Don’t mistake Tension for Intention

I’ve been reading a fantastic book called Physical Expression and the Performing Artist. It explores peoples’ misconceptions about how their bodies work, and how many of us subconsciously add tension in order to make our bodies move the way we think they should. All this tension makes for less expressive work because the performer is trying to make their body do something, rather than movement being an expression of intent. In addition, they’re always a little bit outside their performance because they’re thinking about making things happen, rather than simply doing them.

Think about how this applies to fight scenes. Some people never achieve comfort and trust with choreography because they’re only focussing on the intricacy of the moves or on performing the actions fast enough and in the right order, with little to no thought about the character’s experience of the scene. Also, some people like to “feel the violence” or “feel badass” which they achieve by adding tension. Others believe that speed is the only route to a better performance*, so they tense up to feel like they’re moving faster. But don’t mistake tension for intention. Physical Expression and the Performing Artist reminds us that if you’ve already locked in an expression you think is perfect, the scene can’t grow and deepen, because you can’t be responsive to the subtle changes that develop when one gets comfortable with action. Plus, when you try to do something, rather than simply doing it, you’re slow and less able to respond in the moment. By trying rather than doing, we hamper our artistic expression.

It reminds me of the process I’m currently experiencing in singing. It seems like every week I gain another layer of understanding of my instrument. I’ve always been a bit of a control freak, so learning to “let go” in any context is a hurdle for me. My brilliant and amazing teacher, André Clouthier, talks about the bravery and fearlessness required singing. At first I didn’t get it. I thought he was referring to allowing the emotional truth out. Well, that’s certainly part of it: it can be terrifying to just let out what’s deep inside you. Come to think of it, that’s what a lot of artist have trouble with early on before they can really access their artistry. But André’s also referring to the bravery it takes to simply open your mouth, breathe and let the music out. It feels like I’m not Doing anything. It feels like I’m just standing there and I’m kinda not doing the singing at all. And the brave part for me is being okay with not being the one Doing. Being okay with being present and feeling like I’m being sung.

When we first learn a skill, the focus is so often on what to Do that we feel like that’s goal: Doing. However, when we’re really performing, when we’re really making art, we forget about the Doing and we just Be. We just express what this character is going through and their reactions to it. We have to trust that we’ve done our homework on the piece and on the character. We have to trust that we ourselves are interesting enough to let our innermost truth out. And we have to be okay with letting go of the technique so that we can just “live truthfully under imaginary given circumstances,” if I may borrow from Meisner.

For some ideas on how to do this in a fight scene, check out the posts Bring It! and the follow-up Bring it! part 2: how to practice in class. Keep an eye on the upcoming blog posts, too, as I’ll be frequently posting rehearsal techniques to help you to get familiar with your choreography and then to let it go so you can focus on the scene. It’s really not that much different than rehearsing your spoken scenes, but I find that we sometimes need a nudge towards drawing those connections.

See you next week!

*I mean ONLY speed, rather than focussing on communication, accuracy, precision…

Style Guide: Karate

Karate is again an umbrella term, this time for many of the martial arts of Japan. It’s considered a hard style, though there are some varieties which have exceptions to this. As a generalization, Karate uses a balance of hand strikes and kicks, and tends to remain in deep stances — but not so low as to be on the ground, though there are some techniques for fighting from that depth. Hand strikes use closed-fist punches and open-hand techniques. There are also some grabbing and grappling techniques, but the range most associated with Karate is kicking and punching.

Here’s a kata that embodies the style most associated with Karate.


And check this out, too. Note how the precision and clarity of the techniques make the kata and following “two-man set” demonstration very easy to follow.


From a performance and stage combat perspective, note how the demonstrators get out-of-sync with each other during the sequence starting at 2:10, and then are back in the same time together when they restart at 2:21. When they’re out-of-sync, we instantaneously lose clarity. Even though the “aggressor” has great targeting, his positioning and proportion are off, losing a bit of energy in his knee attack. The “victim” is unable to respond to the incoming attack. As a result, we don’t know what the story is.

Style Guide: Kung-Fu

Kung-fu translates to “any study, learning, or practice that requires patience, energy, and time to complete” (Wikipedia), but in the West it tends to be an umbrella term for all Chinese Martial Arts. Writing a style guide for all of Kung-fu is a bit misleading as there are hundreds, if not thousands, of different styles and variations. Every family and lineage has its own name and stylistic differences.

As a sweeping generalization, look for hand positions*, arm and leg extension, circular motion (as opposed to linear), levels (stances that stand upright, stances that are very close to the ground, coupled sometimes with leaping and fighting from the ground), fluidity and rhythm. Often there will be mnemonic devices built in, as in the various animal-based styles. Remember these are vast generalizations! If you are creating choreography, be sure to research a specific style and discover its specific qualities.


For an example of unarmed Kung-fu against kickboxing, here’s Jackie Chan fighting Benny “the Jet” Urquidez in Wheels On Meals.

And an example of armed Kung-Fu from The Legend of Drunken Master.


*a very small sample of hand positions:


Style Guide: Judo

Judo is known for throws and take-downs. Through a mechanical lens, check out the aggressor uses incoming energy — whether provided by the victim or whether caused by the aggressor — to initiate the action; look at how the aggressor uses leverage, balance points and force to topple their opponent.

In the video below, look for those subtle difference in said details.


Here’s another video with fewer throws at a slower pace:

Check out this segment from one of my favourite shows, Human Weapon:

I totally nerd-out on the animated parts!

Advice on completing the workshop

It can’t be repeated enough: this workshop is the beginning of something new.

After you recover from this intensive, you can pick it right back up and continue, whether your purpose is to simply maintain your fitness, continue learning and become a leader in the community, or anything in between. But particularly if you think you’ll be performing and will need stage combat in your next gig, or if you’d like to continue to study stage combat in any manner, don’t let this be your only contact with it until your formal opportunity.  Let this art form be something you pick up every week — maybe even every day! — bringing you joy and feeding your curiosity all year round.

This is doubly true for new teachers and teacher candidates. It can be tempting to funnel all of your energy into seeing teaching and apprenticing opportunities, but don’t forget to attend classes strictly as a student. Study with as many people as possible. Everyone approaches this work differently, and every student requires a different approach. You strengthen your teaching skills with every class you take. Even classes that are in other disciplines entirely. Nothing like taking a class in something completely new to you to remind you how overwhelming knowing nothing can be. Develop your sympathy for your students by being one yourself as often as possible.

It sounds cliché, but it’s utterly true: you learn from your students. Every surprise should bring you joy. Every strength you see in them should inspire you to develop your own skills further. Every weakness you see should remind you that this can be challenging and terrifying work, and we should all approach every day with the mind of a beginner.
Your love for this craft and the desire to share that with others has led you to this particular course of study. Maintain your hunger for learning and you’ll bring the fullness of your unique perspective to your teaching.

What is comes down to for everyone, no matter what depth of involvement you want this or any other art form to have in your life, approach it with the beginners mind: curiosity, desire to learn and persistence. Have full confidence that that will propel you into a successful future, growing and developing all the way.

Style: Wing Chun

Part of preparation for TMA is observing some of the various styles of Eastern Martial Arts. Today’s clip is an excerpt from Ip Man, displaying a stunning example of Wing Chun.

In particular note the moves from 1:50 to 1:55. You get a good look at Wing Chun’s signature short and narrow stance, and the flurry of centre-line punches, called Chung Choi. You’ll also note the minimal movement which leads to efficient defences followed immediately — if not simultaneously — by a counter-attack, and kicks that generally do not aim above the waist.