Theatre As A Martial Art

Why Every Actor Should Train in Iaido.

(Originally published in Theatre Bay Area)

You stand in the wings, listening for your cue. You wiggle a little, trying to gently release a little of that excess adrenaline that courses through your body. Dragonflies are doing acrobatics in the pit of your stomach. You notice them, but let them go. You take a quick final tour through your personal checklist: Who am I? What do I want? Where is my center? Have I got my props? Is my zipper up? You take a deep breath. Your pupils dilate, trying to bring in any extra information to your cerebral cortex. You hear your cue. You enter… 

Weightlifting for the Mind

In studying Iaido, the actor can create a practice by which he or she may see themselves with the kind of granular scrutiny that being a true theatre artist requires. The Japanese art of drawing, cutting and returning the blade to its scabbard is called Iaido. More properly termed Kenjutsu with an emphasis on the draw, Iaido is the art of wielding the Japanese katana, the three foot single edged sabre of choice for the samurai class of feudal Japan and it can be just as challenging, thrilling and frustrating as any theatrical endeavor. And it may hold a key to better self appraisal and discovery than any acting class.

Iaido is taught here in the Bay Area by Sensei Andrej Diamantstein in dojos in San Francisco and Berkeley.   Mr. Diamantstein is a Renshi, the equivalent of a sixth degree black belt and an excellent teacher. He was also a leading actor in his native Germany. He calls Iaido weightlifting for the mind.

I am one of his students.

Preparing for Battle

The theatre actor and the martial artist have a great deal in common. First of all, there is no separation between the artist and their art. A sculptor can stand back and admire his work. A writer can hand you their book. Film actors can hand you their DVD and walk away. Theatre actors, dancers and martial artists are not afforded the luxury of detachment. For their art to exist, they must place themselves on the pedestal to be admired or reviled. They must be present to present their art. 

Another commonality between the disciplines of the martial artist and the actor is in the field of training. In both realms the principle of “use it or lose it” applies. I had a basketball coach whose favorite saying was “What you do in the practice you do in the game.” Keeping a continual practice between gigs keeps you sharp, regardless of what endeavor you may pursue. Indeed, the only difference between the actor and the martial artist is when the actor’s training is insufficient, he gets a bad review. When the martial artist’s training is lacking he may end up with a bloody nose. Or worse.

The Mental Muscle

Your typical Iaido waza, (a series of prescribed moves dictated by a scenario of corresponding moves by an opponent) has too many intricacies to detail here, but for the human mind to make all the calculations necessary and still make any attempt to perform them in a nice orderly manner requires the practitioner to stretch the mental muscle unlike any theatre training I’ve encountered.

When practicing Iaido or playing Iaido as it is termed, the practitioner seeks to move in the most efficient way possible. The founders of the art knew from years of practical experience on the battlefield that accuracy and precision always trumped unfocused emotion. The practitioner trains to develop true command over the body to respond efficiently and clearly. What better training for creating a more complete actor?

One Hand Clapping 

The term Iaido, like many Japanese concepts, does not translate into English at all easily – very roughly, I comes from Iru, to be; Ai (as in Aikido) means coming together or harmony and Do means road, or Way (in the Buddhist sense). So, loosely translated, Iaido means being in harmony with one’s surroundings, always being prepared for any eventuality. What better way to be as an actor onstage?

I was playing the Chef in Teatro Zinzanni. I was attempting to be in harmony with my surroundings: In this case, a mirrored antique Spiegel tent filled with 300 well dressed patrons. The Chef introduces each course but also adds about fifteen minutes of what we call “Victim Work” in which the Chef involves audience members in the story of the evening and improvises with them. This definitely involves being prepared for any eventuality. In one particular segment I chose for my victim a portly gentleman with a big laugh who seemed to be really enjoying his evening at Zinzanni. I was planning on playing that my hand had been chopped off in a kitchen mishap and that had contributed to my character’s hatred of vegetables. Once I got the patron up and into the center of the room to banter with me I looked down to realize that he indeed was missing a hand himself! I like to think my training in Iaido enabled me to not only roll with the punches in this case but to quickly re-fashion the segment. My victim ended up pointing out his hand- or lack thereof- and was perfectly at ease with it. I was able to do all my material about the kitchen mishap with him and we both got a huge ovation. Talk about the sound of one hand clapping!

Anger Won’t Do It

There have been many instances in which my Iaido training has unexpectedly offered me a footpath into a deeper understanding of my art.

I was playing Herod in a recent production of Wilde’s Salome. Late in a grueling day of rehearsal, I found myself allowing Herod’s frustration with Salome and my own frustration with the difficulty of Wilde’s text fuse into something entirely detrimental to the work. I was allowing anger to seep into the proceedings. That’s when I remembered something that had happened earlier that week in the dojo.

I was working on a waza in which the final slash of the sword is sometimes called the “courtesy cut” with which the practitioner puts the already mortally wounded opponent out of their misery. Yes, the move is violent, but in Iaido it is not done with rage. The mindset is compassionate. The practitioner is thinking “most regrettable” as the blade whistles in its perfect arc through the (imaginary) opponent. Frustrated with my technique, I was fixating on the move, practicing it again and again, like a dog on a bone. While still working with another student in the row next to me, Sensei Diamantstein quietly said to me “Anger won’t do it. Try something else” Back at the rehearsal I was able to take his advice and apply the lesson learned on the mat.  My practice in Iaido had given me insight into my habits and at the same time encouraged malleability.

The Lingering Mind

Another principle practiced in Iaido that has had a direct impact on my work as an actor is the concept of Zanshin. Literally translated as “The Lingering Mind”, Zanshin refers to the level of concentration necessary in an environment in which each breath may be your last.

I was in rehearsal for a one man show called The Thousandth Night. One of the 38 characters I play is Shaherazad, the doomed bride who must tell her husband tales of the Arabian nights to stave off her execution. The director and I were working on the moment when she must kneel before him. After trying it several ways, I flashed upon the practice of Zanshin in Iaido. In many waza, the practitioner strives to place themselves in the Japanese style seated position called sieza or the more difficult tatehiza. Throughout this movement the spirit of Zanshin must be present.  It is a kind of mental vigilance. It is a practice of being “on guard” without showing “on guard”. And it is the perfect expression of Shaherazad’s inner state. Not telling my director all this, I simply showed it to her.

“I don’t know what you just did, but that was perfect!” she said. And we moved on. 

Deadly Force Encounters

If the stage is a battlefield of sorts, where we seek to slay our audience- (and what actor hasn't boasted that he was killing them out there) how do we prepare ourselves for battle? What training will best help us out there on the front lines in front of the footlights?

I came across a study of the perceptual distortions experienced by police officers and combat soldiers in what they call Deadly Force Encounters. Basically when the fecal matter hits the fan. Of the more than 140 combatants surveyed, 85% reported diminished hearing. 80% reported tunnel vision. Many reported dissociation and memory loss. Nearly all said they went on “automatic pilot.” Every combatant thanked their training for their survival. 

In a recent workshop I was leading at the Berkeley Rep, my students concluded that the exact same perceptual distortions take place pretty much every time one steps onstage. I’m not referring to stage fright or backstage jitters. These are all skilled practitioners. I’m referring to the challenges of developing a practice by which one can respond and react to the ever changing landscape of the human condition. It’s not easy, but nothing good ever is.  

Sharpening the Soul.

As a theatre artist I am still finding ways in which Iaido can enrich my work. Each class I take offers me new levels of kinesthetic awareness, deeper understanding of my own instrument and stronger resilience to all the persistent challenges that face every actor and every martial artist alike.  And failure has become my friend. As Beckett said, “Fail. Fail again. Fail better.”

You stand in the dojo. You bow smartly to the mat, honoring the sacredness of your practice and all those who have gone before you on this path. The Dragonflies are there but you let them go. You go through your personal checklist. Who am I? What do I want? Where is my center? Awaiting the sensei’s command, you take a deep relaxing breath. You hear your cue: Hajime! You enter...

For more information on Iaido in the Bay Area:


Among the tools I use to find out more about myself is the martial art of Iaido and sailing the San Francisco Bay aboard VALHALLA, my 1968 Yankee Dolphin 24, designed by Sparkman & Stevens. 

With Nishikawa Sensei.

I have a long standing relationship with the Martial Arts.  Starting with none other than Chuck Norris at the age  of 8, I have studied various forms in various dojo around the world, particularly   in Iaido, Aikido, Karate and Wu Kung, while as an actor, becoming proficient  in all forms of Stage Combat. I currently study Muso Jikiden Eishen Ryu Iaido in which I hold the rank of Yondan, (4th Degree Black Belt) and am a member of Nishi Kaigan Iaido Dojo, Berkeley, California and Esaka Dojo, Tokyo, Japan, and student of Esaka Sensei, Kobara Sensei, Nishikawa Sensei, Kaneda Sensei, Yoshikawa Sensei, Hattori Sensei.

LISTEN to a talk Ron gave at the Universalist Unitarian Church in Berkeley here.

The detourist

Poems, Plays and other Places

by Ron Campbell

"Art is the tool we use to excavate ourselves."
                                                             - Peter Brook

"Fail. Fail again. Fail Better."
                                                             - Samuel Beckett

"We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act  but a habit."

                                                               - Aristotle

"Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it."

                                                               - Mary Oliver


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