I have been teaching Action Theater for twenty-five years. I should say Action Theater has been teaching me. A form of physical theater improvisation, Action Theater combines movement, vocalization, and speech into integrated expression of the current moment. I began examining this approach in the early 1970s when, as an improvising dancer, I wanted to speak. I tried some acting classes, but at least the ones I shoe didn't address the body. I felt like a fish out of water with no sign of water anywhere.|
I suspected there was a way to follow speech similar to the way I was following movement. Proceeding on this hunch, and with interested students and weekly solo performances in my studio in Berkeley, I dove into the murky and sometimes extraordinarily hazardous waters of physical theater improvisation. "Murky" in that every trial, every "Let's try this," was intuitive, a shot in the dark. "Hazardous" because humiliation, embarrassment, shame, and terror became unwanted but ever-present partners in this dance.
I live within a restless nature. Improvisation supports that nature in that it offers endless puzzles to be solved. As soon as I feel I "get" something (for example, speech is movement), I have much more to figure out (how to move speech and then how to teach moving speech, and on and on). Since I earn my living by teaching and have for thirty years, it's fortunate that improvisation remains mysterious, elusive, challenging, and occasionally terrifying. These terrifying moments lead me to even deeper questions, metaphysical in nature. Who am I? Who is improvising? Is it my personality? What is personality? What's not personality? What is perception? Who is living?
I was a philosophy student in college, and in 1968 I began an ongoing exploration and practice of Buddhist mediation-at that time Zen, more recently Dzogchen. Both practices-meditation and improvisation-work on the mind, the former without physical action, the latter with. Both are about being open to the present moment and what offers. Both cultivate a quiet, non-chattering mind, a mind of acceptance rather than doubt and resistance. Both cultivate awareness as a way to step back from concept, leaving an open perceptual field undiminished by immediate naming. What did I mean? Your hand is outstretched and the palm is up. Instead of immediately applying a concept such as begging or imploring, the action is experienced as sensory, nameless. In this sense, every moment is its first impression, before making reduced it to a thing. In my mind, meditation and improvisation are always talking to each other, informing and affecting the way I go about both.
When I'm improvising, I know what's going on but I'm not thinking about it. There doesn't seem to be room for thought. By thought I mean the activity of self-conscious "I." there is awareness, and it seems that's all there is. My mind/body merges with action, and action merges with mind/body. The self-conscious "I" that analyzes, categorizes, distrusts, doubts, fears, envies, etc., and thus feels separate from experience, disappears. Action is experienced within as a felt-sense, a knowing that is not conceptual but exists without thought. The improvisation unfolds through my mind/body, using it and all that it knows, its skills and limitation. It doesn't feel as if I am creating anything. Instead there is awareness that is open and willing to be led by the event itself. This skill takes practice.
Every few years I submit an article to Contact Quarterly. I notice that what prompts this sometimes difficult task is that I'm in to something. An aspect of improvisation has captured my imagination and I feel the need to write about it, to see it clearly within the light of words and ideas. Frames, listening, and expression are what's on my mind now.
An improviser follows action as it unfolds, each moment leading to the next within the intent of the improvisation. If I intend a movement improvisation confined to a chair, for example, I follow moments of action while adhering to that intention. The intention acts on the material that surfaces, and vice versa. The intention sets limits on the improvisation. It closes doors, insisting that the improviser search out others that are possibly less obvious, less predictable.
What constitutes a moment? What is the form of structure? What is the content, story, or meaning? This, of course, is determined by the improvisor's perceptions. Action Theater improvisers, contact improvisor's perceptions. Action Theater improvisors, contact improvisers, jazz vocalists, painters, and poets all view moments differently because they have different priorities. But, there is an essential condition hat is common to all moments-one unfolds into the next; there is no stopping. Actions take place within a flow, a continuum-a stream of movement and stillness, sound and silence-each moment a response to the moment before. The perceiver, the improviser, is integral to these responses. Proclivities, perceptions, and interpretations are not separate from actions. The perceiver and what is perceived are the same.
Consequently, how an action is perceived has as many variables as there are improvisers. The improvisors' horizons of awareness combined with their areas of focus-whether dance, music, or poetry-determine which variables are dominant and which are ignored. It is these dominant variables that "frame" or define the action moment to moment. If a dancer sees a horse galloping through a field, she sees movement; a painter may see color and shape; a poet, metaphor and symbol.
For example, in movement improvisation, every moment of action is composed of certain elements-structure or shape, timing, relationship to space, dynamics, and the state of mind that fuels the action. The composite of these elements is the frame. Just as a frame surrounds a picture on a wall, distinguishing it from anything else in the room, so an improvisational frame contains and describes the various elements of the moment. The relationship between these elements creates the content.
Here are a couple of examples of frames:
1. Body stand still, fingers quivering. Eyes dart, with lips tight, speech high and clipped with long pauses. Narrative describes a baby's birth.
2. Languid, circular, and full-bodied movement around the space, with occasional pauses as eyes peer intensely from side to side. Breath audible in a different rhythm than the steps. During pause in movement, the breath becomes slightly louder, fingers tighten together rendering the hands as paddles.
So why frames? Frames drive awareness into more specificity. What could have been overlooked as mundane becomes profound, gorgeous, or unique. Action Theater training relentlessly asks improvisers to notice what's going on, to identify the frame or components of action. Every moment. Not through words, not by talking about it or describing it, but just as a function of awareness. Many exercises require improvisers to commit themselves to a particular frame, to play within its boundaries-to accept its limits, to relax any resistance that might be expressed as restlessness or the need to understand or to move on, to repeat, stop, or think. Eventually, perceiving experience as felt-sense becomes second nature, and exercises are no longer necessary to channel attention. Frames come and go, beads on a chain of continuous experience. The frames change spontaneously as the objects of awareness-what the improviser hears, sees, thinks, feels, or imagines-change, their specificity noted and embraced by the improviser as they happen. The body/mind then becomes a vehicle for nonconceptual experiencing and the manifestation of an improvisational universe.
I was working with advanced Action Theater students in Zurich. They knew the Action Theater language and tactics, creating neat, well-formed, and often interesting improvisations. The improvisations weren't making them, taking them out on a limb, shaking them up, smoothing them out, leading them into surprising specificity.
I thought about my own journey when I'm improvising. What do I experience? Not only the content of the actions-the message of the movements or the meaning of the words-bu the underneath. What is that? What is the source? What is it that erupts into action and what do I do that allows me to be available to that?
It is difficult to talk about these things-the underneath, the source, the positioning of the mind/body that causes availability-for the words on chooses are never quite right, because the words are conceptualizations of a nonconceptual experience. Within this nonconceptual experience, the improviser is not separate or outside of the experience itself. In the most glorious of these moments, I'm not talking to myself about frames or listening or time or shape or space of the audience. There is consciousness of knowing, and that knowing improvises a show.
Having said that, here is an attempt at putting this nonconceptual experience into words:
Listen! Listen without listening to anything. Listen to the sound of space. Listening listens. Within the sound of space, other sounds occur, gestures appear, images illuminate, and thoughts travel.
The bird calls at the window. At first there is no idea of "bird." Then in an instant the idea of bird comes into mind. First, it was just a sound. Then the name bird.
A gesture occurs in space. The hand turns over or the eyes shift or a word is spoken. Just that. Then in a flash I assign meaning.
The foot steps. Just that. To describe it to you, I say the foot stepped. But as the foot stepped, when it was sleeping there was no thought: foot stepping. Only listening and not just with the ears.
After some time of practice, a kind of spacious identifying occurs, where the attention of the improviser is not narrowed by what happened, instead, happenings occur within the awareness of silence and space. The improviser merges within each happening and simultaneously rest within the space that holds each happening. This is not experienced as a split of attention. There is always a sense of completely unified moment-moment to moment. There is a magic to this.
What is magic? When we resist immediately naming experience, moments of action open, pointing toward unknown terrains-terrains that cannot be planned, predicted, or thought up. I have experienced voices, languages, and states of mind that feel like ancient or preverbal conditions of nature. I have experienced endless journeys within vibrational fields, moving me on and on into some kind of animal memory or maybe even plant or rock. Working within frames doesn't inhibit this. A frame is like a boat-we sit in it to paddle but our attention is on the scenery.
While improvising, we cannot help but be moved by the comings and goings of things. Our job is to hitch a ride on the passing events by accepting and playing within each moment as it becomes another. But with time we cannot help but also be moved by what doesn't come and go: the silent space within which all is held. That is the space of listening.
One thing that Action Theater students do is practice changing the expressions on their faces in front of a mirror, or in front of each other. They mirror each other's changing faces. Sometimes they change their expressions slowly, sometimes quickly. No thought. No story. No emotions like sad, happy, angry, or seductive are guiding them. Their instruction is to follow the flesh of the face-to let sensations of the flesh lead them through changes-to notice what is happening on a sensation level (the chin is pulling down or the lips are tight or the brow is creasing) and then go further in that direction until some other sensation becomes noticeable and then follow that. The trick is to allow inner feelings to change along with the flesh, to stay connected-to feel the congruence of the inner experience with the outer manifestation. One is not leading the other. Both the face and feeling simultaneously ride waves of evolving mind/body states.
Why do we practice facial flexibility? The job of Action Theater improvisers is to manifest their moment-to-moment experience-not just what they're doing but how they are experiencing what they're doing: either its meaning or how it feels or both. Meaning and feeling may be two different things. For example, I can lift my shoulders in disgust-"disgust" being the meaning. Or the lift of the shoulders connect with a mind state that has no name, that can't be called anything, but has an energetic quality to it (light, dense, constricted, open, askew, dull, etc.), and that quality extends through my face and eyes.
Try this: Raise your right hand and look directly ahead. Raise it again and shift your eyes (not your head) to the right, now down, now up. Now directly ahead and raise one eyebrow. These little adjustments may add or change the meaning of what might have been simply a physical action.
The facial changes are experienced as movement, as are those of the eyes, the arm, the foot. Facial movement is an equal player in every perceived frame of action, all the components of each frame, share, respond, and loop back into the same source: the continuum of consciousness.
In Action Theater it's feeling states rather than emotions that play out. Emotions are what we call psycho-physical experiences that are the result of conceptual interpretations of past, current, future, or imaginal events. For example, something-an image, memory, current event-comes into our awareness. We make a judgment about it, consciously or unconsciously. It's good. It's bad. It's mean, ugly, sublime, sexy. Then our bodies react to the story we've created, and as long as we continue to fuel the story, our bodies continue to fuel the story, our bodies continue to react. Our attention is on the story. It could go like this:
I hear a piece of music. It reminds me of my father who passed away last year. That was one of his favorites. I begin to long for my father, feel deserted, unprotected. That's where I dwell-under the weighted thoughts of being unprotected. I think of all the ways I'm unprotected, vulnerable, etc. I feel lonely, angry at having to always fend for myself. Now I'm caught in a downward spiral of a pathetic story. My mood changes, my body feels heavy, my perceptions are contracted. I lie in bed in a state of gloomy inertia.
Feeling states may look like emotions but the improvisor's relationship to the experience is quite different. There is no judgment or evaluation, no thing is good or bad. Feeling states arise spontaneously and linger until replaced by another. The shift from one feeling of state to another is determined by the content and musicality of each moment of the improvisation, as sensed by the improviser. Unlike emotions, feelings states are unnameable. They can't be called happy, sad, or lonely. The state of the mind and body are congruent, intentional, and happen simultaneously, whereas with an emotion, the condition of the body is a response to the thoughts of the mind. In a sense, feelings ar passing fancies, whether dark or light, tense or relaxed, pretty or ugly. They appear only to be replaced by others. The improviser is free to play within a vast array of mind states.
In Action Theater, we practice performing from a non-conceptual base. Using movement and sound, we improvise through feeling states and actions that are preverbal, that have no language or story supporting them. Yet they are true, recognizable, and content-ful.
Later, when we introduce language into our practice, we remain rooted in the nonconceptual experience of the moment. We hear the sound and feel the passage of the word as it moves through our mouths.
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