In the Warehouse Studio in Berkeley, California, performance artist ruth Zaporah is teaching a group if improvisational acting students to "create a catastrophe." We've been working in small groups, letting surreal, nonlinear scenes spontaneously unfold through movement, sound, and free-form language (no dialogue allowed). Zaporah is gently poking fun at our efforts.|
"You think what you're doing is really special, somehow," she says. "Important. Sacred even. You're afraid to dive off and shake the whole thing up, especially when you don't really know what you're going to do."
To practice shaking things up, Zaporah instructs us to take turns creating catastrophes–radically changing an unfolding scene by introducing material that bears absolutely no relationship to what has come before. When someone in the group derails a scene in this way, the rest of the group must instantly respond, letting go of what we were doing, flowing seamlessly into the new reality that has been created, and continuing to explore it until someone else crashes in.
This exercise is part if the repertoire of Action Theatre, Zaporah's innovative approach to teaching improvisational acting–and much more. "If I had to say I teach on thing, it would be awareness," says Zaporah. "I used to think I was teaching performance skills. But in the last few years I've realized that the performance skills are really a vehicle through which we investigate how the mind works. We work on being spontaneous, on breaking through and cracking up the way we perceive our world."
Zaporah turned to improvisation from a background in traditional dance because she was interested in investigating "how to bring the whole person into performance. Because dance certainly didn't do it. I couldn't even watch dance performances, I thought they were so boring, I wasn't seeing people, I was seeing highly skilled, highly trained physical machines."
Less than half of Zaporah's students are interested in performing formally. The skills she teaches, she claims, are equally applicable offstage and on stage. Whether we're in front of an audience, sitting at the dinner table with our family, or lying alone in our bed, the basic components of our experience are the same.
"Performance skills are a very valuable way of teaching awareness, because you look at formal elements like time, shape, and space, which are always with you," she explains. "When people start looking at their timing, for instance–how they respond in a moment-to-moment way–they realize that life is just change. Nothing ever stops, nothing ever ends, nothing eve starts, everything is just changing. So the more I'm willing to go with the constant changing, the better I feel."
The process is both terrifying and exhilarating, I discover as my group launches into the catastrophe exercise. More that anything I've ever done, it catapults me into the present moment; there's no time to think about what's just happened or to plan for what's about to happen, to critique my performance or doubt my ability. Our story line dissolves and reforms. Consensus reality shifts moment by moment as the imaginary world we're collectively creating coalesces and breaks apart again and again. One moment we're rebelliously tearing off our clothes and tossing them into the corner; a second later we're fashion models, preening and prancing as we put on each other's discarded finery; abruptly we're guilty children, scurrying to pick up the mess before Mom walks in the door.
One woman begins dreamily reciting the names of colors: "Blue, red, yellow, orange, banana, strawberry, apple. . ." "Fruit salad?" asks another member of the ensemble. A third jumps up eagerly: "I'll have some!" As the group clusters around to sample from her invisible bowl, a man kneels at our feet to take measurements, frowning thoughtfully. "Very good," he says. "With a little more work, you'll be just where you ought to be for your age group."
Let go, Zaporah keeps reminding us. Let go. "We take ourselves so seriously, then we get attached to being serious. The catastrophe exercise says–yes, this is very serious, and then bang, it's gone," she says. "It's not serious at all. Nothing is. And everything is."
I am a physical performer of improvisation theater. As both actor and dancer I weave images through movement, language and vocalization. I enter the performing arena with no pre-arranged concepts. I begin with a spontaneous action and then, step by step, build a scenario until the content is realized and the piece feels complete. Within it, I introduce characters, events, and situations that reflect the mingling of imagination, memories and sensory input. The pieces are often dream-like landscapes, grounded in humor and pathos. I am endlessly surprised by what happens.
The year was 1976. I was performing in Ann Arbor. I had asked the presenters to create a set within which I would improvise. That evening, the set included a Raggedy Ann-like doll which was lying on the floor downstage center. Early on the doll drew my attention. I named her Alice. Within the first fifteen minutes of the improvisation, Alice died. The remainder of the show focused on how others in her life responded to her death.
As I was bowing at the end of the show I noticed three women sitting on the floor near where Alice had been lying. While everyone else clapped, they were completely still. Later, they came to see me backstage. Through their crying, they told me that a year ago, that very night, their mutual and dear friend, Alice, had died. Before my performance, they had gone out to dinner together to honor her passing. A shock went through my body and left me trembling. The territory of embodied improvisation that I had just visited had implications beyond my comprehension. If I ere to continue, for my own safety, I must observe very closely.
When I refer to the body, I also refer to the mind, for the two are known through one another, and are inseparable. The body knows itself through the mind as the mind knows itself through the body. Sometimes it is convenient to talk about the body and the mind as separate entities. We can talk about taming or disciplining the body, quieting the mind, relaxing the body, focusing attention. But can you imagine doing any of these things without both body and mind?
I have been practicing physical improvisation for thirty years. My mind and body, their oneness, is the instrument of my art. Sometimes my body seems to have a mind of its own. It fidgets, slumps and jerks while my mental attention is elsewhere. And conversely, my mind, (as we all experience in meditation practice), fidgets, slumps and jerks while my body appears to be calm and still. We talk about the mind and body as if they were separate but, in fact, it's our attention that's split. Through improvisational practice, awareness expands to hold our entire self.
"Ruthy, dance for us." I'm 4 years old. At every family event, this invitation is spoken by some one. I never decline. I am shy, buy when I dance I have a voice, I am seen. In the family, I am a Dancer.
Simultaneously, another and quite different realization was brewing. At 6, in 1942, I began formal Dance studies. Three afternoons and most of Saturday mornings of each and every week. I attended Ballet class. This regimen continued through High School. Ballet classes in those days were exceedingly impersonal. The student was seen only as a body. A student arrived, silently changed clothes in a grey and metal locker room, careful not to let her gaze turn toward another naked body, entered the glistening white and mirrored ballet room, and within the vacuum of her isolation, inched along toward mastery. At the end of the session, students clapped their hands, left the room as silently as they had entered, and stuffed their stimulated young bodies into plaid skirts and penny loafers.
As I write this, it's clear that those hours in ballet class were often a place of pure bodily experience. Yes, there were times charged with judgement, moments filled with confusion, self hatred, or pride. But there were also stretches of non-restful, calm. I relaxed into the action itself, losing all sense of self, of Ruth, of me.
Dance is silent. The lips are shut tight. The motion can be serene or violent. Either way, there's no guarantee that because the body is filling every moment with action, the mind can't also be filling every equivalent moment with disembodied thought. For me the thoughts were often about the action: judging, evaluating or directing.
Can we stop thoughts so that our body and mind are aligned into a singular happening? I'm not sure we have to stop anything. What I remember is that I came upon a secret place of silence and I was repeatedly drawn to it. Neither my family, friends or teachers guided or prepared me. At the time, I couldn't have talked about it either. It just seemed right. I was continually drawn to this place, more like space, and that space became home.
Dance itself is thoughtless. It is its own event. It doesn't follow anything and it doesn't lead anywhere. It is not about gain or absolution. Dance dances itself and is not at all tied to the conceptual world or even the concept of dance.
Until my 30s, I danced, danced and danced, took classes, created dances and taught both technique and improvisation. Only when dancing did I feel truly peaceful. I knew my body and its capabilities and danced within my limitations. I remained focused on the actions themselves, and they always offered cues for further explorations. I remained relaxed and imagination thrived. I knew that if I was fascinated, so too would be the audience. All of this knowledge integrated into my awareness. Awareness danced.
Then, in the early ‘70s, I became restless within the confinement of silence. I felt handicapped. I wanted to talk, to be heard, to explore "real" life, grapple with its issues. I began to experiment with speech, character, and vocalization of feeling. Wrestling with these forms for a very long time, I tripped over myself continually, forcing analyzing, and constructing. I was determined to create meaningful content. All this led to more separation, myself from myself. Eventually, however, I got a clue; I felt my mouth moving. My mind had relaxed its hold on content. I had experienced speech and feeling as their own dance–movements arising and falling away, mouth moving, mind moving, thoughts, feelings, all moving.
I sense the body as no different than the space it is moving in and the sound it is moving to. If I'm improvising with a partner, each of our bodies becomes an extension of the other. I perceive her body as no other than my own; her voice, my voice; her story, mine. If I'm dancing in a public dance hall or a private party, I merge into the larger body of sounds, colors, heat, sweat, motion. I'm not alone in this. Dance has served through time and cultures as a collecting force, a softening of the hard edges that separate on person from another, an activity of communication.
Bob and I are improvising together on stage. The performance begins with both of us standing, playing conga drums. We chant. My voice is inside of his and his is inside of mine. We wail. I begin a narrative on top of the clamorous beat. My voice and the sound of the drums rise, swell and recede together. I tell of a woman, sitting before the fire in her living room. She feels the familiar cold wind slipping in from under her front door. She's tried to seal the space under the door many times, to no avail. The wind continues to torment her as it slams against her fragile body.
As these words escapes from my lips, I sense that I'm following a script that is writing itself. Each word comes on its own, I discover it as i hear and feel it forming itself. The beats of Bob's drum and the timing of my words are riding on the same energy. Even though we're not doing the same thing, our bodies have merged.
Abruptly, as if we were being directed, we stop. Bob crosses the floor. He sees a river between us and is intent on crossing its hazardous waters. I too see the river and share his distress. I reach out to him and throw him a line of a song which he repeats. I sing, he sings, again and again, until we are both on the same side of the river.
In the altered state and extraordinary space of performance, Bob is me and I am him. No boundaries exist between us. His river is THE river, real and tangible; his distress, mine; his safety, also mine.
For many years, I struggled with the awkward moments that follow a performance. Audience members would come backstage to offer their appreciation, to tell me how much they loved the piece of me. If the performance had been a struggle for me, if I had been plagued by judgements, I felt ashamed, as if I'd pulled one over on them. Or I felt overly exposed, the soft belly of my psyche hung out on the line of spectacle.
If I had sailed through the show without a disembodied thought, I was still unable to receive their praise. Here they were talking to Ruth and yet, ever so vaguely, I suspected that it wasn't Ruth they had witnessed. Ruth wasn't there. Instead the dance had danced itself.
After years of practice in performance, I have learned to no longer identify with content as it arises. I don't know where it comes from, certainly not always from my personal experience. The episode of the Raggedy Ann doll, Alice, begins to make sense. If the performer is truly riding the energy of the moment, without any ego interference, the audience recognizes this dynamic and relaxes into it. The performance becomes a collective experience, the audience and the performer meeting in a clear space.
I am leading a training in Freiburg, Germany, July 1995. It is the fourth of what is to be 10 days of work. The students are grappling with an improvisation score that focuses on relationship. Whether their partner is projecting an image through movement, vocalization or speech, they are to respond with a contrasting form. For example, if one speaks, the other must move or make sounds. After several rounds of sluggish practice, I suggest that the students shift their perception and accept their partner's action as their own–to view their partner's body and all its actions as extensions of their own body with no sense of separation. They are to consider that one body, not two, is expressing itself. They are to experience the improvisation as an ongoing stream of action.
I feel the room lighten and the energy become fluid. Students relax. They are quicker to respond.
Afterward, they say this idea of no ownership has helped them to view all action as having equal value.
"Ruthy, dance for us." The dancing that began with a child's need to be seen became, over the years, a release from the separate self.
Movement, speech, action. It's all dance emanating from the inside out, one movement nourishing the next, uncoiling itself.
You reach your hand out.
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