A way to proceed

Action Theater is an improvisational training process that brings participants into the present. Skills of movement, sound and language are honed and then integrated into a complete expression of one's current experience.
      Over the years, my own performance intention has evolved. Concurrently, so has my teaching. In the beginning, my professional work was separate from my daily life. I would shift into roles that were seemingly unrelated. However, now I experience them as being one and the same process,
      One of Action Theater's intentions is to detail perception by expanding awareness-to be aware of the energy and tension in the body, to let feelings and imagination connect with the conditions of the body and to become who we are at that moment, to meet ourselves from the inside out.
      Several times each year I teach a three- or four-week training. I'm currently working on a book that describes one such training, each chapter representing one day. Simultaneously, and interactively, the book explores the nature of mind and behavior. This article follows one day of the training.

      A Night Drive: Bright, glaring lights. Red. No red. Red. No red. White, always white. Squint. Face crumbles. Dry skin. Relax shoulder. Lift spine. Wipers (tack-shooshoo-tack-tack tack-shooshoo-tack-tack). Rain. Wet air. Thought: maybe small audience, too wet cold. Boyd, collapse, blood coursing, breath fast. Chest tight. Turn key. Quiet. Pull hard handle. Twist, turn. Pull coat up. Snap door. Step step step. Concrete over earth over rock over fire. Cold metal. Pull door. Ahh! Theater. Comfort. Quiet. Familiar protection. Soft muscles. Breathe even.
      Breathe. Audience chatter, muffled words, laughter. Large living body. A pulse. Mine. Fast. Very fast. Body, small, hungry, contained fire energy. Black curtain between the stage and me. Pace, to the window, to the curtain, to the window, to the curtain. Tongue on lips. Already dry. Fear. Tight chest. Hand pulls at curtain. Step, step, step toward small spot on stage. Heart fast. Breathe. Breathe. Hot body bursting open. Still. Hold still. Stay still. Thought: Now is the time to die. Die! To Water. Fall back back back. Down into body. Into flesh and evolution. Mouth, lips draw back. Opens. Laughter.
      Our mind has the capacity to, and, if allowed, does shift the object of its attention in irreverent ways. We can move from thought to feeling to sensation to imagining to remembering to sound to thought to taste to vision to thought and on and on. The less we control, thereby inhibit, and the more we watch and listen, the freer our mind is to play with its vast assortment of stuff.
      On the other hand, when we're thinking about what to do next, we're missing out on the present moment. We aren't in our bodies, i.e., we're no longer aware of the information coming in through our senses. We lose the present moment because our attention is focused on the future one. When we reach the future, our actions, thought up in the past, are no longer relevant. While we were thinking, our environment changed.
      We can only think up what is already familiar to us. If it is already familiar, then our actions will lack freshness. What is freshness? Fresh material is material that comes as a surprise. It results from an exchange between body, imagination and memory. There's a direct link between the three. If our attention is one the sensations of the body, that awareness may elicit memory, feeling and imagination. It all happens at once, no particular starting point.

      The practices of Action Theater offer a way to proceed that lead to this experience of spontaneous expression.
      Experience evolves. In the physical world, there's continuous change. Change occurs at speeds varying from lightning fast to leaves-turning-brown slow. Often change strikes without warning. Sometimes it happens incrementally, step by step. And sometimes change transpires so slowly that it looks like there's been no change at all.
      Since we're part of the physical world, we're continuously changing, too. We change our minds, what we're doing and how we're feeling. We might change in an instant, shift from one state or condition to another. It's not always apparent why. But there's always an inner motivation, a bridge that ties one experience to another.
      When we change gradually, step by step, or evolve, we transform. It's apparent how one state or condition moves into another.
      It might appear that we aren't changing at all. In such cases, change proceeds subtly, under the surface. During this type of change, by engaging with the action we are already in, we develop it.
      Modes of change are:
      1. Shift-stop the action and do something else (either logically or illogically).
      2. Transform-change the action incrementally until it becomes something else.
      3. Develop-continue the action.
Within this particular paradigm of change, there are no other choices. All events, actions, and situations either shift, transform or develop.

      Imagine a situation where all three modes of change occur at the same time. For instance, I am talking on the telephone while cooking oatmeal on the stove. During the course of the conversation, my feelings gradually change. I move from contentment, step by step (transform). The oatmeal gets too hot and threatens to burn. I stir more rapidly and, in a panic, I yank the pot from the stove (shift). All this while, I remain on the phone (develop).

      Shift, transform and develop offer ways to proceed that respond to awareness rather than thought. All offer ways to perceive and respond to change. On the particular day of the training described in this article, we are focusing on the process of shifting.


With Movement

Stand somewhere in the room. Close your eyes. Watch your breath. Place your attention somewhere in your body that specifically senses breath: the base of your nose, diaphragm or abdomen. Observe the experience of the breath as it comes in and goes out. Watch the pause between each breath.

      I'm going to call our words to you that describe natural phenomena. You'll have approximately 8 to 10 minutes to explore each one. These phenomena "move" in a particular way. They timing, how they travel through space, their weight, shape and dynamic are peculiar to them. As you imagine each phenomenon, explore movement within its inherent qualities. Don't pantomime, or act out, or its inherent qualities. Don't pantomime, or act out, or pretend that you are the phenomenon itself. Freely explore motion within the movement quality the image evokes.

      Falling leaves.






      Gentle breezes.

As you are moving, allow whatever feelings, thoughts, attitudes or states of mind that come into your awareness to affect what you are doing-the tension of your body, expression on your face, gaze of your eyes. Don't hold onto naything or make a story. Let experiences come and go as a constant flux. Your imagination responds freely to your body's actions.

      Now, I'll be calling out the changes in erratic time increments.


      Falling Leaves.









      Falling leaves.




In the next few moments, associate with one or two people in the room and continue to explore these qualities but in relation to one another. You may both be moving with the same quality, or different. Now your choices are responses not only to your inner impulses but your partner's behavior as well.

      With Sound

Again, I will call out these nouns. Now, explore vocal sound and movement actions that have the qualities you associate with the words you hear. Experience sound and movement as a single action. They start at the same time and stop at the same time. They carry the same feeling and energy.

With Dialogue

Stand facing a partner and begin a conversation. Again, I will call out these nouns. When you hear them, assume the quality of energy in your body that these words suggest. Don't add any extra movement. Stand fairly still. These energies will affect your voice, feelings, attitudes and even the content of your language. As you hear me say each new noun, shift to the appropriate energy while maintaining the content of the conversation.

Falling Leaves/Rock is shift exercise. Students change abruptly from one psycho-physical state to another. This is not pantomime. To pantomime a rock, one might curl up in an oddly shaped ball, lay on the floor and not move, thereby pretending to be something other than oneself. In Falling Leaves/Rock, rather than going outside themselves to imitate a phenomenon, students go inside themselves to find the various states of body-mind resonant with the qualities of that phenomenon. For instance, an inner quality of "rockness" can manifest in a variety of ways: one can walk with rock-like demeanor; discuss friendship with an impersonal, analytical, steely, rock-like containment; wipe his/her brow with a hard, cold, impenetrable rock-like demeanor; discuss friendship with an impersonal, analytical, steely rock-like persona. One might chew in time to leaves falling, talk about sleep in thunder voice or spin in circles with electric energy. These manifestations may range from the ordinary and identifiable to un-nameable yet coherent mind-body states.

      At first, as students embody these energies, predictable feelings or states of mind arise. Thunder energy elicits rage; electricity, madness; leaves falling, peacefulness; mud, sensuality; lightning, aggression, etc. As students repeatedly play in these energies, the mind states that are released from each energy form become less predictable and more surprising, less nameable and more knowable.

      Later in this training, more practiced students are prepared to approach the ordinary with extra-ordinary awareness. Rather than hearing "rock" as a limitation, they explore rock with a mind open to sensation, feelings and imagination. "Rockness" opens an avenue into hidden personal realms, into the "rockness" living inside. From this perspective, they explore their own particular universe.

      We don't use the word "character" in Action Theater. Sometimes we say "entity" or "physical presence." Or we say "being." "Character" is a confining concept. It asks us to be someone other than who we are. A someone that can be describes, "a cranky judge," "a bored wife," a "hard-talking waitress." Instead, we manifest a vast array of entities, parts of ourselves that may be, up until then, hidden in our psyches. We build upon the uncovered components to create "beings" that are whole and complete.

      In order to express ourselves in detail, we must know and control our body and mind: we must become still and empty, a blank screen on which we project the nature our psyches. The detailed perception that we acquire through awareness is reflected by detailed expression. The following exercises lead students toward physical awareness, a first step toward controlling the body.


How do we know our bodies? As an instrument to perform daily tasks, such as picking up things, moving from place to place, throwing, kicking and squeezing. As a tender or tough wrapper to be protected and nourished, fed, covered up, rested, exercised and, on occasion, medicated or repaired. As a source of information, full of stories, mysteries and ancient truths. And do we know our bodies as an instrument of communication? How aware are we of what it is saying? Do we recognize its capability for infinite design and meaning?


I'm going to call out the letters of the alphabet, A through Z very quickly. As you hear each letter, form its shape with your body.

"A B C D E F G H I J K L.Z"

Now, take a partner. Again, I'm going to call out the letter of the alphabet, and with your partner, without talking, and especially without laughing, form the letters together. Both of your bodies forming one letter. Concentrate!

"A B C D E F G H I J K L..Z"

Shape Alphabet encourages students to see themselves from the outside. It helps them determine if their body shape reflects their intention (in this case, making the letter A). Also, if it relates to their environment-their partner's shape. Watching others and themselves, in trial and error, trained the performer's outside eye. They learn to make images that precisely fit their experience. The small turn of a finger, tilt of the head, inversion of the foot, or the glance of the eyes can completely alter the meaning of a shape. This kind of visual acuity, creating images, is a basic performance skill.


Get a new partner. A makes a shape, any shape. B makes a different shape and places it in relation to A's shape. Then A steps out of his/her shape and reshapes in relation to B's shape. Then B steps out and reshapes in relation to A's shape. Do this slowly and smoothly so that you step out of one shape and reform into the next shape without stopping, going into neutral, thinking, deciding, planning or creating. Don't touch each other. Don't put weight on each other, because then the other won't be able to change shape. As you do this, I'm going to suggest directions from time to time. Design your shapes accordingly.


      Constricted! Tight! . . .

      Angular, twisted, knotted! . . .

      Circular, round, arched! . . .

      Complex, detailed! . . .

Fill your shapes with feeling or attitude. Begin to speed up varying the quality of your shapes-work within the same quality as your partner, or sometimes different. Vary your timing. Increase your speed until you are moving percussively from shape to shape, responding impulsively to each other's shapes and meanings.

      We'll repeat a portion of this exercise with one half of the group watching the other.

When students begin to work with feelings, context, story and meaning, they may distract themselves away from physical awareness. In this training, we move back and forth between exercises that elicit feelings, content and spirit (e.g., "Falling Leaves/Rock") and exercises that focus primarily on kinetic and sensory awareness (e.g. Shape exercises). With practice, the separation fades and body, mind and spirit integrate within awareness.

      With awareness and experience, we can choose movement, sound and/or speech simultaneously or separately with clarity. Each mode has its capabilities and limitations; what we can say with one we can't exactly say with another.

      In the Falling Leaves/Rock exercise, students were directed both when to shift and what to shift to (content). In the following exercise students are only directed when to shift. They explore their own content choices. Later in the training, with no director, students shift on their own as one way to proceed in improvisation.


With Movement

In partners. One of you is "director," one of you is "actor." Director, you can say one word only, and that word is "shift." Actor, when you hear the word "shift," you change your mind, stop doing what you're doing and do something else that is immediately relevant and of contrasting form from what you just were doing. If what you were just doing was upright, stationary and slow, the next form might be traveling and jerky, and low to the floor. This shift happens abruptly, a sudden switch. When you hear the word, "shift," stay inside yourself and respond to whatever you are aware of at that moment: the feeling you currently have, something you see, hear, touch, fantasize or think. Pretend you are nuts, mad, crazy, free to irrationally change your mind. Be passionate, dramatic, ordinary, un-ordinary.

      Director, play with your timing. You can say "shift" rapidly, you can say "shift" slowly. Let the person stay in their material for longer periods.

      When you have completed this exercise, have a chat with each other. Director, tell the actor how you experienced their range of feeling as well as action. Was there contrast? Was the actor "connecting" to what they were doing?

      Repeat this exercise, changing roles.

With Sound & Movement

Change partners and repeat this sequence, but now, shift with sound and movement.

      Again, have a discussion and reverse roles.

With Language

Change partners again and repeat the sequence with verbal monologues, shifting both the form (how the language articulates-timing, volume, sound quality, pitch, etc.) and the content (choice of words, subject matter). For now, don't concern yourself with movement. When you hear "shift," react to whatever comes into your awareness. Stay in your body, your source of energy and information. Remember, you're out of your mind.

      The director in this exercise is not a care-taker. Their job is not to pull the actor out of tough situations. Their job is to facilitate the "stretching" of the actor, even if that means the actor squirms uncomfortable. Squirming is a good thing. As good as anything else.

      Unfortunately, a person can get lost in squirming. They lose their awareness, their outside eye, and don't even know they're squirming. They judge squirming as "bad." Then they experience pain, any kind of pain that goes along with "doing bad."

      Converting squirming from a bad, uncomfortable thing into simply another thing takes practice. Awareness has to be tuned. Sensations in all part of the mind and body need to be noted: what does squirming feel like? How does it move? Breathe? What's its timing, tension? With this awareness, there's no more squirming, jut a particular condition that can't even be called anything. Un-nameable yet knowable.


Say, "How are you?" Now say, "How are you? And listen to yourself. Can you create a score of the words with a line drawing? If a line represents each word, would the melody and the timing look like this, _ z _ , or this, _ _ _ _ , or this z _ _ ? Say, "How are you?" with a different meaning. What does the line look like now?

      The next time you talk on the telephone, have a pencil and paper ready to score the sound of the language you hear. Distance yourself from the content so that you can listen to the sound without interpretation. The content of words often clouds awareness, leaving the listener somewhat deaf, dumb and blind. Score the language as you hear it. Each word may give a rise or a drop or a stutter.

      From a quiet mind and body comes control, comes awareness. A quiet mind is a good listener. It's free from impediments such as personal agendas, preferences, criticisms, ideas, opinions and thinking ahead. Just as a quiet mind listens, listening quiets the mind.


I've set two chairs out. Two people sit in the chairs, and two other people stand up behind them. The rest of us will be audience. The two people sitting on the chairs will initiate material. The two people standing up will echo (repeat). During the course of the exercise, the initiators can each offer up to three lines, a line being a sentence or a phrase. Each one of these lines must be radically different from one another-the voice quality, volume, pitch, speed, content. Once initiated, the line can be repeated by the initiator as many times as they want. In addition, the initiators can choose to echo each other's lines. The people standing can only echo the lines that they've heard. They must echo them exactly. All of you collaborate on the sound composition. Listen to each other. Play off each other. You are a chorus.

      Reverse roles. The two sitting, stand. The two standing sit.

      Here students focus on the sound patterns of their language. No fancy techniques is needed. No perfected voice. No years of training. They have all the equipment they need: ears and willingness. They interact like jazz musicians composing a score from the sounds of everyday language.

      When we were children, we changed our minds on a dime. We were experts on change and great shifters. We'd cry one minute and laugh the next. We'd take seriously what was or wasn't serious, and we "listened" without distraction to anything that called our attention. We believed in what we were doing. That's what shift is all about.

Ruth Zaporah
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