Contemplative Photography As Improvisation

Usually we don’t consider contemplative photography as a form of improvisation. However, listening to an interview with Alan Alda changed my mind. It may change yours too.

You may know Alan from the M*A*S*H television series of the 1970s. He caught my attention when he talked about a training program for actors that emphasized the importance of ‘relating’. Alan referred to Viola Spolin’s groundbreaking work “Improvisation for the Theatre” ( ). Her goal was to help students learn how to improvise – to be spontaneously creative on stage. She referred to her training approach as ‘meditation in action’ which opened the door to the intuitive.

Accessing creativity by learning to be less self-conscious is what we do when practicing Contemplative Photography.

Viola Spolin and Improvisational Theater

Viola is a towering figure in modern theatre. She created games on stage that helped children and adults to forget themselves and feel free to experiment. The outcome of these moments was improvisation. Learning and experimenting through play changed the nature and practice of theatre. Her approach emphasized the importance of knowing intuitively. Intuition is knowing or seeing directly without the conscious use of reasoning. A knowing that is not intellectual, not based on logic.

Crucial for any improvisation is the question: how can one forget oneself in order to activate or release creativity? The answer is to ask another question: What stops us form being creative? In Buddhism, the short answer is the self, our idol, the ego that divides and separates.

What kind of work is required to get oneself out of the way?

Many meditation practices help us to disappear by being present. Some are centred on sitting still, others on moving or doing.

Training for improvisational theatre uses meditation in action as a way of getting oneself out of the way. It does it through the practice of deepening one’s sensory awareness which demands a highly attentive and alert mind.

Students have to demonstrate with their body and mind what they relate to, what they see, hear, smell, taste, think, feel or do. To discover how to do that, students have to be very observant and receptive. It is not a simple matter of switching from intellectual, conceptual, logical knowing to this other way of knowing. For many it is a radical change that is threatening. It is a struggle that needs a coach/teacher – at least initially.

Let us look now in more detail what meditation in action is.

Meditation in Action

Improvisational theatre works only with a few props. To create reality on the stage requires presence, total involvement by the players. Actors have to “show” and not “tell”. “Showing” means direct contact. It does not mean pointing at something passively. You have to express it with body and mind. It becomes an all-consuming, self-unfolding response that is full of energy. In contrast, “telling” is conceptual and limited. It is flat, without life, an abstraction of an organic response.

Responding organically strengthens the capacity to perceive and transcends one’s preconceived ideas. It turns the body into a sensitive instrument that can respond as a whole in ways one never imagined. Striking examples are blind people who see with their ears and deaf people who hear with their eyes.

Side Coaching

An interesting aspect of sharpening intuitive awareness is to coach from the sidelines of the theatre. The coach does not tell how to do it. The students learn through playing games on stage. It gives the freedom to experiment and find a unique way. Visualization, imagination, judging, interpreting, verbalizing, suggesting, obsessing or muscling through the exercise with will power are not acceptable. They all come from the head.

The coach’s role is to help the student overcome resistance or distractions. If, for example, a student has difficulties demonstrating “listening” or “seeing”, the side coach may intervene and say “listen with your feet” or “elbow” or “show us, don’t tell us” or “see with your ears”. If the student solves the problem of showing “no motion”, for example, he/she would experience directly what it means and feels to move effortlessly. He/she would realize that for natural grace to emerge body release is needed and not body control.

The same is true for emotions. On stage, one does not exploit emotions that are borrowed from personal issues. What is essential is to be present to the moment you are present to ( What does it mean to be present ?). Then, the appropriate emotions expressed are generated effortlessly by one’s total response to the situation at hand. The same is true for technique. If you are really present your technical know-how is integrated by itself in the total response – seamlessly, without focusing on technique.


As you can see, meditation in action is not a style but a method that can be applied to any medium. For instance, it can be in the performing arts, photography, writing, painting, poetry or cooking.   ( )

Most importantly, ongoing creativity demands a great deal of work on oneself. It requires the grind that turns the sparks of spontaneous creativity into a burning flame    ( ). Sparks alone are rarely enough. They have to penetrate our whole being in order to resonate with our audience or our viewers. Sparks without the grind are exciting initially but fade quickly and are forgotten quickly.

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