Back in the days when I did kung fu, I would practice my horse stance for hours. Legs a little more than shoulder width apart, knees bent, pelvis tucked under a bit, feet roughly parallel, spine elongated, arms rounded in front of me. At the park, in the carport, in class, I practiced this stance for countless hours. So much of what we did started from that basic stance that in many classes the sifu would have us hold it until we were either crumbling in pain or firmly and solidly rooted to the earth through the soles of our feet.
There is a basic stance in improvisation as well, although you should not confuse one for the other. I just about drove one particular director mad one night when he instructed us to stand comfortably and naturally and I instinctively adopted a horse stance, which had become comfortable and natural. He repeated his request, and I sunk deeper into my stance. He sighed and, presumably deciding to keep the mood of the evening light and playful, dropped the subject.
The stance that I’m thinking of is attitudinal rather than physical. It usually takes me the better part of a warmup to begin to access it. There are countless types of improv warmup exercises, but here’s one you run into often. Everyone stands in a circle and a theme is chosen -- let’s say the theme is superheroes. One player names a superhero, real or invented, points at someone else in the circle, and then that person names a superhero and points to someone else. And so it goes for a while. Name, point. Name, point. Until you’re done naming and pointing.
A good warmup follows a few simple rules. The rules of the warmup itself should be dead simple and decrease, rather than increase, anxiety. The exercise should transition players from their normal, everyday reality to the new reality of the performance. And camaraderie should be fostered; even improvisers who have never met before should be able to connect with each other. By the end of the warmups, everyone in the group should be ready to play.
Entering into the warmup, I am often solidly in right-brain mode, calculating, guarded. It’s not uncommon for me to be more concerned about my standing in the group than just being in the group. As the warmup starts, I’m likely mentally cataloging the superheroes I know, evaluating what might get a laugh, making every effort to not get caught off guard. In most of my daily life, I need to be taking care of business, and being taken by surprise or put back on my heels can deal a real blow to my ego. The perpetual thought process I engage in throughout most of my waking hours is an ongoing attempt to not only define who I think I am but to establish and maintain a protective shell of “self” around myself. The level of listening and openness that improvisation requires cannot co-exist with this perpetual ego maintenance. The warmup, then, is a step from one mindset to another.
As the exercise continues, my mind will continue to generate ideas pre-emptively even when it is not my turn to play. Holding these ideas in my mind wastes short-term memory that could be utilized by staying in the moment and responding organically when a fellow player does pass the focus my way. I may fumble when my turn comes and there’s no guarantee it will be clever, but it will be honest and it will be more likely to incorporate material that has already been contributed, which is germane to group improvisation.
That’s the stance I referred to above: staying in the moment, observing and listening to what is happening, and not trying to anticipate or pre-empt reality with mental chatter. Responding organically and authentically. Letting the subconscious and the conscious and the superconscious and others’ consciousnesses play together.
When the show starts, I sit down at my keyboard while the rest of the performers make their way onstage. My contributions will be musical, but this improvisational stance will be just as important as if I was onstage doing character work. I can fake dozens of genres and know all sorts of musical gimmicks, and my fingers are pretty adept at noodling without being engaged with the musical mind, but the actors and the story that unfolds deserve a creative openness and freedom of expression that transcend that which is known and expected. Something deeper is required.
The improvisational stance, that attitude of rootedness and centeredness and openness, allows the musical mind to invent and develop themes for the characters and their stories. This creative flow need not be contained by quadruple meter, traditional harmony, conventional composition. Passages don’t need to resolve if the moment has faded and the scene has moved on. And although I strive to accentuate emotional tension and smooth out rough edges, if the actors are in their groove contributing to each other’s characters and the story, I won’t hesitate to sit out and let them do their work; silence is a powerful musical tool.
Being strongly rooted and centered fosters the discernment necessary to know when to play and when to rest. By the end of the show, just as I felt at the end of a good kung fu session, there’s a healthy exhaustion, that “good tired” feeling that leads to a deep, healing sleep. It teaches you that play is hard work, and is good for body and soul.