directly translatable to therapeutic applications that I work with clients on. What is a small intestine presenting, and if we are just present and attentive with it, how will that attention change the sense of the organ? What do we notice if we slow down? Does the organ call for greater direct manipulation, or is this moment of just attention and presence enough input to spur change into softness and healing? What is the sense of the moment? Of those (organs) involved?
I find frequently that by allowing my focus to fall on a specific tissue or organ, I can get a sense of what care it needs. For instance, a kidney that has a history of ureter surgery might be very hurt, scared, and angry. We can assist in this case by moving very, very slowly, with little force and mainly just attention. A small intestine that feels stuck from a chronic SIBO issue might be asking for more manipulative help. A liver that has largely energetically slowed down and is mostly immobilized against the diapgrahm might be telling us that it needs some significant attention both physically and energetically to wake up and function more freely. There is a unique perspective held by every part of our bodies, and allowing any one physical structure to have the spotlight will reveal what it needs to express.
Connecting With Clients
Improvisation also helps build strong connections between performers onstage and their audience members offstage — something that is equally important when dealing with clients in therapy sessions. Through improvisation, I have learned how to better listen and respond to my clients' needs without judgment or preconceived ideas about what those needs may be. This has made me into a more compassionate practitioner who is more attuned with her clients’ internal states — both mental and physical — allowing for deeper healing connections between us both.
I need to give credit to the teacher I work with in the school of Spolin exercises - her granddaughter, Aretha Sills, who since the pandemic is based in Door County, WI. Aretha is a fantastic teacher in the spirit of her grandmother, (and her father, Paul Sills, who has his own long and impressive biography in the theater,) and I am grateful and inspired to be able to workshop these practices with her, both in-person and virtually.
Improv theater has played an integral role in shaping my practice as a Visceral Manipulation therapist by teaching me important lessons on presence, listening skills, responsiveness, connection building, compassion and flexibility — all things which help create powerful healing experiences for my clients.
If you are interested in exploring ease and softness further with Visceral Manipulation therapy, please reach out and schedule your free consultation call now!
Together we can explore ways in which we can create lasting change through embodied practices such as these!
List of references:
Viola Spolin (1963): Improvisation for the Theater, Evanston: Northwestern University Press .
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