I often say the phrase “the piece I am about to perform already exists in its perfect form” as a part of my preparation before doing an improvisation. Here is one part of the importance of this phrase which I haven’t written about before:

If the piece I’m about to perform is perfect, that probably means, like most performance works which are satisfying to watch, that the piece is about something. It might not be easy to describe the subject of the piece in a short phrase. The piece might be abstract, and not reducible to a concept or phrase. But the viewer still will come away with a sense that there is a very particular area of meaning which the piece explores: an emotional territory, a cluster of related images, a particular spiritual or social problem that people struggle with in their lives. The piece is not structured randomly. Rather, it consistently moves deeper and deeper into the heart of its subject matter, although sometimes it moves in a roundabout way. The structure of navigating through the piece by Going Inside specifically ensures that the movement of the piece is always deeper in towards the heart of its subject.

Knowing this at the beginning of the piece, as I first set off on my exploration, means that I expect that I will discover that the piece has certain themes: visual images, ideas, dramatic situations, and that these themes may reappear at intervals throughout the work. Each time a theme reappears in the work, it is likely to be in a somewhat new form, a form which reveals a new aspect or layer of meaning about the subject matter of the piece.

Does this mean that I should, early on in the piece, make a conscious decision about what the piece is about, and then look for instances of that subject? No, no, and again no. This is precisely what I should not do. As soon as I decide that the piece I’m performing is about “pain” or “the impulse to collect things” or “the nineteenth century” it means that exploration shuts down for good. Now that I’ve decided that I “know” what the piece is about, I’m merely collecting and manufacturing a list of incidents and images which purport to say something about that chosen subject matter. I am no longer listening to what the piece is trying to tell me, no longer capable of being surprised, no longer discovering anything new. My congealed sense of the piece’s subject matter has caused the piece to go dead. Neither should I actively seek out themes, nor should I try to make ideas, images, or other motifs reappear throughout the piece artificially, through conscious effort.

Rather, it means that I should remain constantly alert to the possibility of discovering themes and key images. I should remain on the lookout for them, so that when they do reappear in their new guises, I can recognize them for what they are, and embrace them. I, along with the audience, will be able to enjoy how the organic reappearance of the piece’s themes gives me a deeper and clearer sense of what the piece is about, as I continue my exploration, deeper and deeper into the hidden meaning of the piece.

Often, this means that I will be on the lookout for Key Images, which are likely to recur throughout the piece. In fact, important Key Images will very often appear in the very first moments of a piece. I use the term Key here advisedly, because these images will serve repeatedly, throughout the piece, to unlock doors and take me deeper into the meaning of the piece. This does not mean that I have decided that the piece is about the key image, nor does it mean that I have made any specific decision, in words, about what the piece is about. It merely means that I have become alert to the idea that this image, and variations on the image, will always offer me a way deeper inside the meaning of this particular piece.

For example, in the improvisation used in my most recent film Spiral Garage, the key images of Sculpture and Cars both appeared in the first few lines of dialog. The piece certainly did not turn out to be really about either sculpture or cars. The subject matter which emerged, as I later understood it while making the film, was about a cycle of violence and its effect on culture. But at key moments throughout the piece, the images of sculpture and cars proved to be important portals that led the two actors deeper into the heart of what the piece was about.