Generally, my description of the technique for beginning a scene (and, by extension, beginning any section of a scene) is to directly sense the energy and feelings of that first moment in the scene, using your voice, your body, and words. You can think of your voice and body and words as sense organs, allowing you to directly experience the energy of the moment. By using sound and movement as sense organs, you can discover the qualities of the moment and shape your performance, all at the same time.

I deliberately use a vague and imprecise term, energy and feelings, in order to keep your mind open to any and all sensations you might feel in the moment, without having to track your sensations, or or slot them into known categories. However, in the early stages of an improvisor’s training, the vagueness of these instructions can be hard to follow. If you aren’t aware of the many possible ways in which sensations and feelings can lead you into the scene, then you may have no clear picture of what you are trying to plug your senses into.

I developed a series of exercises which I call portals in order to address this need. The portals introduce the actor to various aspects of the energy which might give him entry into the scene: rhythm, emotion, character, etc. They serve to wake up his receptors to these different aspects of the energy, and increase his ability to access them in order to find a way into the scene.

However, when you are actually performing a scene (rather than an exercise), it is crucial that you do not attempt to slot different sections of the scene into the categories of rhythm, emotion, character, or anything else. You shouldn’t waste mental energy trying to keep track of which categories you are using, and neither should you waste mental energy trying to give labels and definitions to what you are feeling. Performances in which the actor is too self-conscious about moving from a section which is about rhythm, to a section which is about emotion, etc., will feel flattened and prefabricated; overly pat. Real moments, in real lived experiences, are always richly multi-dimensional, taking place on many levels at once. Real experiences are also often unique and impossible to categorize; they are simply something one feels. Therefore, if you want your performance to have the same rich, multi-leveled quality of a real experience, you can’t waste mental energy in trying to fit the moments into pre-existing categories.

For this reason, the portals exercise continue on with a second phase, in which you deliberately let go of tracking the categories. Having used the portals to wake up your inner receptors to the various categories, you then train yourself to work directly from the totality of what you feel in each moment, no longer needing to mentally track or describe to yourself what you are doing.

(note: I am giving the example of using the portals to develop verbal scenes, but the same approach can be used for dance improvisation or musical improvisation.)


Do a series of short solo scenes, not longer that two minutes each, using a series of portals to find your way into the scene. You can think of each portal as a question, and you use your performance to answer the question. Begin your scene by using nonverbal vocal sounds to sense the energy of the moment, and then continue on by using words to sense the same thing. Once you have found a particular quality or kind of energy for your scene and you have done it nonverbally and then verbally, you can stop. There is no need for any kind of development or transformation in these short exercises.

Rhythm. What is the way that time is flowing in this moment? How fast or slow? Regular or irregular? Smoothly or jaggedly? Use your voice, and then your words, to sense all of the rhythmic qualities of the energy in the opening moment.

Body sensation and texture. What is the physical, tactile quality of this moment? How does it feel on my skin? Cold or hot? Tired or energetic? Comfortable or uncomfortable? Use your voice and then words to explore the question.

Emotions, mood. What is the emotional quality I sense in this moment? Keep in mind that all moments have some kind of emotional quality to them. Even feeling “blank” or “neutral” or “machine-like” is a feeling. Use your voice and then words to directly sense the mood of the moment.

Character. Who am I in this moment? Without having to use any clear label to identify myself (such as “I am the chambermaid”), what characteristics of my physical stance, my mood, my way of interacting with the space, come together to give me a sense of character?

Place. Where am I right now? Outdoors or indoors? Light or dark? Flat or hilly? Empty or populated? Use your voice and then words to sense the qualities of the imaginary space you find yourself in.

Dramatic situation. What is my relationship right now to others, whether I imagine that those others are with me, or I am alone and only thinking about the others. I am competing with someone? Attracted to someone? Hiding from someone?

Imagery. What visual (or non-visual) imagery do I sense in this moment? Use your voice, and then your words, to directly sense the imagery.

Motion. What is the way the energy is moving in this moment? Is it rising or falling? Fast or slow, or is it completely still? What is the texture of the movement? Note that the portal of motion has a lot of elements of rhythm, body sensation, and imagery in it as well. Generally, there is a lot of overlap between the portals, and there is no need, when working on one portal, to try to block the others out of the scene.


Do all of the same portals again, in the same way, but this time, after you have started using words to sense the energy, allow the scene to continue for a while by opening yourself up and allowing what you are feeling to become something more than it is.

For example, suppose you are using the emotion portal, and the emotional mood you picked up at the start of the scene is nervousness. You begin the scene as before, by using nonverbal sounds as a way of feeling the nervousness. You continue on, as before, to feel the nervousness by using words. Then, open yourself up, so you can feel this nervousness more, and in more ways, on more levels. Because you aren’t specifying exactly what you mean by something more, it can turn out to be many things. It may simply be that you feel the nervousness, but in a deeper and more complete way. Or you may find a sense of character, a sense of who you are, and why you are so nervous. Or the nervousness may acquire a clearer, more definite body sensation, or a clearer rhythm, or it may lead you to see specific images.

You do not need to identify or track exactly what the something more turns out to be, just open yourself up and experience the energy more fully and on more levels, and see what happens. This will generally allow the initial quality of the scene to transform into something new. After you have found approximately one transformation for the scene, stop and go on to the next portal.


Now do a series of short scenes, not longer than two minutes, that also begin by using your nonverbal voice to sense the feelings and energy of the opening moment, but this time, you don’t need to identify or track or limit which portal or portals you may be using. Having used the previous exercise to awaken your awareness of the various portals, simply use your voice to feel the full multi-leveled, complex quality of the energy in the opening moment. This feeling will likely contain elements of many of the portals, as well as other unnamed qualities, so there is no need to label it or describe it to yourself. Simply use your voice to feel what it is like. Continue on to feel it by using words. Once you have found this first quality nonverbally and then with words, you can stop. There is no need to allow the scene to transform. Start a new one, recognizing that every time you start a new scene, you will be discovering something different.


Start a new scene in the same way as in the previous development, by using your nonverbal voice to sense the energy of the opening moment, without trying to track or identify the quality of that energy. As before, continue on by feeling that same quality by using words. Then, once again, allow yourself to open up and let the quality you are feeling become something more than what it is. Once again, this something more may simply mean that you feel the quality more fully and more completely, or it may mean that you are adding new levels and dimensions to the quality, without having to track or identify exactly what these levels are. It may even mean, when you open yourself up, that the scene transforms into something radically different.

If you like, you can continue the scene indefinitely in this way. Use your words (and silences) to experience each moment of the scene, then open it up, and this allows you to find the next moment of the scene. Essentially, you are now performing a solo scene, using the Go Inside structure. The portals have opened many doors, training you to be aware of the many ways to begin a scene, and the many ways to continue on with that scene. Because there are so many portals, so many points of entry into the energy of the moment, you don’t have to worry about choosing the right one. Any of them will be the right one, because any of them can lead you deeper into the latent qualities of the moment.