When performing a verbal improvisation based on a story, characters, or a situation, it is relatively easy to know when your language is leading you astray: if you start talking about things which contradict, undercut, or ignore the story structure, you are weakening the scene.

But what about more poetic, abstract, or other kinds of non-narrative verbal improvisation? If there is no story, how do you know when your language is leading you away from the scene’s center? If you start off your scene talking about birds flying over a garbage dump, and then you find that suddenly you are talking about different methods of decorating cakes, how can you trust whether this change of subject matter makes any kind of (rhythmic, musical, imagistic, poetic) sense within the scene? If, on the other hand, the subject matter remains the birds over the garbage dump for what seems like a very long time, how do you know if the scene really needs you to stay focussed on this one image? Are you merely stuck there, or are you staying there for a reason?

The technique for handling this problem is to develop the habit of continually Going Back to the Scene’s Source during a scene. It turns out that this technique of Going Back to the Source is an essential tool for all improvisation. (Probably for all performance of any kind.)

By “The Source” I mean the underlying flow of feelings/musicality/energy which is the basis for creating the scene. Personally, when I am performing any kind of vocal scene, I always feel that I can come into immediate, tactile contact with this Source by re-establishing an awareness of my Solar Plexus, or the area referred to in Yoga as the “heart chakra.” This center is a bit higher than the center which is used by dancers, for example, but theater is primarily focused on emotional energy, so it makes sense to me to use this higher center. (Note that this does not mean that every performance has to be very “emotional” or histrionic: one might just as well come into contact with the sensations of “calmness” “neutrality” or even “cool inhumanness” when one connects to one’s Solar Plexus.)

It is not accurate to think that your Solar Plexus is the Source of the scene, in and of itself. The Source is not located in your Solar Plexus. You are not trying to “feel” your Solar Plexus itself, which after all is just another part of your body. One must think of the Source in a holistic way: all of the energy and feelings in the performance space together form a complex, multi-level whole moment, which is the actual Source of the scene. I like to think of a bounderyless space, in which all the energy and feelings which are inside of me at any moment, plus everything going on around me in the space (my partner’s energy, the color, light, sounds, smells in the room) form together one complex reality, which is the scene’s Source. I can avoid worrying about the difference between what is “inside of me” and what is “outside of me” by treating everything I am aware of in the moment as if all of it is Inside. The Solar Plexus, then, is more like a lens. The Solar Plexus is not the Source, but it is the place through which I am able to funnel the Source and bring it up into my breath and into my vocal line (my words and my silences). The Solar Plexus is the place I can always go to renew contact with the Source, because I am focussing and channeling the Source through this part of my body.

While performing a scene, I always feel that I must constantly come back to this place, this center, in order to keep the scene on track. I think of myself as renewing my contact with this Source at the start of every phrase during the scene. By “every phrase” I mean, without being too fussy or precise about it, every one or two lines of text. The important point is that, throughout the duration of a scene, I develop a rhythm of constantly coming back and renewing my contact with my center and with the source, just as I constantly renew my breath. It is not important to keep track of precisely how long the phrases are, or to know exactly what is the start of a “new phrase.”

How does this technique help me have confidence in the language which I find coming out of my mouth during the scene? The technique will work, assuming that one accepts the underlying premise: the premise that the integrity and meaning of the scene depends upon making sure that every moment in the scene flows as directly as possible from the Source.

By using the technique of constantly coming Back to the Source, I avoid the feeling that my language comes from a surface layer, from the language itself, or from the subject matter, ideas, or images in the language, and instead I constantly assure myself that the language is flowing directly from the underlying Source. Thus, if I find myself in the middle of a monologue (or a dialogue with a partner) about birds flying over a garbage dump, I avoid the feeling that I am simply “sitting in” the surface level of the subject matter to find my next line: I am not simply answering the question “What’s the next thing that happens in the garbage dump, do the birds fly away?” Or “What do garbage dumps make me think of?” Or any other kind of merely logical, conceptual, or imagistic association. Instead, with every line or two of my monologue, I renew my contact with my center, I go back into the flow of feeling with I am channeling through my Solar Plexus, and I then allow this renewed contact with the Source to inform my next line. What happens? It could be many different things: the next line might still be something about the garbage dump. The next 50 lines might all still be about the garbage dump. Or the next line might have radically changed the subject matter to something completely different, or it might have shifted the subject matter to something related to garbage, such as a compost pile in a garden. The point is whatever comes out of my mouth, I am able to trust it, and to know that it is the right thing for the scene at that moment, because it comes from a constantly renewed contact with the Source. The scene will have continuity and integrity, because my contact with the Source is continuous. If the subject matter remains the same for a long time, it is doing so because the scene needs it to remain the same. If the subject matter keeps changing, it is because the scene needs it to keep changing. By constantly checking back and renewing my contact with the Source, I can be confident that whatever comes out of my mouth is OK for the scene. This confidence allows me to stop worrying about and judging the verbal contents of the scene, because I can always trust The Source. The stronger this sense of trust, the better the scene.

Now continue on to an exercise to help you develop this technique: Back to the Source Part Two: The Alternating Exercise