Beginner’s Mind

Written by Gary Schwartz on . Posted in Gary Schwartz, Improvisation, Spolin Games, Theater Games, Viola Spolin

Beginner’s Mind

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities,
but in the expert’s there are few… Zen master Shunryu Suzuki

Beginner’s mind is experiencing a thing for the first time. “Firsts” are always memorable. Improvisation is a constant search for ‘first times’.

I once did a wonderful improv scene in Viola’s class using the game of “What’s Beyond?”

What’s Beyond is a game where you keep some event, past or the future, alive (in No-Motion[1]) without ever bringing it on stage or referring to it directly in dialogue. Yet, the holding of the “What’s Beyond” colors the scene and produces a very dramatic, dynamic scene.

I remember doing a “What’s Beyond” scene where my wife and I were setting up the table for a dinner party having just agreed, after a spontaneous fight, that we should get divorced.

Our guests were on their way over and we were going to go through with the party; it being understood we would not mention our divorce. The ‘What’ of the scene was just us setting the table and putting out the h’ors d’ouvres, before our guests arrived.

It was brilliant! It was very dramatic and every action and moment was filled with the ‘what’s beyond’ between us.

I took a vase from the cabinet while my wife cut some flowers. We met at the head of the table to arrange the flowers.

“My Aunt Mary gave us this.” I said.

My wife nodded.  “When did she die?”

“Last year.” I said matter-of-factly.

Then she said, “She went quickly – that was a blessing.”

My wife said it with such disdain in her voice. It reminded us of our year of pain as our relationship died. It wasn’t the vase we were discussing.  Our marriage died last year. A quick death is better than a year of slow dying. We both knew it. The scene went on in this fashion and our ‘What’s Beyond’ was clear to the entire class.  It was all there. They knew it, felt it and the class applauded at the end. Everyone agreed it was a very powerful scene. I had such a good experience with What’s Beyond, I couldn’t wait to repeat it.

We did “What’s Beyond” in class again, some several weeks later. I jumped up first and got another female partner. I used the divorce premise again with a few alterations. It bombed.

My scene partner and I had no dramatic tension. We looked sadly at each other, played a very maudlin scene until the doorbell rang and we called ‘curtain’.

Viola got up and came down onto the stage. I braced myself. Here it comes.

“What were you DO-ing!” Viola yelled. “You just went about your business, da-dee-da… and so what!? You were sad, we got that.  You two were acting your heads off!”

“What was your ‘What’s Beyond?” she asked.

I said “We just agreed on a divorce and didn’t want to talk about it while we set the table for guests.”

She stopped. “That’s a good one.” Completely forgetting about the scene we did a month back.

“I know” I said. “I used it withSusana few months ago. It worked great!”

“You whaaa-t?” Viola said incredulously.

I was bracing for a real bawling out.

“That’s it! You were caught in memory!”

“But isn’t an actor is supposed to be able to repeat a scene with the same intensity?” I came back. “I had the same focus, the same who, what and where and I should have been able to do it again. I really had a strong focus the last time and really had a great scene. Why did it work before and not now?”

“You had nothing to base it on the first time! You had a beginner’s mind!! It was new. You were really improvising.”

I was still a novice actor. I had not developed the craft of finding feelings anew – of going for process and not result. It was a great lesson.

Beginner’s Mind is Zen practice in action. It is the innocent mind that approaches experience free of preconceptions and expectations, like a child who looks at objects and experiences them without any prior knowledge. Every object and interaction is approached with wonder and amazement. It can’t help but be exciting.

Imagine looking at a deck of cards as a child. It is a stack of uniform colored squares. So many of them! Smooth! Funny pictures on the other side:Blackand red things and pictures! What can be done with them? So many things. They cover the floor; they slide; they stick to a wet face; they bend and stay bent and on and on.

Adults see ‘a game of Gin Rummy’ or ‘Poker’ or ‘a house of cards’. Why? – Because we’ve used them in that manner before. There’s nothing inherently wrong in that. It is just we now jump to a limited set of possibilities based on past experience.

The same is true of a lot of improvisation. Old frames of reference limit our choices and we’re so often not even aware of it.  Even trying to recreate something you once discovered as ‘original and exciting’ because of Beginners Mind, can be eviscerated by trying to capture that lightning in a bottle a second time.


[1] Spolin calls No-Motion The eye of the storm (stillness amid action), A state of waiting (not waiting for, but just waiting) Being ready, connected to the ongoing action in stillness. Action at a simmer.

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Gary Schwartz

Gary Schwartz

Gary Schwartz is a former student of Viola Spolin and the only teacher to earn an endorsement from both her and her son, Paul Sills. He is the founder of Intuitive Learning Systems and Improv Odyssey devoted to exploring, and expanding the work of his Mentor,

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