SF State student researches therapeutic possibilities of improv

Jenny Debevec holds a lion puppet and a mermaid puppet on her hands to demonstrate one of her improv techniques.

Jenny Debevec has been studying how improv exercises may help facilitate the treatment of cancer patients, kids with autism and teens with eating disorders.

Improvisation exercises may help those with cancer, autism, eating disorders

San Francisco State University graduate student Jenny Debevec has been working with kids at hospitals for the last five years. She’s an educator with a background in performing arts, and a few years ago, she began to notice that her use of improvisation techniques to get kids to open up and talk more was also having a therapeutic effect.

“One young lady had a brain disease and was having a meltdown,” Debevec said. “I grabbed a mermaid puppet and started just playing with the puppet and talking to the patient. Within five minutes, she was sitting down at her desk, doing math, finishing her worksheet. We witnessed that with me doing my crazy Ethel Merman voice with the puppet, we were seeing changes in behavior.”

Now Debevec, a student in the Department of Counseling, is beginning to find out how improv interfaces with therapy in group and individual settings. She currently has anecdotal evidence on how it may help autistic children, cancer patients and teens with eating disorders.

Improvisation is a form of theater where everything said and done is made up on the spot. It was developed in the 1920s by acting coach Viola Spolin, who worked with orphans, children and recent immigrants from low-income neighborhoods in Chicago. Her games emphasized focused attention, engagement and authentic modes of relating.

Debevec and teaching partner Kelly Rinehart, who also works as a clinical instructor in SF State’s Communicative Disorders Program, always start group activities with the “mind-melding” game. A room full of shy, reserved kids will be filled with laughter in less than an hour.

“We begin by just looking at each other in the eyes and clapping at the same time. That gets passed around the circle. There’s nobody speaking at that point. You just start connecting with each other,” Debevec said. “And then we start introducing ourselves. ‘What’s your name?’ and asking questions like ‘If you could be any kind of building, what would you be?’ It’s an innocuous question, but we start to get little psychological clues.”

Debevec and Rinehart are teaching artists at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s Children’s Healing program, which receives funding from the Ferguson Foundation. The program is offered at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital School Program in Palo Alto. Debevec also leads a class at Lucile Packard’s Comprehensive Eating Disorders Program.

“Improv therapy opens pathways [to relationships],” said Kevin Danie, a teacher who works with Debevec at the hospital school where kids spend most of their week in isolation or in treatment. “We’re worried about the socio-emotional growth of these children, and building friendships just happens quicker with this.”

Debevec came to SF State two years ago to do more formal research and has been working with Associate Professor of Counseling Patricia Van Velsor.

“The research to date is fairly scant, but some researchers have examined the use of improv in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease and dementia,” Van Velsor said. “Others have looked at its use to enhance creativity, divergent thinking and problem solving in school age children as well as college students.”

Debevec's work was recently highlighted in the San Francisco Chronicle. She plans to continue developing her improv work as she completes her studies and eventually becomes a licensed counselor. From there, she hopes to expand improv therapy for therapeutic purposes to schools, training services and rehabilitation clinics.