How to Improvise like a Samurai (part 1) by Heather

I was teaching a while ago when one of the students, started to look at me in a strange way, with an almost mystical look in his eye. When I asked why he told me that the excercise I was describing was almost exactly what he had been taught by his Aikido instructor a few weeks before. We talked after class and this led to me investigating a little further into what I have found to be the many links between Japanese Martial arts and improv (the links between Buddhism and improv have already been well documented) so what follows are my top 10 philosophical and strategic martial arts concepts which can also be applied to your scene work:

1. MUSHIN– Without mind.
‘Achieved when a person’s mind is free from thoughts of anger fear or ego during combat OR everyday life. There is an absence of discursive thought and judgement so the person is totally free to act and react towards an opponent without disturbance from such thoughts.’ Surely this is the state that all improvisers strive for (or Should do), the best improv happens when you stop listening to your inner critic and just inhabit the scene or character in the moment. I think when Improvisers start out, it’s almost impossible to achieve this state, as they are constantly worrying about what they are doing wrong. The beauty of improv is that you can’t do it wrong.

2. AIKI – Joining energy. Energy matching.
Oh, how I was excited to see the term energy matching used within a Martial arts context. This is the exact term we Maydays use to describe the technique of mirroring from within a scene. Here it is in the context of your opponent but in improv,  matching your scene partner’s energy, demeanor, stance and point of view can be an extremely strong place to start your scene. Quite often we’ll go for conflict right at the top of a scene whereas sometimes it’s nice to just see two characters in their world going about their business. How often do we see conflict in everyday life? Whereas we see energy matching everywhere in groups of people e.g the football fans, the Hen do, the WI meeting. It’s always interesting to watch.

3. KOKORO – Heart, character, attitude.
It’s essential to enter any scene with a strong point of view, whatever that is, even if you’re working from nothing. ‘Character’ also doesn’t necessarily have to be about your ability to play different roles. Del Close spoke of wearing characters like a thin veil, so while Character is a great tool, some of my favourite improviser’s only ever play themselves. However they will play themselves afraid, agitated, happy or themselves as they really would be in space for example. An attitude to what you’re doing will transform the scene.

These are hard (goho) and soft (juho) methods or initiations – just like improv! We talk about hard initiations as verbal offers or clearly formed premises. Whereas a soft initiation might involve starting a mimed physical activity or merely making an emotional noise with NO idea of what your scene is about. How do you initiate your scenes? Do you always come on with a fully formed idea or do you always follow your scene partner? While in this case juho method refers to a counter attack, it can often feel sometimes in a scene that one improviser will wait to ‘counter’ the opening scene offer of the other. Does every scene need an attack and counter attack? Probably not, but it is always good to notice if you are habitually doing one or the other Interestingly Shorinji Kempo say ‘as the degree of training increases, Goho and Juho progress toward becoming a single body of techniques.’ Hopefully as we become more experienced as improvisers it also becomes imperceptible (at least to an audience) what role each improviser is playing.

5. Fudoshin – Immovable mind, immovable heart
In improv terms this really reminded me of the old adage of ‘don’t drop your shit.’ (Incidentally, the internet attributes this saying to Susan messing of The Annoyance in Chicago). Not ‘dropping your shit’ can be an incredibly powerful tool for making your character’s more grounded, believable and invested. We often talk about the importance of allowing your character to be changed but it can be equally important to stay with the offers you made at the top of your scene. If you do or say anything, the audience sees it and wants to believe that every move has a special significance to the scene. I will be blogging about ‘not dropping your shit’ again soon.

6.Zanshin – Awareness – of relaxed alertness
This idea seems to parallel well with the importance of listening in improv. So many listening excercises  aren’t necessarily about hearing but about a deeper awareness of noticing every signal being given off in the scene. I stumbled across this saying; “When the battle is over, tighten your chin strap.” This refers to constant awareness, preparedness for danger and readiness for action – I love this!

7.Shoshin – Beginners mind
This term is used also used in Zen Buddhism and encourages openness, eagerness and a lack of preconceptions. I hope this is especially relevant to very experienced improvisers. We are lucky enough to be striving for the holy grail of the perfect scene or show but no matter how long you do it, you’re never guaranteed to have cracked it. This impermanence is what makes improv especially exciting as an art form and also means that wherever we are on our improv path there is alsways a level playing field in the scene.

8. Shuhari – 3 stages of learning
Shuhari roughly translates to “first learn, then detach, and finally transcend.” and is a way of thinking about how you learn a technique. The idea is that a person passes through three stages of gaining knowledge. In improv we are ultimately striving for a state of mindfulness when we are on stage but this can be hard at first. While there are many accepted rules for improv it is easy to ask the question ‘How can there be rules for something that is made up?’  There are some principles that will help and guide us in the beginning that we need to stick with it at first e.g avoiding questions, saying yes. Sometimes once an improviser has heard that you must say yes on stage it’s likely that they’ll delight in telling you when you haven’t. First off, it’s never cool to pass judgement on someone else’s work (unless they’ve asked you to!) but second of all once you’ve been improvising a while then I actively encourage you to break the rules.

9. Suki – timing
Suki is all about timing. In martial arts Suki refers to the moment a mistake is made by your opponent and provides your opportunity to strike. In improv these ‘mistakes’ are gifts and provide an opening for us to discover what is unusual and interesting about the scene. If a word is stumbled over for example then in improv this could be the invention of a whole new word. From my tiny amount of research this also relates closely to the concept of ‘maai’ meaning the level of engagement with your partner – another concept which is essential for improv.

10.  Kensho
Is described in Japanese martial arts as ‘an early glimpse into Enlightenment’ Carrying on with my mixed religion holy grail metaphor I would describe Kensho as the feeling you get in Improv after HAVING A GOOD SHOW!

Stayed tuned for part two when we do Aikido with a bunch of Improvisers and Improv with a bunch of Aikido masters and find out just how inaccurate this blog really is!

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