Utilizing Mantras onstage provides a powerful tool for infusing potentially combative scenes or relationships with greater complexity and Love. This technique is related to the concept of subtext although one static mantra can effectively inform a whole scene while (effective) subtext tends to change from line to line.
I like to explore this dynamic in paired scenes as this allows players to really sink their teeth into a complex relationship. I’ll provide both players with a basic but charged premise to inspire their work. After the launching point is clear each player is then assigned a personal mantra privately (it’s fine for those observing to know but have scene partners step out of the space or cover their ears and sing!) Players now explore the given circumstances while silently repeating their given mantras.
Player A and B are cast as an adult child (A) and their incarcerated parent (B). B has just recently breached the conditions of their parole; A has bounced around from relative to relative due to B’s legal misfortunes. Player A has been given the mantra “I love you;” Player B has been given the mantra “I love you.” The scene begins with Player A arriving.
Player A: (Sitting and thinking their mantra) “I’m not sure why I came…”
Player B: (Thinking their mantra) “I didn’t think you would. Thank you.”
Player A: “We didn’t really get to say goodbye… again.”
Player B: “I’m really sorry about that. This isn’t how I wanted things to work out.”
Player A: “You had a choice…”
Player B: “It doesn’t feel like I ever really have a choice…”
Mantras shouldn’t become gimmicks but rather serve an anchors to a grounded reality and truth. This exercise is particularly well-suited to dramatic or emotionally complex material. It’s difficult to know where improvisational material will go so it’s wise to give players the opportunity to pass on a scenario without explanation if it doesn’t feel like a good fit. I once assigned what I thought was a completely unlikely dramatic scenario just to find out after a really tense scene that it was extremely close to home for a player: I’ve explicitly included an apology-free “new scenario please” policy ever since. Similarly, it’s helpful to note that observers are welcome to quietly leave the space if they need a moment if this isn’t already a standard workshop practice.
Traps and Tips
1.) Assign simple mantras. A scenic mantra tends to lose its effectiveness if it’s needlessly unwieldy or verbose as players will struggle to actively keep it front of mind. I’ve come to use three variants almost exclusively when I coach this game: “I love you,” “I need you,” and “I hate you.” (I also lean heavily into the first option as well as this tends to create the most fulfilling fireworks.) There is something innately helpful about assigning the least convenient mantra given the scenic relationship. In the above example, it would be understandable for the child to feel anger or resentment (and these colors will still likely appear) so “I love you” makes them look for what pulls them towards their wayward parent rather than encouraging them to push further away.
2.) Feel don’t say the mantras. Depending on the predominant tone of your ensemble this exercise may feel like a significant departure from your typical energy. It’s important that the mantras aren’t reduced to platitudes or casually spoken aloud. Rather, avoid saying these words all together as uttering them will invariably rob them of their power. (It’s been a rare occasion when I’ve heard a player say their mantra and it hasn’t felt anticlimactic or cliched.) Focus on the deeper feelings that these mantras unearth and work diligently to nurture the resulting tensions. What does it mean to love someone during a moment of great disappointment? What does this love look like? Why did you decide to visit (or receive this visitor) in the first place?
3.) Savor (don’t resolve) oppositional energies. Relish the delightful messiness that these scenes unlock. An inclination to solve the central tension or dynamic will often puncture the most riveting elements of the relationship. While it’s possible that our parent and child might find some modicum of peace in this meeting, there is also probably a great deal of pain, blame and disappointment that will remain. Sit in these oppositional forces and allow the characters to experience the resulting emotional ebbs and flows. Mantras often prove especially effective when they tap into inner conflicts or turmoil. It is human nature to want to find a resolution; but, it’s innately more dramatic to add fuel to these fires rather than water. And perhaps one small but honest step forward is the best that characters can hope for in particularly complicated moments – pushing for more than this will often read as insincere or magical wish fulfillment.
4.) Embrace the silent exchanges. Players who privilege their verbal skills should be particularly wary not to waffle or feel the need to articulate every thought or feeling exclusively through dialogue. Trust that fully embraced mantras will also add depth and interest to the silences, simple gestures and stage business. Over-talking increases the risk of explaining the complex emotions rather than activating and experiencing them. The former approach can move the scene towards a commenting energy, while the latter will typically increase vulnerability and emotional commitment. Sometimes the most effective communication of the mantras resides in the subtle look or otherwise inconsequential movement.
At the conclusion of each scene I’ll usually ask the players what mantra they were receiving from their partner. Developing this emotional awareness of others’ climates is an equally useful improv (and life) skill. As the exercise moves through various vignettes players will often feel more confident in their assessments and ideally will start to also incorporate this knowledge into their characters’ tactics. In this way, Player B might exploit (not necessarily maliciously) the love that they feel coming from their child, or Player A might feel and appreciate B’s love even if it hasn’t been shown in a way that they need or want. There is a beauty in building these messages in the unspoken subtext and trusting that our partners and audience don’t need these choices spelled out in order for them to prove poignant and clear.
I really look forward to playing with this dynamic when it’s slated for my classes. If it’s a new exercise for you I wish you similar joy and excitement!
Connected Concept: Love