Therapy Players: Back row, from left: Michael Greenbaum, M.D.; Niquie Dworkin, Ph.D.; Eric Cho, LCPC.; Sara Rusk, Psy.D. Front row, from left: Dave Carbonell, Ph.D.; Ruth Richman, LSW; Nina Riccardi, LCSW; Cliff Saper, Ph.D. Credit: Suyong Pak

NORTH CENTER — The line between improv and therapy is blurrier than you’d think: Imagine a space where you’re encouraged to live in the moment, get outside of your head and exist in the “yes, and” world where anything is possible. 

That’s the world that one group of psychotherapists-turned-improvisers in Chicago wants to encourage. During the day, the eight-person troupe known as the Therapy Players work as licensed clinical psychotherapists, spanning a wide range of theoretical orientations. But when the lights go up this Saturday at the Bughouse Theater, 1910 W. Irving Park Road, they’ll leverage those same skills — plus some solid comedy chops — to delight audiences.

The group has been playing in clubs and theaters around the Chicagoland area since 2013, playing to professional and nonprofessional crowds alike. They’ve also garnered plenty of accolades, including winning the Collider Improv/Sketch Comedy Competition in 2015. 

Co-founder David Carbonell’s love of improv predates the creation of the Therapy Players. During his psychology graduate program at DePaul University, he took some improv classes with some fellow students. They even started a small troupe called the Freudian Slippers, who performed at ImprovOlympics, Taste of Chicago and elsewhere. But time and work led them to drift apart, and Carbonell focused on his practice.

Eventually, Carbonell found himself wanting to try his hand at the improv space once more with fellow therapists.

“I wrote to listservs for psychotherapists and psychologists, looking for therapists with improv experience,” Carbonell said.

From there, the Therapy Players were born — alongside Carbonell, there’s Cliff Saper, Ruth Richman, Nina Riccardi, Michael Greenbaum, Niquie Dworkin, Sara Rusk and Eric Cho, all professionals in their respective fields. 

A typical Therapy Players show features the usual chicanery and controlled chaos of a standard improv set, peppered with the analytical twists of psychotherapy. One of their staple games is “Doctor Generic,” which wraps audience suggestions into a doctor-patient therapy session centered around a famous therapist or therapeutic idea, like Freud or Jung. 

When they play mental health conferences in front of a crowd of fellow therapists, the suggestions get a little more niche. But Carbonell stresses that the everyday audience at a Therapy Players show isn’t going to get lost in the therapeutic jargon. “

We don’t want to leave the audience wondering, ‘Who was that guy?’” he said.

According to Carbonell, there’s a lot of common ground between theories of psychoanalysis and the rhythms of improv comedy. A central foundation of improv — taking whatever your partner gives you and working with it without denial or argument — is also found in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). “There’s a big overlap in terms of cultivating that accepting attitude,” said Carbonell. “There aren’t any mistakes.”

While the Therapy Players have found new angles into improv comedy through the structure of psychotherapy, Carbonell finds the practice of improv helps him in his own work as well. “It probably makes me a little more aware of your inner voice,” he said, stressing that improv has a humanizing influence on him, allowing him to not sweat the small stuff and redirect his attention when working with individual clients.

“After you’ve been a doctor for thirty years, it’s easy to lose sight of your own fallibility and humanity,” he said. Similarly, audiences seem to enjoy watching psychotherapists get silly with their own practice.

“It tends to break up the stigma,” Carbonell said. “They can look at us and say, ‘Gee, there are regular people doing this.’” Having fun with mental health, one suggestion at a time. 

The Therapy Players will appear at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Bughouse Theater. Tickets are $10 and are available at the door on online.

The Therapy Players will also play the Cornservatory, 4210 North Lincoln Ave. Nov. 4 and the Bit Theater, 4034 Fox Valley Center Drive in Aurora, Dec. 2.


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