This article establishes Action Theater pedagogy as a vital and unique contribution to the field of improvisational training. Developed by performer-pedagogue Ruth Zaporah during the 1970’s boom in experimental performance in the San Francisco Bay area, and in continual refinement over the past 40 years, this interdisciplinary model bridges enables performers to become creators. Fundamental to Action Theater pedagogy is embodied presence, a state of awareness in which performers maintain conscious contact with their somatic experience as they improvise. An examination of Zaporah’s performance style, renders an account of the aesthetic of Action Theater, which favors the integration of movement, speech and sound, abrupt changes in character and formal style, and dream-like enactments of multiple aspects of human experience. Facets from the historical context in which Zaporah developed are briefly identified. Key features of Action Theater pedagogy – the interdependent relationship between form and content and the practice of framing and shifting – are treated in depth to portray the originality and efficacy of this training. Informed by interviews with Zaporah and her long-term students, as well as my practice of and research into Action Theater, this article concludes by positioning Action Theater within related performance practices.
Keywords: improvisation, interdisciplinary performance, awareness, physical theater, psychophysical training
In 2007, I attended an hour-long solo performance in Santa Fe, New Mexico by the then seventy year old Ruth Zaporah and witnessed immediate poeisis in action where her wild imagination and precise technique rendered a cohesive, inventive and clear performance at speed - without rehearsal. As she traveled through a changing landscape within herself – peopled by various characters, some pedestrian and some primal; her sense of humor, use of space, timing, and composition surprised and delighted me. Zaporah was in the moment of creation, on the precipice of the unknown and fully committed to the present moment.
Zaporah’s technique, which she has codified into the practice of “Action Theater,” allows her to enter an empty performance space, often alone, and improvise a performance that demands a deep connection to her imagination and an immediate, lucid enactment of its stirrings that coheres as a composition. This skill has evolved over her forty-year career as an improvisational performer and teacher, a journey that has taken her to engagements throughout the United States, Europe (especially Germany, Estonia, and Italy), Israel, China and Bosnia. She also writes about improvisation from a subjective perspective as a performer/pedagogue. From the early 1980’s, Contact Quarterly has featured her articles and interviews; her performance reflection, “Dance: a Body With a Mind of It’s Own,” has been anthologized in Taken by Surprise: A Dance Improvisation Reader and Being. In 1995 she published Action Theater: The Improvisation of Presence, a book of over 100 exercises and short essays that gives a sample outline of a month-long intensive. In 2006 she self-published Action Theater: The Manual, a companion volume to her book outlining advanced exercises and innovations in her theory and terminology. She has been a compelling force in the development of postmodern dance/theater improvisation especially on the West Coast of the United States; and has also given language to the connection between body-based improvisation and Buddhist meditation practice.
The principal venue for her evolution as a practitioner-pedagogue was the San Francisco Bay Area during the explosion of interdisciplinary performance in the 1970’s; like other members of that community such as Anna Halprin, Mangrove (Contact Improvisation) and the Grotowski-inspired Blake Street Hawkeyes, Ruth Zaporah strove to erase the boundaries between dance and theater and the hierarchy of scripted or set work over improvisation. Through regular teaching and performing in solo and with other collaborators from theater and dance, she learned to synergize movement, sound and speech into a continuous creative flow.
Embodied presence is the cornerstone of Action Theater: attention rooted to the present moment through the tracking of sensory experience as it develops and changes. In her earliest experiments with pure improvisation (improvisation with no predetermined limits or prepared material)(i)Zaporah had a breakthrough when she realized that staying aware of physical sensations as they evolved in her moment-to-moment experience freed her mind from the pressure of creating. Rather than “trying to come up with something,” conjoining her body and mind in present awareness opened her to inspiration and allowed content to form itself through the medium of her actions. When describing a solo performance she remarks, “the dance had danced itself” (1997, p. 132). For Zaporah, automatic creativity is not a disembodied trance state, but, instead, demands a heightened level of listening combined with the formal dexterity to render impulse into action.
If embodied presence is the cornerstone of Action Theater, formal dexterity and the ability to “listen” to oneself and one’s acting partners form its structure. As opposed to training models that teach a vocabulary of movements, Action Theater practice hones performance skills through exploration. As with Viewpoints training, Zaporah’s exercises deconstruct various elements of performance (e.g., space, movement, facial expression, voice, emotion, speech and relationships) isolating them from one another, and thereby, challenging practitioners to increase awareness of themselves in performance and expand their expressive palettes. Students first learn principles of form through movement by exploring a wide variety of self-generated “frames” – a limited repertoire of formal choices fueled by a specific internal feeling state (content). As students “shift” from one frame to another, with the aim of finding contrasts in both form and content, they become more limber physically, emotionally, and imaginatively. After exploring movement frames principally in duets and small groups, students incorporate vocal sound with their movement, and finally progress to what Zaporah terms “physical narrative:” human speech grounded in the sensory experience of the body. Action Theater gives practitioners a grammar of performance to allow the emotions, stories or sensations they are experiencing to be clearly communicated to audiences and ensembles through relevant formal choices. Just as grammar assists writers in making their meanings clear, choices in timing, spatial orientation, speed, and other matters make performers’ internal experience intelligible.
Despite Zaporah’s innovations as a physical theater improviser and her highly effective training model, her work has been under-researched, eluding capture on the page by scholar-practitioners. This article offers a preliminary glimpse into the world of Action Theater through my body/mind as academic researcher and student of Action Theater over the past seven years. Informed by personal experiences in the training, interviews with Zaporah and her long time students, as well as historical research into the development of Action Theater, this essay seeks to identify key features of Ruth Zaporah’s performance and pedagogy and evaluate how these features enrich the field of dance/theater improvisation. The first section characterizes the aesthetics of Action Theater and the aims of training in this form. The historical context in which Zaporah developed is then briefly considered. Salient features of the practice of Action Theater follow with tangible exercises and my subjective experience as a student. Finally, the essay concludes by positioning Action Theater within the context of contemporary performer training.
She Is What She Teaches: Aesthetics of Action Theater
|Watching Ruth Zaporah in one of her performance pieces is like an exercise in surreal meditation [...] The changes were mercurial, characters flowing into one another imperceptibly [...] The language of the body and that of the voice merge identities. The body movement has a literal, narrative quality; whereas the voice is an extension of the body's moving arts." (Tucker, 1987)|
In an interview Jenny Schaffer, long time student of Action Theater, remarked that Zaporah “is the work she teaches,” characterizing the strong link between her performances and her pedagogy (2004, pers. comm., 8 July). As such, Tucker’s review above reveals distinguishing traits of Zaporah as a performer and hence Action Theater as a practice. Tucker attests to Zaporah’s mastery of form – her ability to synergize the actions of moving and speaking, bridging the disciplinary divide between theater and dance. Zaporah’s proclivity for “mercurial changes” forms an integral part of Action Theater pedagogy as well. Zaporah’s ability to change herself – appearing as a new character, in a new environment, or simply playing within a new physical vocabulary – keeps her improvisations multi-layered and unexpected. As she shifts, the story for the audience also changes, leaping abruptly into new imaginative terrain in the style of postmodern montage. For example, in the 2007 performance I witnessed, she embodied a teenager on the internet, a woman trying to choose between living in a house or the jungle, and a mysterious ghost-like “being” mostly expressed through sound, and numerous other identities. Some of these characters, or in her terminology “frames,” resurfaced at intervals in the performance, lending cohesion to the event; however, her performances never follow a single narrative thread, and often her characters are somewhat alienated from reality through eccentricities in their movement or speech. Tucker describes this performance as “an exercise in surreal meditation” partially due to the dream-like shifting terrain of content, but perhaps also because she recognized the wild shifts and turns of her own body/mind in Zaporah’s zany performance. There is a meditative aspect to Zaporah’s performances as well as the training she created. In her view, improvisation training is a form of active meditation, calling performance skills a “vehicle through which we investigate how the mind works” (Cushman, 1991).|
First and foremost, Action Theater is a performance practice; however its evolution has been informed by Zaporah’s exploration and inquiry into the nature of being through the study of Eastern spiritual practices, particularly Buddhism. Zaporah approaches improvisation as a laboratory for discovering practical, embodied ways of removing obstacles – primarily mental constructs – that veil the ability to perceive reality directly and participate in creative flow. It is this dialogue among performance, teaching and awareness practice that makes her contribution to theater remarkable. Action Theater is a set of tools and also a method of inquiry. As such, Action Theater not only attracts performers who wish to gain improvisation skills, it also appeals to practitioners interested in gaining spiritual insight and enhancing their sense of possibility and play in everyday life. Reflecting on the connection between improvisation and spirituality, performance scholar David Gere remarks:
|Indeed, the rhetoric of magic runs throughout the discussion of improvisation: to theorize about improvisation is to theorize about consciousness, and to theorize about consciousness is to push the boundaries of physical discourse toward consideration of the spirit, the divine, the unfathomable, and the unimaginable (Gere, 2003: xiv).|
A Climate for Free Spirits: Zaporah’s Historical Context|
Beginning as early at 1945 with the arrival of dancer/choreographer Anna Halprin, the San Francisco Bay Area became host to a distinct culture of performance that held values in conscious opposition to the aesthetic tastes in New York City (Ross, 2007: p. 69). For many of the artists who relocated to the Bay Area between 1945-1970, this area of America represented the freedom to create an arts scene “from scratch-” one that represented the cultural ideals that would come to full flower in the 1960’s.
By the end of the 1960’s a “West Coast” style of performance had emerged. There were several outstanding features of this style: 1) an emphasis on life-reflecting rather than virtuosic performances that revealed the individual human more than exhibiting technical mastery ; 2) interdisciplinary collaboration – especially dancers using language and actors using sound and movement; 3) interaction with political life (including rituals and happenings); and 4) a sense of humor and playfulness as opposed to the more studied and serious reputation of New York City artists (Artists in Exile, 2000). Berkeley had become what dance historian Janice Ross calls “a climate for free spirits” (1980), or what Robert Hurwitt characterizes as a seething and lively “hotbed of experimental theater” (1997). Artists were not expected to cohere to a single aesthetic; and audiences were willing to support artists even when they gave “bad” performances, generally appreciating risk-taking more than mastery.
When she moved from Baltimore, Maryland to Berkeley, California in 1969, Zaporah walked into a community ripe for experimentation not only in improvisational performance, but in performance training. Unlike traditional acting which emphasizes the use of an external script and the donning of roles created by an author, or traditional dance which teaches movement vocabulary, many community members wanted to actualize themselves through creativity. Improvisation particularly appealed to these students because it allowed them an avenue for spontaneous self expression. Soon after her arrival, Zaporah was introduced to dance improvisation by Al Wunder, a former instructor for Alwin Nikolais in New York City. Though her technique bears little resemblance to Wunder’s work, Zaporah credits him as her “one and only improvisation mentor” (1995, dedication) because he recognized her natural talent for improvisation, encouraging her to develop her gifts.
In 1971, Wunder and Zaporah, along with aerial dance pioneer Terry Sendgraff, opened the Berkeley Dance Theater Gymnasium, hosting classes, workshops and ongoing studio performances. Zaporah began to teach and regularly perform improvisations, preferring to learn on her feet, developing according to her own tastes rather than studying a specific technique. She asserts: “I was so dedicated to the discovery process that I isolated myself from my dance and theater colleagues, not peeking outside of my laboratory, not wanting to see what others were doing”(1995: p. xx). Zaporah’s desire to speak, an urge to break free of the soundless gestures of dance, led her to theater. By 1975, Zaporah considered herself a theater artist rather than a dancer, coining the term “Action Theater” to describe her original pedagogy. In Zaporah’s view, theater, as opposed to dance, was the medium for narrative, emotional expression, and character. Though she collaborated with other dancers, the development of the aesthetic of Action Theater, with its emphasis on rapid switching of characters, a combination of sound, movement and language, and pure improvisation evolved through Zaporah’s solo exploration and collaboration with theater artists.
Her most influential collaborator, with whom she still performs today, was Bob Ernst, member of the Jerzey Grotowski influenced Blake Street Hawkeyes.(ii)
Collaborating with Ernst, a musician as well as an actor, compelled Zaporah to use her voice expressively. At times in the studio, they would improvise only with sound, allowing a series of vocal sounds to develop over long intervals of time or playing drums with one another to underscore a narrative. Returning to the primordial quality of sound elevated the composition of their improvisations making them structurally similar to music and aesthetically layered. Zaporah and Ernst were able to bridge the divide between their differing backgrounds in theater and dance, creating as two artists rather than as an actor and a dancer. This interdisciplinary way of performing became one of the aims of Action Theater training.
The overall vision behind the exercises that Zaporah teaches in Action Theater enables students to learn what she herself has learned in 40 years of performing. As Zaporah explains, “I self-examine what I do when I perform... and I break it all up into exercises and scores” (1976). As opposed to directors who are separated from the process of performing, Zaporah teaches from inside performance. She leads her students through doors she has opened in herself. Because her performances were improvised, there are no scripts or scores that remain; however Action Theater endures as a vital relic of her participation in the West-Coast U.S. experimental arts movement.
Practicing Action Theater
I began my study of Action Theater in 2003 as a PhD student in Theater with a focus on pedagogy and devising. I was attracted to Zaporah’s work because it purportedly bridged the art/life divide. Having earned an MFA in Acting and worked professionally as both an actress and a dancer, I was at a point in my career where performance skills, in and of themselves, were not my main impetus for training. Action Theater excited me because it would force me to break away from traditional scripted performance, and push me to create work of my own with movement, sound and speech.
The multiple trainings I have attended with Zaporah since 2003 have followed roughly the same format, though her teaching constantly evolves as she re-articulates principles and develops new exercises. A day of training consists of 2 sessions, a 3-hour morning session followed by a 2-hour afternoon session. Morning sessions begin with a variety of exercises centered on honing a specific skill such as the expressive use of the eyes or the integration of movement and text. Students work alone and in ensemble, using their bodies, voices or words according to the exercise’s demands. Afternoon sessions are devoted to performance in which all students execute an improvisatory score in solo or small groups with their other classmates serving as the audience (a score in this context is a formal limitation of some sort, e.g. sitting in chairs and only using voices). The skills developed in the exercises are always immediately applied to performance because, in Zaporah’s view, the pressures of performance provide the impetus for learning to exteriorize the fruits of inner exploration. Although one focus of Action Theater is to sensitize the student to inner sensations and imagery as a resource for creativity, the end goal of performance demands that expression be precise and compelling to the audience. In one training I attended Zaporah quipped, “just because you’re feeling something is not enough of a reason for me to be looking at it” (2005).
One aspect of the theory underlying Action Theater pedagogy is the relationship between form and content. In Zaporah’s view, all actions, including movement, sound, and speech, are comprised of form and content, such that their interplay determines the meaning of an action to an audience and/or acting partners. Form encompasses details of an action’s execution—how it is done—whereas content describes the intention of an action—why it is done both in terms of instrumental use and sub-textual motivation. Content in Action Theater is a complex concept, but a provisional definition includes (a) a type of experience, such as confusion, fear, or rage; b) an action, such as dancing for an audience, putting on clothes, or scrubbing a floor; or c) a character, such as a worn-out father, a neurotic hostess, or an excited child. All actions should be motivated by a specific goal and enlivened by a human presence.(iii)
In several of her exercises for beginners, students play with the form of a familiar action, such as putting on a sock, speeding it up, slowing it down, and changing its sequence and timing, in order to “look at a common action in an uncommon way” (1995, p.2). Zaporah’s emphasis on form is rare for a theater artist; actors trained in psychological realism tend to dwell on motivations for actions rather than on the details of an action itself. However, because she came to theater through dance, Zaporah’s formal mastery led her investigation of form’s relationship to content. She developed a training that engenders a dialogue between these essentially inseparable aspects of action.
Formal dexterity must become second nature to an improviser, a fluent skill, because in performance there is no time to analyze content or to experiment with form. Action Theater envisions the actor as creator rather than as an interpreter. When working with set content, such as a scripted play, an actor’s work is to bring the words, situations, and character to life. In Action Theater, the actor fleshes out the worlds that are being created in his or her psyche in the moment. Many improvisational techniques use predetermined characters, scenarios, themes or locales to serve as the starting point and container for the development of content. By contrast, Action Theater students “start fresh,” perhaps contained by formal parameters such as only using sound or movement, however the content remains completely open. Scenarios and characters are not forbidden in Action Theater; rather, they are one possibility among many. In describing how her approach is different than scenario-based improvisation, Zaporah writes, “Lifelike and non-lifelike situations arise through physical explorations within forms and frameworks” (2006).
Frames and Shifts
The “forms and frameworks” of Action Theater function at the interstice between formal structure and enlivened content. The practice of “framing and shifting” engenders a dynamic relationship between form and content, and thus constitutes the core of Action Theater pedagogy. In her manual, Zaporah defines her use of the term “frame” by explaining that
every moment of action is comprised of certain elements—the structure or shape, timing, relationship to space, dynamic, and the state of mind [content] that fuels the action. The composite of these elements in any instant would be the frame. Just as a frame surrounds a picture on a wall, distinguishing it from anything else in the room, so an action frame contains and describes the content of the current improvisational moment. (p. 17-18)
By practicing framing, students identify particular elements of the action in which they are immersed and then play within those limitations, exhausting the compositional possibilities.(iv)|
In her exercises, Zaporah distinguishes three types of frames: (a) movement, (b) sound and movement, and (c) physical narrative. A physical narrative is a frame that contains words; Zaporah qualifies the narrative as “physical” to remind students to pay attention to the form of the words (e.g., the movement of the mouth, cadence, and so on) rather than only the story described by the words. Students play within the boundaries of a self-generated frame rather than immediately moving onto another action. They go in depth with their experience, discovering the intricacies of what might have initially appeared to be a movement on the way to something else; for example, if a student walks across the room to get a chair, the walking is an action, in and of itself, and not merely a scene shift. When a seemingly trivial action becomes a frame, the student notices and plays with the formal components of her action—in this case, walking; as she crosses the room to get the chair, she might walk in an irregular rhythm, take several steps forward and several backward, or play with the force of her steps. In framing this action, the student also attends to the content of the action—how the action makes her feel. The content may be only the somatic experience of walking, or it may arouse a feeling of excitement or trepidation; that feeling, in turn, may generate a story of some kind, such as the chair becoming a sleeping parent she attempts to sneak past. Thus, framing a simple action enriches the improvisation, because new material is generated through the exploration of form.
To create a variety of frames, students practice “shifting,” a fairly straightforward practice in which they move from one frame into a new frame (contrasting in form and content), not gradually but immediately. Although the concept is easy to understand, it is very difficult to practice. Shifting feels awkward and unnatural to many students, because either they become so immersed in a frame that they cannot shift out of it quickly or they do not allow themselves to be saturated by their current frame because they know it is only temporary. Zaporah, however, believes that shifting is as natural as child’s play, stating that “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 believed in what we were doing, and we dropped it without a thought if something else took our attention. That’s what shift is all about”(1995, p. 37). In the maturation/socialization process, most adults iron out their mood swings and develop the ability to block out inner and outer stimuli to retain a single-pointed focus. Action Theater training works at undoing what Zaporah views as habits of repression, loosening and relaxing habitual behaviors and mental constructs to replace the deadness of habit with conscious, embodied experience. Students learn to commit to an action completely, and, simultaneously, be aware of its context (e.g., its shaping and the environment.). They also learn to maintain a focus that is flexible and responsive, regaining a sense of child-like play while engaging their adult capacity for awareness of self, others, and the environment.
Practicing frames and shifts strengthens performers’ agility in giving form to a wide variety of contents. For example, in the exercise, “trading frames,” students work in pairs, interrupting one another with contrasting frames; parameters may dictate that partners only use one type of frame (movement, sound and movement, physical narrative) or that they explore all three types. My partner and I stand in neutral (a state of alertness with the eyes moving); my partner begins a movement frame; I notice, experience, and then respond to his or her movement frame with a contrasting movement frame. Zaporah’s most recent teaching refrain, “notice, experience, respond” (intermediate 2008) coaches actors to notice what their partner is doing, and when the partner shifts frames, to experience these new actions inter-subjectively (as if the partner’s actions were the one’s own) and then respond from this absorbed state.
The opposite of “notice, experience, respond” is to see something, objectify it by attaching a name to it, such as “a temper tantrum,” and respond based on previous experience. The value of embodied listening is that improvisations move beyond banal cause-and-effect logic and into a terrain of the imagination that is connected but not mundane. For example, if I label my partner’s action as a “temper tantrum,” my response will be limited to “completing the scene” by becoming his teacher or parent; however, if I experience my partner’s action from an embodied orientation, I will energetically absorb the force of his fists against the ground, and the tension in his head and torso. As I connect to my partner’s actions as if they were mine, my body leads me into the next frame. Rather than “completing the scene,” my response will add a new dimension to the improvisation. The frame I create contrasts my partner’s frame in terms of form and content. Perhaps I stroke my hair, subtly shifting from side to side while singing a lullaby. To continue the exercise, when I begin my frame, my partner pauses within his frame, experiences this new frame, and then interrupts my frame with a new contrasting frame. Over the course of the exercise, students endeavor not to repeat movements, emotions, tones of voice, or characters. As students search their body/minds for new ways of being, they become more integrated mentally, emotionally and physically, feeling minute movements and sensing subtle shifts in mental and emotional states as clues for new frames(v)
The “trading frames” exercise is often followed by “solo shifts,” where students respond to their own frames with contrasting frames. As students determine the limits of their frames, they interrupt themselves, immediately shifting into a new frame without pausing. The speed at which students must shift demands that they move beyond conceptual thinking about contrast and work in an instinctual way. In my private instruction with Zaporah (2005), I had an experience in “solo shifts” that taught me how much possibility and complexity exists within a seemingly limited range. At one point in my improvisation, I shifted into a frame defined by the following formal components. My body was in a kneeling position, facing profile to the audience, and my actions were comprised of slapping the floor with my hands, clapping, standing on my knees, and twisting my torso. Although I could shift in and out of frames at will, I played within this frame for almost 10 minutes, and as I accepted the formal boundaries of the frame, I became aware of a compelling feeling state. It was as if the action had its own development, a vitality produced by the interplay of form and content. Noticing and accepting the limits of this frame enabled me to find a new place in myself where I was fully absorbed in my action, and completely committed, but without any “idea” about what I was doing. I was not conceptually separate from my action, thinking about form, content, or contrast, as often happens when learning a new skill set; instead, I was in a moment of grace, where these elements integrated themselves, and I had a glimpse of the play and mystery that underlies Action Theater improvisation.
The experience in movement described above was one of embodied presence, in which I went beyond tracking the form of my action to what Zaporah calls “saturation.” A performer is saturated when she is not only aware of herself in action, but also gives herself over to the experience of its execution so that the embodied experience propels the improvisation into fresh territory. Zaporah proclaims the benefits of embodied presence, distinguishing it from our habitual tendency to use an action as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself: “It’s not an easy thing, to become fully embodied, to allow the body to inform the content of every action. We tend to narrow our focus onto the story and function of our actions, whether movement or speech. By opening to the body’s experience, each moment becomes particular, unpredicted, inspired and fresh” (2006, p. 3).
Opening to the body’s experience informs every moment of Action Theater including speech. In Physical Narratives, the language imagination collaborates with the muscles of articulation, resonators, and breath. If the mind is no longer the sole creator of language, the improvisation remains open-ended and surprising, as friction is created between the semantic and somatic. As Zaporah explains,
|So even in speech there is an unpredictability as the sensory experience of speech rubs against the execution of the words and vice versa, creating an unforeseen journey. By allowing the physical experience of speech to interact with the vocabulary itself, speech becomes a present experience” (2006, p. 11-12).|
| Some Action Theater exercises, although based in the body, restrict movement to allow students to exclusively focus on sound and speech. The performer discovers that sounding and speaking are forms of movement and can, therefore, relate lessons learned in gross actions to the more subtle movements that produce sound. When improvising narratives it is especially tempting for the mind to jump ahead of the body’s expression, mapping out a train of thought that the body then lumbers behind as if taking dictation; as the performer moves out of relationship to the unknown, the audience will also become distanced from the performance. In embodied presence, the performer’s imagination is engaged in the inchoate story and at the same time, he allows the somatic experience of speaking to affect the content.|
In 2005, I worked with Zaporah privately. She gave me an exercise with narratives in which she provided a kind of gibberish—a string of sounds that resembled speech; I then began a narrative mimicking the qualities of her gibberish. In other words, the sound of the voice determined and preceded which words I chose. I discovered that, at a certain point in constructing a narrative, the story took precedence over my somatic and emotional experience. At that point, Zaporah stopped me and redirected me to sensory experience. When I was able to stay embodied, my word choice was much richer because I was feeling the words in my mouth and savoring the sensual experience of speech.
Positioning Action Theater:
Positioning Action Theater within the broader improvisational movement brings Zaporah’s model into sharper focus and reveals the key elements that make her training unique. Action Theater incorporates elements of dance and theater and was developed within the post-modern dance movement in the United States. These artists came of age in the 1970’s primarily through their connection to the Judson Dance Theater and shared a fascination with improvisation, chance procedures and montage. Improvisational performance decentralized the director/choreographer as the primary source of artistic vision, instead allowing for ensemble creation that highlighted the individuality of each performer. As the barrier between performers and creators dissolved, disciplinary divides blurred as dancers began to speak and actors engaged in physical theater.
The shift away from the hierarchy of director/choreographer over performers necessitated a different type of training emphasizing compositional awareness and the ability to instinctually respond to impulses from internal directives or ensemble members rather than promoting particular techniques and facility in learning choreography. Reflecting upon peak performance experiences, such as effortlessly connecting to creative flow or responding spontaneously to a group impulse, allowed performers to identify constituent components. These components then became the building blocks of improvisational training.
In eschewing predetermined sequences and imposed movement vocabularies, many post-modern innovators including Ruth Zaporah instead concentrated on formal constraints that allowed for individual responses even while encouraging compositional awareness. Through explorative play within frameworks, practitioners developed abilities to inhabit their senses, enlarge their perceptual fields, attune to ensemble members and connect to inspiration. The focus needed to perform set material differed from that of improvisational performance to such an extent that the creative state of mind became an objective of training. Accessing this state of mind involved tuning into bodily sensation and energetic impulse and moving beyond a limited sense of self; these “skills” allowed performers to inhabit aspects of the human experience that were suppressed in day to day life. The post-modern aesthetic movement in the United States seeded various trainings that have been in continual development from the 1970’s to the present. In particular, Viewpoints training pioneered by Mary Overlie and Simone Forti’s Logomotion most closely resemble Action Theater, and can therefore serve to position Zaporah’s training within a wider context of contemporary performance practices.
Viewpoints training as adapted for theater by Anne Bogart and Tina Landau, shares pedagogical aims with Action Theater. In both types of training, students gain compositional skills and expand their expressive palette through exercises that limit their range of choices to one or more components of action. Concerned with visual and physical clarity, as well as spontaneity, Action Theater and Viewpoints trainings espouse a reciprocal relationship between external formal precision and inner imaginative freedom. Both Zaporah and Bogart push actors to move beyond psychological realism, giving up judgments about what does and does not constitute “normal behavior.” Through improvisation, practitioners seek to rediscover elements of the human experience marginalized in daily life; this excavation yields more than improved performance skills. Lessons learned in the training open doors within the mind/body of the practitioner (Bogart & Landau 2005, p. 19).
These two methods share common aims within the process of training - creating ensemble, expanding the expressive palette, and so on – but the end products in public performance differ. Viewpoints training uses improvisation as a means to create scripted performances. As theater artists, Bogart and Landau have found ways to bridge the divide between improvisation and composition, culling group explorations, and shaping the material to then be presented as a consistent product. By contrast, Action Theater training is steadfastly improvisational. Though Action Theater exercises can be used to generate material, the ability to repeat performances is never addressed. In a personal interview, Barbara Dilley, former member of Judson Church identified Zaporah as one of the few improvisers of her generation who remained faithful to a purely spontaneous performance form throughout her career. As such, Action Theater training consistently challenges students to face the fear of having nothing to do or say. Rather than cultivating the awareness needed to repeat material, Action Theater practice encourages a creative state of presence on which performers can rely.
In encouraging creativity, Action Theater practice invites students to access content in their exploration of forms; in contrast, Viewpoints exercises focus primarily on forms, adding content later in the process of composition. Zaporah consistently challenges students to access a living presence within improvisational exercises; though formal parameters may dictate the range of choices within a given score, students move through and beyond these practical constraints to detect and embody the human/being alive within their movements. In performance, Zaporah is often compared to a mime or post-modern vaudevillian because of her facial expressions and stylistic use of rhythm and timing. In the practice of Action Theater, students develop a plasticity in facial gestures, particularly eye movements so that the face becomes filled with the same energy as the body and vice versa. In Zaporah’s view, the eyes convey living presence. As in some forms of traditional Asian theater, eye movements suggest characters and/or situations; in Action Theater, eyes function similarly and also inform the improviser about the character they are inhabiting in any given moment.
Action Theater and Viewpoints training also differ in their approaches to language and sound. Consonant with Action Theater training, exercises in Vocal Viewpoints have two principle aims, to 1) instill an “awareness of pure sound separate from psychological or linguistic meaning;” and 2) “highlight the limitations of one’s vocal range and subsequently encourage more radical and dynamic vocal choices” (Bogart & Landau 2005, p. 105). However, Viewpoints training begins with scripted text, whereas students in Action Theater never engage with the written word. While both trainings apply lessons learned in movement to the physical act of speaking, students of Action Theater explore sound and movement in the initial phases of training, while Bogart and Landau suggest addressing vocal work later in the process. For example, on the first day of Action Theater training, the morning session is often limited to movement only; in the afternoon, Zaporah introduces scores focusing exclusively vocal sound and/or language. Thus her method supports the integration of movement, sound and language by incorporating these skills on each day of training. An advanced practitioner in both Action Theater and Viewpoints, Krista Denio remarked in an interview that the vocal pedagogy of Action Theater is more elaborate and effective than that of Vocal Viewpoints (2005).
Along with Viewpoints, Simone Forti’s “Logomotion” shares similarities with Action Theater. Forti’s training appeals mainly to dancers who wish to incorporate speech into their improvisations. Like Zaporah, Forti was trained in dance and made certain discoveries about improvising speech as she related her fluency with movement to her language imagination. As in Action Theater, students of Logomotion learn to connect to inner imagery through sensual grounding in the body, and intuitively flow between speaking and moving as they improvise (Forti 2003, p. 62). As in Action Theater, exercises in Logomotion apply both to ensemble and solo performance. Furthermore, like Zaporah, Forti regularly performs improvisation in solo and in small groups.
The philosophies of Action Theater and Logomotion differ from one another on several key points, primarily in relation to characters and personal material. While both trainings address the creation of narratives, Action Theater emphasizes much more the way words are spoken than Logomotion; students are challenged to enhance their vocal imagination by exploring diverse registers as well as rhythms of speaking. In exploring voice, students discover distinct characters, whereas in Forti’s work, the language seems to come from the individual performers themselves. For example, Logomotion narratives often incorporate memories from the performer’s life made vivid through sensory details. In contrast, Zaporah discourages the use of personal material partly because, in her view, if material belongs to a performer, then it limits the extent to which the material can be put into play.
To illustrate, in Action Theater, ensemble members often collectively develop narratives, so that content belongs to no one performer. If personal material arises in an improvisation, Zaporah recommends that it be depersonalized. In a training intensive, she gave the example of a former student who found herself weeping during an improvisation. Rather than dissolving into this cathartic moment, she coached the student to tune into the sound of weeping and treat the component sounds as elements of a frame (2003). Honing the ability to be fully invested in the moment of weeping while at the same time aware of its shaping grounds performers in the present moment so that they do not regress into their past.
Though both Zaporah and Forti both perform improvisations, their method of preparation differs. In her performances, Simone Forti establishes a “point of departure” as a predetermined inspiration for the improvisation (Hermann 2003). The various processes she uses to foment content – selecting random words from the dictionary, 20-minute timed writings, visits to natural environments, and so on – connect improvisers to an inner well of sensations, memories and associations before they step onto the stage. In contrast, Zaporah demands that students enter the performance space “empty” and give shape to impulses that arise in the present moment, unconditioned by past experience. Speaking of her preparatory process, Zaporah alludes to the difficulty of approaching each performance as if it is an empty canvas: “I have planned nothing and that has kept me very busy” (2005).
“Call it magic or spirit or skill, as you wish, but the spark that sets improvisation in motion comes on top of committed labor. Without the fuel of training, the spark would have nothing to burn (Gere 2003, xv).”
The practice of Action Theater provides a place to labor; to hone awareness, performance skills, and responsiveness in the context of imaginative play. The most basic exercises in Action Theater challenge students to expand their range of responses to change, thus loosening the scar tissue of their egos and broadening the basis for creativity. Cultivating a total response change is an aesthetically unique feature of Action Theater training, and it is not arbitrary, utilized only for its efficacy in performer training. Being congruent with change is to be fully human and vibrantly alive. What might seem inhuman – a performer rapidly shifting in and out of personae and universes - is actually qualitatively and quantitatively more human. Zaporah asserts that Action Theater exercises “disturb the status quo” (2006, p. 4) - by breaking down patterns and forcing new types of coordinations. Students avail themselves not only to new ways of expressing, but also to undiscovered aspects of themselves and the human experience. The studio becomes a liminal space that sparks transformations.
(i)The definition of “pure improvisation” is borrowed from Improvisation scholars, Hazel Smith and Roger Dean.
(ii)Founding members of the Blake Street Hawkeyes were originally part of the Iowa Theater Lab, were the first Americans to adopt Grotowski’s model proposed in Towards a Poor Theater, subscribing to extensive and grueling performer training, a minimalist aesthetic where the performer is fore grounded, experimentation with simple musical instruments, and theater as a “spiritual act” (Wolford).
(iii)“Human” is broadly construed in Zaporah’s usage including primal and uncanny expressions.
(iv)Zaporah’s most recent definition of frames is simpler and suggests that action has agency in forming itself: “[A frame is] a constellation of elements that are continually reorganizing themselves” (intermediate training 2008).
(v)Though in this exercise, all frames must be new material, in performance scores, returning to previous material (from the improvisation) is encouraged because it creates pattern and structure, making the improvisation more coherent.
Artists in Exile: the Story of Modern Dance in San Francisco. 2000 [video] California: Rapt Productions. (Directed by A. Forbord and S. Trott).
Bogart, A. and Landau, T. 2005. The Viewpoints Book: A Practical Guide to Viewpoints and Composition. Theatre Communications Group: New York.
Cushman, A., 1991. “The Spirit of Creativity.” Yoga Journal. Viewed 15 May 2003, http://www.tangoschule.com/Artikel/zaporah.html.
Forti, S., 2003. “Animate Dancing: A Practice in Dance Improvisation.” In A. Albright and D. Gere, ed. Taken by Surprise: A Dance Improvisation Reader. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, pp. 53-64.
Gere, D., 2003. Introduction. In A. Albright and D. Gere, ed. Taken by Surprise: A Dance Improvisation Reader. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.
Hermann,C., 2003. “Learning to Speak: An Apprenticeship with Simone Forti in Logomotion.” In A. Albright and D. Gere, ed. Taken by Surprise: A Dance Improvisation Reader. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, pp. 65-76.
Hurwitt, R., 1997. Seduction, by R. Zaporah, et al. Reviewed in: San Francisco Examiner, 9 April.
Ross, J. 1980. “Anatomy of a Dance Community.” Dance Magazine, 51-53, Oct.
Ross, J. 2007. Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance. California: University of California Press.
Smith, H. and Dean, R. 1997. Improvisation, Hypermedia and the Arts Since 1945. Netherlands: Harwood.
Tucker, M. 1987. The Law of Awe, by R. Zaporah. Reviewed in: San Francisco Chronicle, 23 Oct.
Wolford, L. 2000. “Grotowski’s Vision of the Actor: the Search for Contact.” Twentieth Century Actor Training. Ed. Hodge, A. London, UK: Routledge: 191-208.
Zaporah, R. 1976. “On Action Theater.” East Bay Review. 4 June.
Zaporah, R. 1995. Action Theater: The Improvisation of Presence. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Zaporah, R. 2003. “Dance: A Body with a Mind of Its Own.” In A. Albright and D. Gere, ed. Taken by Surprise: A Dance Improvisation Reader. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, pp. 21-26.
Zaporah, R., 2005. Action Theater Website. Viewed 1 September 2005, http://www.actiontheater.com.
Zaporah, R. 2006. The Manual: A Practice Book for the Experienced Improvisor. Santa Fe, NM: N.p.
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