Notes from Keith Johnstone retreat, August 11, 2009Can you to stop your thoughts for 1 minute? Try it now - just sit, breathe and don't think. I'll wait... How did it go? Unless you have a daily meditation practice, it can be very hard to quiet your mind. That's normal for most of us.
Now try the opposite. Pick a nursery rhyme or line from a song you know well - something like "Bah Bah Black Sheep". Repeat it and raise the volume of your thoughts until you are screaming those words over and over in your head for 1 minute (don't say the words out loud).
Both of these exercises are the same in one simple way. It changes the way we look at the world.
"If we stop the verbal thinking, it's the same world but it's a much more interesting world." -Keith Johnstone
When you begin Zen meditation practice you count your breaths. The counting gives you a focus so you notice when other thoughts have come in to distract you. Eventually you leave the counting and focus only on the breath. With some practice you can quiet your mind and become more aware of the world, notice things your brain normally blocks out.
By mentally screaming "Bah Bah Black Sheep" you can disrupt your typical verbal thinking. If you can do this loud enough you can drown out your other thoughts and even make it difficult for you to speak. Try to say your name out loud but never stop the mental phrase. Don't pause to quickly say the words out loud, say them at the same time. It may take a few days of trying.
By now, you might be thinking "I thought this blog was about improv..." Here's where that comes in. The technique of mantras used by meditation experts and can be used by actors.
"It is abstract, not your objective. It's just used to change the flesh" -Keith Johnstone
Try playing a scene by mentally repeating "I love you" or "I hate you" as a mantra. It will change what you look like, and how you deliver your lines. Just because you are screaming "I love you. I love you. I love you" in your mind, that doesn't meant you should be in love with the other character. In fact often the opposite is true. Try thinking "I love you" but to keep away from your partner. Or, use "I hate you" and want to make them yours. This is similar to playing "covered" emotions like anger covering up the lust in a Jane Austin play.
The point is to distract ourselves from our thoughts, not give time for fear to enter our minds, and give our brain a break. It is similar to being hypnotized or entering a trance state. Athletes call it being "in the zone", psychologists and business people might call it "flow", you might have experienced it when "time just flew by" while focused on a project. This can happen for an actor in being deeply in a character or when a performance feels effortless.
"Once you distract your mind, automatic systems start taking over." - Keith Johnstone
Try walking down the hall without thinking about how you walk. Most likely you will no longer be doing "your" walk, but some other self-aware walk. Mantras can help you act in a calm way out of instict and not analytical thought. This will produce characters that move naturally and in a human way.