Chicago psychologist Kristin Krueger took her first class in improvisational theater at the famed The Second City Theater and Training Center in Chicago in 2006 for fun, but she soon realized improv's tenets and techniques could be useful in her work as well. Today, you might say Krueger has come full circle.
Not only does she employ improv in her group therapy and conduct research into how the use of improv techniques in therapeutic settings can affect mental health outcomes, but she is also a member of the Therapy Players, a professional improv group made up entirely of therapists.
"Being part of an improv community is therapeutic in itself," she says.
For Krueger, the key to improv, a form of live theater in which actors create scenes without prior preparation, is "to be yourself, and to be comfortable with that." That’s therapy's goal as well, she notes. Krueger is by no means the first psychologist to notice the commonalities between the two. "A lot of people are using improv in therapy, but as far as I know, nobody else is measuring it," she says.
Krueger was already a psychologist, and working as a waitress to help pay the bills in her hometown of Chicago a decade ago, when a co-worker suggested they take improv classes together. Krueger thought improv might help her with public speaking, but she mostly went along "just for fun." She suggested taking classes nearby, in their North Side neighborhood, but her friend said, "No way. It's Second City or nothing," Krueger recalls.
It was a serendipitous choice, because The Second City, founded in 1959, stands in a direct line back to Viola Spolin, who developed the system of games and exercises that are the bones of improv. In the 1920s, Spolin trained to be a settlement house worker with Neva Boyd, a pioneer in recreational therapy who was using games and groups in revolutionary ways in education. Spolin eventually moved her career into the performing arts, and took exercises she had developed herself into classes she taught for prospective actors, first in a crossover program in Chicago for the federal Works Progress Administration's Recreation Project during the Great Depression. Spolin's son, Paul Sills, was one of the founders of The Second City.
Krueger went through a good chunk of the improv training series at The Second City, and later took classes at different centers in San Antonio, Texas, and San Francisco, Calif. When she returned to Chicago in 2012, she retook the basic course at The Second City and went on for advanced training there. Meanwhile, she held a number of professional research and clinical positions, notably at Rush University Medical Center, where she coordinated the adaptation for a Spanish-speaking population of two large NIH-funded, longitudinal studies on aging, and served as a staff neuropsychologist for the Veterans Administration and the Cook County Health and Hospitals System in Chicago.
While at Cook County’s John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital, Krueger introduced some small weekly groups for patients with anxiety and depression that employed exercises she had learned in improv classes. She evaluated the effectiveness of the games on improvements in her patients’ mood and functioning, based on self-reporting. The findings on that work have been submitted for publication.
Krueger now has a private practice in a Chicago suburb with an emphasis on issues of aging. She conducts neuropsychological evaluations in an aging population, leads groups, teaches healthy aging classes, and maintains collaborations at Rush. She finds therapy groups to be a good place to use the interactive games and exercises designed to help improv practitioners become comfortable enough to engage with one another.
One problem with traditional therapy groups can be that some members tend to talk more than others, she says, "but improv exercises are timed and concrete. Everybody can talk equally, and the exercises give people the structure they need to manage their own emotions." Krueger says she thinks improv has a lot in common with that aspect of cognitive-behavioral therapy that encourages patients to "celebrate who you are."
Krueger is following two threads of research into the use of improv in therapy. One thread explores how improv can be used to improve mental health outcomes. For this study, patients engage in a series of psychotherapeutic improv sessions. After the sessions, the patients rate their symptoms of depression and anxiety, self-esteem, perfectionism and ability to relate to others socially.
The second thread looks at improv as a cognitive activity. In this area, Krueger is working with Clifton Saper, PhD, at Amita Health, and Jeff Winer, a PhD candidate, to put together a panel of neuropsychologists who will categorize improv games according to the cognitive domains they align with.
She says she believes "improv can make a big contribution to making people feel better about themselves, live more collaboratively and improve their mental health."
Krueger performs as often as she can with The Therapy Players, which she joined shortly after it began in 2013. This is founder Dave Carbonell's second improv group; he founded The Freudian Slippers in graduate school 30 years ago. The Therapy Players are all full-time therapists, and about half their routines are based in some way on their work, says Carbonell, a clinical psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders. Members practice for two hours every Sunday morning and typically perform more than a dozen dates a year, at mental health conferences and other meetings, and at clubs like The Den Theater and Stage 773 in Chicago, where, Carbonell says, "We get really good crowds, they come back and, boy, do they have a good time."
Of Krueger, Carbonell says, "She's coming at improv from both ends. She's generating research in an area where there's hardly any. She's going to make a big mark—and, she's funny as all get out."
When she was growing up, psychology was "the only thing I wanted to do," Krueger says, but she took several years off between college at the University of Wisconsin and the graduate work that culminated in a PhD degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 2004.
"I wanted to have a lot of life experience before I tried to help people. Otherwise, I thought, anything I had to say wouldn't have much weight," she says. That life experience included getting a master's degree in linguistics, extensive travel, and numerous diverse jobs. She is fluent in Spanish, Portuguese and German.
Early on, Krueger was attracted to the role of the therapist as portrayed in popular culture. Her mother's cousin, Dan Kiley, in 1983 wrote the best-selling, popular-psychology book The Peter Pan Syndrome, based on his own research with boys and men who resisted accepting adult responsibilities. Krueger met Kiley as a girl and was impressed. She also was intrigued by the television miniseries Sybil, about a woman with dissociative identity disorder, in which the actress Joanne Woodward portrayed the real-life clinician Dr. Cornelia Wilbur. And she was a big fan of educator, author and motivational speaker Leo Buscaglia, long a popular lecturer on public television.
"He was so present in my childhood," she recalls. "He embodied unconditional positive regard in so many ways."