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The Tao of Martial Arts
in Theatrical Movement

"The consciousness of self is the greatest hindrance
to the proper execution of all physical action."
Bruce Lee














2001 Berthold Brecht Bladerunner Environment Movement I Movement II Screenplay Third Reich Yacht Club

Written by Ty Narada for Professor Joe Turner Cantu

"Movement is man’s most fundamental means of communication." [3] Everything that we do is intertwined with our sense of balance and direction. In theatrical movement, sensory perception on the stage must be effectively conveyed to the audience. Those perceptions include what is suggested and what an audience interpolates through the action.

A fairly recent addition to movement training has been the observation, and induction of martial arts technique to expand existing movement dynamics. Martial arts training is analogous to performance training, in that both pursuits promote a way of life that continues to evolve long after the training period ends. 


The West is becoming increasingly aware of a physical conditioning technique commonly practiced in China called T’i chi ch’an, or Ti Chi. When applied to actor training, Ti Chi expands an actor’s awareness of his physical potential. Where an actor may be limited by his ability to invent attainable plateaus, Ti Chi provides the physical and mental dianetics necessary to achieve greater self-control. This improved self control can then be readily applied to performance. 

Now that Ti Chi is no longer considered revolutionary, theatrical institutions have been able to assess the effectiveness of Ti Chi training over time. One conclusion states that "Chi expands an actor’s awareness of their bad habits, increases powers of concentration, and creates a new sense of control for which t'i chi ch'an is, in great part, responsible." [2] 

There are additional mental, emotional and physical benefits to be derived directly from exposure to and the practice of Ti Chi. "Once exposed to t’ai chi, a student will become very excited to see that the exercises are aimed at improving their sense of physical control and powers of concentration within a limited time onstage. There are perceptible improvements in control, timing and restraint. Longer range improvements include sensory capacities, an increased awareness of transitions between movements and a respect for timing." [2] Indeed, the refinement of each quality will better serve the actor, the director and the performance.


Like acting, "In the martial arts, everything that you learn is an acquired skill. [1] Martial arts "Technique is condensed movement; quick changes, variety and speed. It can be a concept of reversals much like the concept of God and the Devil." [1] It is interesting to note that comedy & drama, positive & negative is cross-culturally equated to "God and the Devil" when performance is reversely applied to martial arts. In a life threatening environment, the greatest martial artist to have ever lived said, "Simplicity is the shortest distance between two points." [1] In theatrical movement, the same truth my well apply to project sincerity, honesty and believability.


"If an actor follows a classical pattern, he will understand the routine; the tradition and the shadow –- but not himself. [1] Theater, much like the martial arts, requires that an adept be well rooted in the fundamentals of either art. One can not know how to react naturally to stimuli without practice and a repertoire of training that has become second nature. In the martial arts, an opponent must react properly in a fraction of a second; the reaction will be driven by years of practice, but the uniqueness of each movement is constructed to fit the stimuli perceived.

On stage, every last movement within each beat may not necessarily reflect the previous night’s performance with the precision of a sound recording, but unlike a sound recording, the actor must recreate and genuinely deliver the Human emotion each time. The point of theater is to live in the moment and to convey those moments to an audience that desires live stimuli; otherwise, they would well be content to go to the movies. 

"Absolute openness to the situation is possible only if the individual components of the spiritual-physical constitution can develop without restriction. This can be mastered only by practice." [2] The #1 handicap that an actor faces are the limitations that the actor places upon himself. It is too convenient to perceive the extent of our current ability as a goal to be achieved, and by so doing, our talent never reaches full fruition. The liability lies principally within the realm of what we are not aware of. This is precisely where martial arts training can play an invaluable role in our personal development. "[An actor must] learn the difference between neutral motionlessness and expressive motionlessness so that the internal attitude can be distinguished from the physiological state." [2] Beginning actors often feel ackward for being unable to distinguish between the two. There is an art to neutral motionlessness as well as to expressive motionlessness that is not concretely addressed by any method approach that this writer is aware of. Ti Chi, on the other hand, very deeply embeds the nature of both concepts in a student. Chi identifies and separates both static and fluid motion 

so that the emotional and fundamental reasons for making a static or fluid choice is more readily understood. 

"An actor must have a sense of rapport with everyone who shares the stage with him [so that] he becomes sensitive to what everyone else is doing on stage at all times." [3] This is exactly where seasoned actors are separated from the beginner. The beginner, although meaning well, is overly self-conscious of his every move; every facial expression and every word. Let’s not suggest that a finite mass has a limited potential -- let’s say instead that experience and practice will commute transparent self-consciousness, to second nature over time. Part of living-in-the-now requires that we interact with every aspect of the performance as authentically and naturally as possible. Patience is the key-root necessary to advance in this authenticity. 

"Perception alone will resolve all of our problems." [1] and reacting properly will carry the audience.


"Martial arts and acting have a common foundation: Self-control, made possible only by focus of self." [2]

"The actor who premeditates his behavior, rather than playing the moment, is so intent on executing his plan of how the scene should go that the stimulus might not even reach him." [2] This could be called nervousness or it could be called a natural 

concern for what you believe the audience may perceive about you. Excessive self-concern can deny one’s perception of himself. In order to ensure that our first impression is a good one, an actor might premeditate what, how and why before he even steps out on stage. "Do not start from a conclusion." [1] In order to effectively project and convey that we act ‘in this moment’ we must, in effect, do precisely that. "By learning to control mind-wandering; by staying in the moment while practicing a martial art, one learns a skill that can only benefit the art and craft of acting." [2]

"Western theater in the strictest terms of this argument is the domain of the mind, not the senses, unlike Eastern Theater which is unconcerned with intellectual priority." [2] To jump straight from Europe to the United States, Theater was reborn purely for the sake of entertainment. There are arguable semantics to this writer’s claim, but not when comparing the end result of East vs. Western theatrical premises. 

In Zen Buddhism, "Directness, Simplicity and intensity are achieved through concentration and a singleness of purpose. [2] "The number one liability of Western 

Theater students is their extremely fragile concentration span." [2] So lets go through the process of practical application:


"Warm-ups aid in relaxing tense muscles, encourage flexibility and help [to] prepare the body for more strenuous activity." [3] "To gain the greatest benefit from the warming-up procedure, the exercise should imitate as closely as possible the movements which are to be used in the event." [1]


"Movement training has as its goal, the physicalization of a particular character in action." [3] "Rehearsal is a way of setting an exact sequence of events. Preparations are a constant state of training so that when a situation arises one will be ready to do something appropriate." [2] "The outstanding characteristic of the expert athlete is his ease of movement, even during maximal effort." [1] The point of training for any activity is to be prepared; to excel at, and focus on the task at hand. When an athlete, actor, musician or martial artist has accomplished the preparation required, the pursuit of excellence will follow by devoting their full concentration toward the objective. In 

every case, winning and losing, success and failure, boos or applause will have everything to do with preparation, where the event, in itself, represents the cumulation 

of our effort to date. If the effort was inadequate, the result will prove it, and equally true for the reverse.

"Freedom comes from training that enables the actor to choose his responses without inner conflict or inhibition." [3]


"Good form is the most efficient manner to accomplish the purpose of a performance with a minimum of lost motion and wasted energy." [1] "Bad posture on stage can ruin the actor’s whole performance." [3] Nancy King described an incident where the leading actor in a production of Everyman, slouched during the entire performance. At first, the actor’s posture may have been perceived as a character interpretation, however, during the plays climatic ending – the actor remained slouched. King described the actor’s slouch as very defeatist, withdrawn and embarrassingly inappropriate. The result was an unbelievable, ineffective and disappointing end to what might have been a good performance. King said that every other quality about the actor was ideal, but that did not compensate for his slouch.

As with every aspect of movement, posture is an extremely critical component that requires practice to correct, and when correct, to perfect. 


Balance is important in that a lack of balance could defeat a given choice. Since acting is about motion, "One should seek good balance in motion and not in stillness." [1] One way to improve balance is to "Practice your balance by standing on one foot to put your clothes or shoes on – or simply stand on one foot whenever you choose." [1]. If you were to try that experiment right now, the extent of your practice would unfold. 


"Relaxation is a physical state, but it is controlled by the mental state. It is acquired by the conscious effort to control the thought as well as the action pattern. It takes perception, practice and [a] willingness to train the mind into new habits of thinking and the body into new habits of action." [1] This is perhaps the very first truth that becomes an actor, as he gains experience and grows more comfortable acting on stage. Imagine playing a character whom the playwright described as very composed and sedated, but what the audience sees is someone who is so wound up that he looks like he’s about to piss his pants. 


"In Jeet Kune Do, one finds firmness in movement, which is real, easy and alive." [1] "[Movement] must be clear like the notes of an instrument…otherwise the pattern of movement in a role is messy, and both its inner and outer rendering are bound to be indefinite and inartistic. The more delicate the feeling, the more it requires precision, clarity and [a] plastic quality in its physical expression." [Constantin Stanislavski] [2]

"The Western actor often tends to be at the mercy of his own energy because his technique is incapable of encompassing it fully; he has to ‘work himself up’ to high energy levels, while Yen Lu Wong carries with her a powerful but balanced energy source which she taps freely as needed." [2] There is a contrast between method acting, and the philosophies of Asia that inherently created Asian Theater. In this writer’s opinion, the contrast is not as severe as it sounds. When etymologizing East and West, the student will learn that both theatrical forms were invented by religion to serve spiritual purposes, and at times was overrun by politics. Where Asian theater has endured relatively little change, and currently serves cultural enlightenment and archetypal history, Western theater has endured many renovations at an accelerated pace. Where Asian Theater has remained relatively intact throughout the ages, Western Theater broke away from theological premises within the space of 800 years. 

In America, that space was only 80 years. Asia is still producing plays that were written 1,500 years ago, as the playwright then intended.


"Overkill is not good." [2]

"To strain and pull is to break the thread. To force motion and to exert falsely puts a strain on the thread. To overdo is to break the thread and to underdo is not to get it at all." [2] Control is knowing when and when not to. When to emphasize, when to withdrawal, how much and why. Control could be the accelerator in a racing boat turning sharply around a buoy or the woeful flail of Juliet’s scarf when the director has told her to play the part of a fertile woman who wants to get laid. Control advocates the contradiction, induces anxiety or sedates us with Valium. Control, like the slouching Everyman, can make or break the intention of a beat. 


"Don’t forget to breathe." [Joe Turner Cantu]

"The abdomen is the control point for ch’i because it controls the life-force (breath). Breath control was practiced as early as 206 BC during the Han dynasty. The abdomen contains intrinsic energy that once mastered, can be directed instantaneously to any point." [2] For a culture that has elevated the art of breathing into a qazi science, it can be surmised that lifeforce, spirit and reality are all intrinsic parts of being (if you study Eastern culture). By default, the martial arts application quite naturally became a component of Asian actor training in the same sense that American actors naturally speak English. Asian art(s) of all forms, are intertwined manifestations of a common spiritual energy, where Western theater appeals principally to intellectual and physical properties, morals and pursuits. There are fundamental premises between good and evil, light and darkness, honor and treachery that manifest in both Eastern and Western Theater. Spirit and breath control in the East, equates to Stanislavski and musical instruments in the West. 


"When an actor is able to physicalize his own feelings, he can then go on to the more difficult process of creating a specific character who reacts in a specific manner." [3] This is where we approach the meat, purpose and function of acting. "Actors need to overcome preconceived or culturally imposed ideas involving touching in order to perform with ease anything the script and director require of them." [3] Every single 

culture on Earth has varying codes of conduct with respect to touching: Arab males, for instance, are quite fond of kissing each other in friendly greeting; such conduct is considered congenial, rather than homosexual in Arab and some European nations. Playwrights may invest a specific regional moral code or set of standards into a character whose relationship(s) to/with the other characters needs to be willingly and naturally portrayed by the actor. Unawareness of such standards and morals could defeat the playwright’s intention, and invoke audience belief in the character. An actor unaware of varying codes of conduct, even behavior limited to US regions, may be disadvantaged if he injects erroneous moral standards into a character that the playwright did not intend the character to have. A lack of focus could possibly contradict an aesthetic that the playwright designed for a specific cause or effect. That cause or effect could contain a crucial meaning that drives the action in the play. In a case that severe, the entire point could become mute. 

Focus will always pertain to characterization, and the first consideration of any character is his relationship(s) to/with the other characters in a play. This is not the extent of what ‘focus’ may entail; where concentration denotes ‘quality’, focus applies to ‘intensity’. 


"The kinesthetic sense is the sense that tells you what your body is doing in space through the sensation or perception of movement in the muscles, tendons and joints." [3] "Actors will remember movement patterns more easily if they commit them to sense memory, kinesthetically rather than intellectually." [3] Kinesthetics is a quality that can not be mastered with out repetition and rote memory. There has to be an intention to kinesthetically imprint a motion until it becomes second nature. The purpose of kinesthetic memory is not to roboticize movement, but to augment existing grace with intellectual fluidity. The actor may then flow and sweep with grace or rigidity at will, unencumbered by unnatural poses. 


"Pretense is often an indispensable step in the attainment of genuineness. It is a form into which genuine inclinations flow and solidify." [1] Therefore, hypocrisy is void in a truly aspiring artist where true art is his love that can be seen [Ty Narada].


[1.] The TAO of JEET KUNE DO by Bruce Lee, Ohara Publications, Inc., 1975

[2.] Asian Martial Arts in Actor Training by Phillip B. Zarrilli, 
Center for South Asian Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1993

[3.] Theater Movement, The Actor and His Space by Nancy King
Drama Book Specialists, 1971