We Know Changing Behavior is Hard! Can Improv Help Smoking Cessation?

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Interview Series with Jude Treder-Wolff Part IV

Breezy jpegJude Treder-Wolff  author of the book, Possible Futures: Creative Thinking For The Speed of Life is a performer, trainer and creative arts psychotherapist who is doing some exciting work bridging expertise in  improvisation and emotional intelligence.  On September 21st she will be co-facilitating “Improvisation For Developing Emotional Intelligence: A Workshop for Clinicians and Educators” an experiential and discussion training workshop for therapists, counselors, health care professionals and educators that explores the relationship between the practice and philosophy of applied improvisation and the skills and mind set associated with emotional intelligence in Smithtown, NY.
Would you give us a glimpse into your classroom? Perhaps an activity and lightbulb moment?
One of the large-scale projects I’m involved with throughout the year is a workplace Smoking Cessation program at a large not-for-profit organization here on Long Island, which has a wellness program for employees through which they gain points that reduce the amount they have to pay for their health insurance. For people who smoke, taking the 6-week Smoking Cessation class (on their own time) significantly reduces what they have to pay for their health insurance but that does not mean they want to stop smoking. So we have a huge challenge in these classes – employees coming in on their own time to participate in a class they don’t want to be in to talk about a change they do not want to make. The reality is that if these people were ready to stop smoking, they would do it and avoid the hassle of these classes and we learned from the very start that almost everyone there is Precontemplative as far as smoking is concerned. It is quite a challenge to make these classes useful and meaningful to these people.
This is where improvisation and emotional intelligence are central are so important. The philosophy of improvisation says “yes” to whatever they offer. Emotional Intelligence says “have empathy and build out from there.” So we use Improvisational Theater with these classes to explore any life situation or problem they choose, focusing the stories on the issues related to “why change is hard and why we hate it.” I explain to the group that they are to create a character – choose the gender, age, back story – who is at the point of a big change – which they will also decide upon as a group. My colleague listens to everything the group says about this character and embodies this character. My colleauge does a monologue as this character and I ask the group to confirm that she has captured the character correctly. We make any adjustments the group asks for until the character is just as they have chosen.
I ask the group to put this character in a scene with another person from his/her life in which he/she is talking about the change that is coming. I usually play this other character. I instruct the group to say “freeze” if they want to stop the action at any time, to ask a question, clarify or give a direction. We play out the scene to a point of conflict. We drive the action to where it seems these characters would go based on the situation they are facing.
I work with the group to create the next scene – either the change is going great and we look at what that would look like or the change is not going well at all and we look at what that would look like. Usually the group wants to look at both and as the creative process continues they become more comfortable with looking at the dark and difficult side of change. They often want to write a happy ending but just as often create an ambiguous one.
The “lightbulb” moments using Improvisational Theater in these classes are: the participants make the connection between the kinds of changes we are exploring in these scenes (job change, getting married, getting unmarried, moving) and the huge change of stopping smoking – they make the connections on their own and bring it up easily and excitedly, their brains percolating with creative thoughts rather than defensive ones about the difficulty of stopping smoking. The process goes around the defensive reactiveness they bring to these classes, they realize they are free to think differently about their problems and that they can.
 Also, many of these people are not accustomed to being asked what they think about anything. They work very hard, most don’t make a lot of money, they started at minimum wage and have worked their way up in many cases but are not well-educated. The improvisation process asks them not only what they think but what they want. They problem-solve in a creative, safe setting and discover they have this power to think creatively, in some cases for the first time.
In addition to performing, Jude Treder-Wolff provides consulting for professional and personal development. Her book Possible Futures: Creative Thinking For The Speed of Life and blog Lives In Progress explores the ways technology is changing 21st century relationships and the creative mind set for success in the networked world. Her storytelling-style show Crazytown: my first psychopath was selected for the Midtown International Theatre Festival, the 2012 Chicago and San Francisco Fringe Festival and recently had 2 successful runs at Actors Theatre Workshop in New York. She has been interviewed for articles that appeared in national and local media, including the Los Angeles Times, New York Newsday, Orlando Sentinel, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, Woman’s Day, and The Three Village Times.  She can be reached at:  lifestage_2000@yahoo.com



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