Webpage Supplement to

Chapter 18: Insight Improvisation

Joel Gluck

January 16, 2007


Welcome to the Insight Improvisation webpage supplement. Here you will find information about and links to related approaches, as well as additional thoughts on Insight Improv not found in the book chapter. If you have further questions about Insight Improvisation, feel free to visit the author's website, or contact him directly.

Meditation and Active Meditation

Contemplative Theater

Contemplative Drama Therapy: Related Approaches

Supplementary Information on Insight Improvisation

The following notes provide additional information on Insight Improvisation not found in Chapter 18.

Please be aware than in many instances—in particular, descriptions of individual exercises—the notes below will not make sense without first reading the corresponding section of the book chapter.

Workshop Design, Facilitation, and Logistics

Insight Improvisation activities are in sequences of three to four hours each, designed for a morning, afternoon, or evening. Each sequence has a different theme, and can also be the basis for an individual class. As presented in the two workshops in Chapter 18, each sequence develops skills of increasing levels of sophistication.

Intensive weekend workshops are ideally held in a large movement space for a group of 8-12 adults. The schedule typically runs 3 to 4 hours Friday afternoon, 8 hours Saturday, and 7 hours on Sunday, with optional evening sessions on Friday and Saturday. Participants are asked to dress to move, and to bring a journal to write in.

Insight Improvisation is designed for an audience of fairly sophisticated adults, open to moving and improvising with others. Some activities will need to be adapted, simplified, or omitted when working with children, adolescents, special populations, or those new to theater exercises.

Each activity is followed by debrief or reflection, in which participants are invited to share their experience, and to ask any questions they may have. In addition, some exercises feature performances by participants. To help create an environment that encourages freedom of expression and risk-taking right from the start, in responding to performed exercises the facilitator models the feedback “sandwich:” start with a specific, positive comment; if appropriate, add a piece of constructive coaching (asking permission from the recipient first); and end with more specific positive feedback.

For other Insight Improv exercises, such as authentic movement and related activities, giving constructive criticism is not what is called for; instead, the witness shares what they observed and heard (reflecting back the mover's movement, for example), as well as in some cases sharing their own internal experience while witnessing (feelings, thoughts, inner imagery, etc.). Given the process-oriented—rather than performance-oriented—nature of Insight Improvisation, the nonjudgmental stance of the witness can be more helpful in encouraging participants to open to the work, than the somewhat more critical, coaching approach.

How one facilitates Insight Improvisation is more important than the exercises chosen. The facilitator models the work in everything he or she does, providing unconditional positive support, nonjudgmental listening, and playful, mindful, and rigorous leadership.

Mindfulness and Choicelessness

To have the discipline of mindfulness while maintaining an open attitude of choicelessness is a central paradox of meditation—as well as a major challenge we all face in performance and, indeed, in life: How do I focus, but stay open and spontaneous? How can I pursue a goal steadfastly, while remaining aware of other possibilities, of my feelings? How can I take action while listening?

Interestingly, mindfulness and choicelessness, seeming opposites, are also closely related—each necessary to fully explore the other. In order to be truly mindful, I must be open to what I find in the present, open to all the channels, not pushing away the many “distractions” I notice when I try to bring my attention back to the object of the meditation.

Conversely, to practice choiceless awareness, I must bring myself continually back to the present. For example, if I am drawn to a sound, I can be seduced into getting lost in associated thoughts—“what kind of bird is that? Hmmm…I haven’t heard that sound since my childhood. That reminds me of a time when…” In each moment of choiceless awareness, I am mindful to return to what is unfolding right here and right now.

The concepts of mindfulness and choicelessness are strongly related to other fundamental dynamics explored in Buddhist meditation, including grasping and aversion (greed and hatred), as well as the idea of acceptance. As I become more mindful, and open to all the channels of awareness, I also will notice my tendency to cling to that which is pleasant, and push away that which is unpleasant. The "antidote" to this habitual behavior of the mind, which we all have, is to sit in open awareness, practicing acceptance for all that is arising, and all that is passing away. Developing this capacity of mind, to sit with the naked flow of reality, is the essence of vipassana.


The safety that an attitude of metta (lovingkindness) can create helps the practitioner to slow down, be in the moment, and open to the many channels of awareness. In this way, metta is an essential foundation for establishing mindful and choiceless awareness. In addition, when working with a partner or a group, metta encourages unconditional loving support, helping foster a safe space in which everyone can take risks.

Cultivating metta is a shift from certain patterns of the Western mind, e.g., to be critical and self-critical, competitive, and to grasp tightly to likes and dislikes. The concept of metta is extremely important for actors—and others in similar situations communicating to groups—because it helps address stage fright and the inner critic. The strengthening of metta helps by reducing fear and grasping, defusing the inner critic, and reorienting the mind toward loving others rather than comparing oneself with them.

In Insight Improvisation, metta invites the practitioner to appreciate herself and what she is doing in the moment, to open her heart to the miracle and mystery of what is emerging. Metta helps foster a loving inner-witness; it also helps us be a supportive, non-judgmental witness for others.

Vipassana, or Insight Meditation

There are many types of meditation. Many of these are concentration meditations, focusing on a single object, such as the breath, a candle flame, a mantra (repeated phrase), etc. Concentration meditation can be very useful for developing mindfulness—the ability of the mind to return to the present moment.

By contrast, in a vipassana meditation, one does not choose a single object of the meditation; instead, all that arises in the field of awareness becomes the object. This can include all the senses (sounds, smells, etc.) as well as mind objects (thoughts, inner imagery, etc.). The meditator is simply aware of how each object arises and passes away, and notices what the mind does in response.

It is important to note that learning concentration meditation, particularly meditations which focus on the breath (anapanasati), can be an important first step in vipassana training.

Authentic Movement

Participants are instructed to allow themselves to “be moved.” If they find themselves controlling or planning the movement, or thinking about something else, it is best to return to stillness, paying attention to body and breath, and then to observe what movement impulses occur naturally, and follow them.

Another useful guideline when introducing authentic movement is to “seek the joy of your own experience.” Following the body should not be painful or boring; encourage movers to break out of habitual patterns and preconceptions, and allow the body to discover what feels good.


Following a brief group sharing regarding participants' experience of doing authentic movement, participants meet in groups of three—and then with the entire group—to share an image and a brief childhood memory (usually unrelated) that they discovered while moving.

Participants make a “sandwich,” with the physical image beginning and ending their performance, and the memory in the middle—all conveyed in the present tense and fully embodied. For example:

(As if pulling on a rope attached to a big bell) “Pulling! Pulling! Pulling!” (Pause.)

“I’m ten. In the kitchen. It’s morning. Backyard snow. There are three birds under the bird feeder. A cardinal. A morning dove. A blue jay. My father comes in. Serious face. ‘Look!’ I point. ‘Red, white, and blue!’ He looks. He smiles.”

(Pulling again) “Pulling! Pulling! Pulling!”

The facilitator provides coaching, helping participants slow down, relax, and fully enter each image and moment. Supportive feedback is invited after each performance. Through meditating, moving together, and sharing their stories and images, participants leave this first session feeling present, open, and more connected to one another.

One-Minute Solo

No other instructions are given, nor is the activity demonstrated by the facilitator. From an audience perspective, the solos are often disarmingly simple, communicating subtleties of emotion or unexpected humor—the audience, too, becomes more present and aware. New adaptations of the exercise include duets, trios, and adding an obligation to speak or to interact. The facilitator periodically elicits responses from audience members and performers.

The Amplification Exercise

Originally developed by the author along with colleague Lorraine Grosslight, Amplification's basic form is a solo improvisation. The exercise is demonstrated by the facilitator, practiced in coaching pairs, and then performed by individuals for the entire group, with brief discussion after every few performances. Variations include pairs, trios, Amplification Monologue (performing an improvised speech in the foreground while amplification occurs in the background), and Amplification Scene.

Invariably this morning session ends on an energetic high: participants are taking risks, using their bodies and voices in completely new ways, and discovering how to apply mindfulness and choicelessness in the midst of action.

Improvisational Singing Warm-up: Chords, Jams, and One-Liners

Following each of the three singing warm-up exercises—Chords, Jams, and One-Liners—participants are then invited to step into the circle along with a partner (or partners) across from them, and begin a sound and movement duet or trio improvisation, using Chords, Jams, or One-liners as the vocal structure. Movement can include eye contact and/or physical contact, as in The Three States. For Chords and Jams, when the breath runs out, that person freezes until the others are finished; for One-liners, the improv ends when the singer/movers feel complete with their exploration of their given text (usually after about one minute).

Singing in Insight Improvisation can, but need not, include an actual melody—one can sing by varying the pitch, rhythm, volume, and timbre of the voice, and in doing so evoke a wide range of emotions and states of being. Singing can also be used in the psolodrama form.

Spontaneous Writing and Editing the Writing

Participants are given a phrase, e.g. “I remember…,” to begin their writing with—a phrase they can return to at any time during the 10 minutes if they lose their train of thought or for any other reason.

Performing a Monologue

The facilitator can also offer the option of adding in material from the post-lunch journaling. After practicing the monologues in teams of four, individuals then perform for the entire group, with facilitator coaching as time permits.

An essential part of this exercise is to demonstrate and coach participants in how one can slow down in the midst of the process, applying mindfulness in order to “taste” the words and fully enter the imagery: a simple word like “zooming” can be stretched, overenunciated, sung, and embodied in such a way that it fully expresses the feeling of the experience. (One example: singing “ZZZ-zzz-oooo-ooooo-mmming!!”—fully tasting the buzz of the tongue against the teeth as it makes the “Z” sound—then sliding the voice from high to low pitch, while the body conveys the image of an old-fashioned propeller plane barnstorming a fairground.)

The other central reminder to participants is to let go of the habitual ways in which they perform for an audience. By slowing down, returning to awareness of body, breath, and feelings, and by seeing each word of the monologue as a unique reality waiting to be explored, the performer can drop their ordinary tendency to force something to happen.

Ideally, the performer becomes the instrument of the monologue—their body, voice, and emotions become open channels through which the meaning and power of the text is expressed.

For most participants, this activity—to improvise with a written monologue—poses one of the greatest challenges of the weekend, and is a fitting culmination of the day. Singing is particularly scary for some, but when encouraged by the facilitator, participants often have their biggest breakthroughs by giving it a try.

Coaching with Group Support

Following a dinner break, the facilitator can offer optional one-to-one coaching on issues related to the themes of the workshop—those attending the coaching session become audience and support for one another. Coaching from an Insight Improvisation perspective can include work on acting, movement, and vocal skills; dealing with stage fright or tension; questions about meditation; and life coaching and dramatherapy working with issues catalyzed by the workshop.

The Three States

This exercise was inspired by the work of acting teacher Carol Fox Prescott and Jean-Claude van Itallie, and developed by the author with colleagues Billy Jo Joy and Lorraine Grosslight.

Working in pairs (partners can be selected beforehand by having participants count off), participants move simultaneously for ten minutes—eyes can be closed initially and then more often open as the exercise proceeds. At any point either person can initiate eye contact or physical contact with their partner, but not both simultaneously.

A key instruction in this activity is to stay connected to one’s own center—noticing the tendency we have to “give away” our center when making contact with another (as true in real life as it is in this exercise). Therefore, it is important to maintain authentic movement in all three states, letting go of the tendency to plan and control the movement, especially while making contact with one’s partner.

Pairs practice the Three States, debrief with one another for about five minutes, and share short comments with the whole group. This can be followed by another round of practice in the same or different pairs, or by short “performances” of the Three States in front of the whole group (these are improvised afresh, not recreating what was practiced). The latter part of the morning is devoted to variations of the Three States that incorporate sound and language.

Participants are often deeply affected by the Three States: in one workshop, two men moved together with such stillness, silence, and caring, that the audience was brought to tears. Their improvisation was followed by two women who had the wild playfulness of ponies galloping over open prairie. This was followed by a man and a woman who enacted (safely) what can best be described as a barroom brawl waged by two Neanderthals—a battle of the sexes that elicited belly-laughs from the audience. Overall, the activity so galvanized the group that it became the reference point for the entire weekend.


Jean-Claude van Itallie's guidelines for storytelling include the following:

The facilitator demonstrates the concepts above and can live-coach participants as they perform for the audience. Story coaching in Insight Improv is focused on slowing down and "going vertical"—exploring the depth of each key moment in the story through mindful awareness of the body, feelings, etc. Each story is followed by brief comments from the audience, and, as time permits, further coaching from the facilitator.

Some of van Itallie’s variations on this exercise include performing a dream (related as if it were a real-life story); and duet storytelling, in which two participants tell different stories simultaneously, improvisationally interweaving their performances in each other’s pauses—most interesting when the pair has no idea what the other’s story will be about.

Life/Dream Scene

This can be used as an alternative to or in addition to storytelling. Think of a recent life challenge—a scene of conflict, surprise, or drama in which you have had a part. Then, putting that aside, recall a dream—either a recent dream or one that has come to you repeatedly over time. (Recalling dreams can be given as a homework assignment at the end of the first afternoon of the workshop—participants are instructed to sleep with their journal and pen by the bed, and to write what they remember as soon as they awake). Next, pick a character from this dream: the dream figure.

The exercise, then, is to perform a solo improvisation beginning with the real-life scene, in which the actor plays all the characters. At some point, the dream figure enters. What happens next is discovered in the process of improvising. Essential to the exercise is to not plan what happens in advance, to not do one’s “good ideas,” but to stay open to the unexpected, engaging choiceless awareness. It can help to set a time limit of ten minutes for this exercise, and, if needed, to side-coach the performer to “find an ending” when two minutes remain.

One recent example of a Life/Dream Scene began with the protagonist, a social worker, trying to help his client, a Vietnam veteran, in his struggle to express himself. The two are arguing when suddenly there are sounds of wind howling. A strange figure enters, looking like the bedraggled captain of a ghost ship at sea in a storm. The dream figure drags the two men into a whirlwind, and they emerge 35 years earlier, in Vietnam. They see on the road the Vietnamese girl from the famous photograph, burned by napalm, coming toward them. The vet embraces the girl, and the social worker, in tears, finally understands the message the veteran is trying to give him—that his memories of Vietnam, his sadness and shame, are too big to put into words.

The Witness Role

One of the key roles in authentic movement is the role of witness. The witness is there to be a container for the work, to notice the mover’s movement and their own response to it, and to offer their observations afterward if the mover so chooses (and usually after the mover shares). A good witness comes from an intention of metta (lovingkindness) at all times.

The witness can share on many different levels, from concrete observation (“your left arm dragged on the floor”) to metaphor, emotion, and perceived story; always acknowledging the subjective nature of the witness role. The role of a supportive, caring witness is also essential to psolodrama, so it’s useful to first practice both the mover and witness roles in authentic movement.

Warm-ups to Psolodrama with a Partner

When meeting one-to-one to practice Psolodrama with a partner, it is useful to warm-up with a series of activities, to help release the stress and cares of the day. Following meditation and authentic movement, partners can raise the energy level by improvising together with movement, sound, and words. Here are a few fun exercises that work well before psolodrama:

  1. In an Impulse Dialogue, one person begins with a brief sound and movement impulse, and then stops. The other responds, etc., and the result is a kind of dialogue. Unlike a traditional acting exercise, however, the Impulse Dialogue is rooted in authentic movement—instead of “performing” for or reacting solely to one’s partner, one gives equal attention to one’s internal experience—bodily sensations, internal imagery, emotions, etc. Whereas in a traditional sound and movement acting exercise, one might clap and say “HA!”—sending the impulse directly to one’s partner—in an Impulse Dialogue, one is just as likely to gently groan and collapse to the floor in a heap. Eyes can be open or closed at any time, and physical contact is possible.
  2. The Role Dialogue is similar to the Impulse Dialogue, but instead of inviting a sound/movement impulse, the first person begins with a role or character “impulse,” informed by their physical position, how they feel in that moment, the quality of their voice, etc. Roles can be imaginary or real people, animals, objects, etc. Speaking is OK, and as the dialogue continues small scenes often occur spontaneously.
  3. Finally, in a Yes! Improvisation, the pair can improvise freely together without pausing, with one rule: each must say “yes” to any new impulse, role, or scene introduced by the other.

The Empty Chair

Instructions for the Double: during this activity, you will be acting as a kind of doppelganger for your protagonist. At first, mirror them physically (standing next to and slightly behind them). Then feel free to echo some of their words, especially emotions you’re empathizing with. As you understand more and more what is going on, feel free to improvise a bit more, speaking what you might guess are the deeper thoughts and feelings of the protagonist.

Protagonist: if you agree with something the double says, repeat it. If not, say “No, that’s not how I feel. What I feel is...”

Note that the double cannot do the wrong thing—if their guess is not accurate, it often helps the protagonist more in expressing their actual feelings.

At a certain point (after about 5 minutes), the facilitator rings the bell to reverse roles. The protagonist sits in the chair and begins to speak as the auxiliary ego role (the role of the character in the chair). Note that the double moves as well, becoming the double for the character in the chair (they can sit or kneel beside the chair).

After about 3 minutes, the facilitator rings the bell a second time, and from that point on the protagonist can reverse roles whenever they like, and the double follows them each time. The whole exercise is roughly 15 minutes (5+3+7).

The Five Roles

When performing the Five Roles activity, it is important not to pick an auxiliary ego to play who is very like the protagonist, director, double, or audience. Pick a distinct auxiliary ego, real or imaginary—e.g., your mother, President Nixon, a dragon, etc. Otherwise, the exercise can become muddy and confusing.

The participant begins with eyes closed, in stillness, tuning into body and breath. Rather than deciding from the head which role to begin in, it is best to see what emerges, either an auxiliary ego role, or oneself (the protagonist). Once the first role is established, then become the other.

The first scene is a dialogue between protagonist and auxiliary ego, lasting roughly 3 minutes. Then, one at a time, the roles of double, director, and audience are added. The improvisation ends with a final dialogue than may involve any or all of the characters previously introduced.

The Five Roles is like psolodrama with the "training wheels" on—it provides a structured approach to including each of the psychodramatic roles in a scene, exploring an issue or theme that is arising. Due to its structured nature, the Five Roles can feel artificial or forced, but participants have experienced significant insights and catharsis through this activity.


Jacob Moreno's psychodrama has been adapted into the psolodrama form by distinguishing and modifying the five psychodramatic roles:

  1. The Protagonist—Oneself in the scene. This can be the psoloist in the present, but can also be oneself in the past or future, e.g., as a child, a teen, an old woman or man, etc. It can also be oneself in an imaginary state—e.g., before birth, after death, transformed into a monster, a different gender, etc.
  2. The Auxiliary Ego—Other characters who may appear in the scene, real or imagined. These can be people; talking animals, plants, or objects; gods, forces of nature, or other archetypes; ideas or emotions; etc. They can also be antagonistic (monsters, villains, abusers), supportive (mentors, ideal parents), or changing.
  3. The Director—Whereas in psychodrama, the director is the psychodramatist who is leading the session, in psolodrama the director is oneself, one’s own inner guide or wise mind. The psoloist is encouraged to embody and speak as the director role, particularly when feeling lost or confused. The director can ask questions of the protagonist, such as “What do you need right now?” or “How do you feel?,” and can also suggest or confirm what the next step in the psolodrama might be—in order to return the protagonist to action.
  4. The Double—A special form of auxiliary ego, the double gives voice to the thoughts and feelings the protagonist may not be able to speak in the context of the scene being enacted. For example, if one were enacting a Psolodrama scene between an auxiliary ego role of “Wicked Witch” and the protagonist as a little boy, the boy might be too afraid to yell at the witch. By becoming the double, the psoloist can access and speak what the boy might be really feeling inside.
  5. The Audience—Whereas in psychodrama the audience is comprised of other group members who are observing the action, in psolodrama the psoloist can take on the role of audience herself, speaking what observers might say if they were watching the scene at hand. The audience may be an inner critic, a chorus of support, a bored theatergoer, etc.

Possibly unique to Psolodrama is the opportunity at any time to dialogue aloud with one’s own inner director or “wise mind.” This excerpt illustrates this in action:

Protagonist (holding his head, and crouching on the floor): “Stupid. Same thing over and over. No sense. Emptiness. Everything seems so bleak, I can’t stand it. Arrrrrrr!!!”

Director (moving a bit to the side, pausing to breathe, and then speaking as if to the protagonist): “How do you feel right now?”

Protagonist (reversing back to crouching): “I don’t know. Stuck.”

Director (moving to the side once again): “If you could talk to anyone right now, who might that be?”

Protagonist (reversing back, and pausing to think): “…God. Yes. I really want to talk to God.” (Looking up.) “GOD!?! Are you there?!? I’m feeling so…I can’t stand it! Why does it all feel so hopeless? Why am I here? I HATE FEELING SO USELESS!!!”

God (slowly coming to a standing position, and then looking down at the floor, as if from up in the heavens): “Mmm.” (Very slowly, silently, God reaches down, and lifts the protagonist up as if he were a tiny doll. God holds the small figure up in front of his face, and then gently blows air onto him and through him, as if cleaning and purifying him.)

Protagonist (moving to the side, and standing lightly, as if floating gently in space): “…ohhh.” (Pause, then looking back to God, speaking very softly.) “Thank you.”

As seen above, the role of the director can help the psoloist break free from a stuck place, and return to action.

In practice, psolodrama can be a fully-embodied form of Carl Jung's active imagination, in which shadow material and archetypal roles emerge and play themselves out in the service of exploring fundamental life issues.

One example of a psolodrama which communicated an existential insight is a scene which begins with the psoloist lying on the floor on his belly, chin on the floor, mouth open, speaking in a deep guttural tone—the role is an infinite dark cave. Later in the scene it becomes clear that this character is a manifestation of Death:

DEATH: (moving on floor, groaning, grumbling) Ohhhh. OOOOOhhhhh. (Lying with chin on floor.) If a bug crawls in, I will be happy. I will EEATT. Ohhhh. Foood. Soldiers. Africans. Old people—I love their flesh. Huh-huh. Children.... Ohhhhh. I am a mouth like a cave. My entrails tunnel miles into the earth. Coiled like a snake. (laughing) Huhuhuhuhuhuhuh!!

Protagonist: Who are you and why are you here?

DEATH: I am here to eat you! (laughing) HUHUHUHUH!! Are you afraid?

Protagonist: Yes. I am afraid.

DEATH: Gooood. You should be!!! You can’t escape me.

(The protagonist, as young hero, grasps tightly to his sword with both hands, and stands ready to fight)

Protagonist: I will fight you! I have my diamond sword! It can cut through anything!!

DEATH: GO AHEAD!!! HUHUHUHUHUHU!!! Cut me! Cut me! I love it! (laughing uproariously and coughing) Cut me into a million pieces. I will digest myself. That diamond sword will make a nice toothpick.

Protagonist: I am fighting my way through the forest, slicing through trees. With my diamond sword I am unstoppable!

DEATH: HUHUHUHUHHU!!! Ahhhh... You sweet boy. I’ve told you before...you’ve just got to let go. You’re caught up in illusion. I am the only thing that’s real.

Protagonist: NO!!

DEATH: Let me sing you a song...

“Death will come, in the end, no matter what you do....”
So before you die, my boy, try to love someone.

The messages of this Psolodrama felt starkly clear to the psoloist: as he keeps running around wielding his diamond sword, trying to do good in the world, is he, ultimately, trying to stave off Death? Can he, instead, let go of struggling and striving, and perhaps—as Death spells out in the end—just love someone (rather than always loving and fearing for his young-hero-self)?


The author would like to thank the following individuals for their help and inspiration in the development of Insight Improvisation (in alphabetical order): Christopher and Anne Ellinger, Zsuzsi Gero, Lorraine Grosslight, Billie Jo Joy, Scott Kelman, Anja Kollmuss, Penny Lewis, Saphira Linden, Kathy Lubar, Will McMillan, Cate McQuaid, Kat Mitchell, Jonathan Stein, Jean-Claude van Itallie, Nat Warren-White, and Tom Webb,—as well as many other wonderful teachers of meditation, theater, and drama therapy, too numerous to mention.