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Action Theater

Its an improvisational physical theater training and performance method created by Ruth
The practice of Action Theater incorporates the disciplined exploration of embodied exercises
that lead to increased skills of strong, clear, spontaneous, and artful communication.
Action Theater addresses and expands the vocabularies of expression including movement,
vocali!ation, and speech. Action Theater is a tool to examine one"s perceptive and responsive
process, bringing a#areness to and thereby disempo#ering distracting thoughts of self
obsessions, fears, $udgments and analysis.
The exercises of Action Theater isolate the components of action % time, space, shape and
energy %% so they can be examined, experienced, and altered in order to expand the expressive
palette. &tudents increase their ability to hold and express emotion, dance #ith their o#n poetry
and recover lost personal material. 'omposition, listening and relationship are deconstructed to
be reassembled #ith greater a#areness. Acting from a sense of play, students are encouraged
to venture into transpersonal realms, accessing intelligence more encompassing and
boundless than their personal experience.
A#areness and play are fundamental to the practice, as both are portals to spontaneous
imagination. (ithin this orientation, the student is no longer bound by the conventional
interpretations of reality. They are free to roam throughout the grand spectrum of possibilities,
discovering #ho they are in the moment. )very exercise acts as a mirror, reflecting back to the
student their patterns and flights of freedom.
Action Theater is also a performance method, although many of the practitioners come from
other performance forms or #alks of life. *undamental to the practice of Action Theater is an
embodied presence in performance, #here the experiencing of the body informs the content of
the moment, moment by moment. *or example ho# the hand, experiencing the hand, reaching
for the glass is as important as reaching for the glass in order to drink from it. Intention is
created simultaneously #ith action in the moment of performance. This a#areness in action
invites the possibilities of freshness intrinsic to improvisational performance. The Action
Theater method offers a map, a #ay to proceed. The trainings are appropriate for the novice,
the explorer and the professional.
A #ay to proceed
Ruth Zaporah
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. oncurrently, so has my
teaching. !n the beginning, my professional work was separate from my daily life. ! would
shift into roles that were seemingly unrelated. "owever, now ! experience them as being one
and the same process,
One of #ction $heater'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 ! teach a three% or four%week training. !'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. $his article follows one
day of the training.
A Night Drive: +right, glaring lights. Red. ,o red. Red. ,o red. (hite, al#ays #hite.
&-uint. *ace crumbles. .ry skin. Relax shoulder. /ift spine. (ipers 0tack%shooshoo%tack%tack
tack%shooshoo%tack%tack1. Rain. (et air. Thought maybe small audience, too #et cold.
+oyd, collapse, blood coursing, breath fast. 'hest tight. Turn key. 2uiet. 3ull hard handle.
T#ist, turn. 3ull coat up. &nap door. &tep step step. 'oncrete over earth over rock over fire.
'old metal. 3ull door. Ahh4 Theater. 'omfort. 2uiet. *amiliar protection. &oft muscles.
+reathe even.
+reathe. Audience chatter, muffled #ords, laughter. /arge living body. A pulse. 5ine.
*ast. 6ery fast. +ody, small, hungry, contained fire energy. +lack curtain bet#een the stage
and me. 3ace, to the #indo#, to the curtain, to the #indo#, to the curtain. Tongue on lips.
Already dry. *ear. Tight chest. 7and pulls at curtain. &tep, step, step to#ard small spot on
stage. 7eart fast. +reathe. +reathe. 7ot body bursting open. &till. 7old still. &tay still.
Thought ,o# is the time to die. .ie4 To (ater. *all back back back. .o#n into body. Into
flesh and evolution. 5outh, lips dra# back. 8pens. /aughter.
8ur mind has the capacity to, and, if allo#ed, does shift the ob$ect of its attention in
irreverent #ays. (e 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 #e
control, thereby inhibit, and the more #e #atch and listen, the freer our mind is to play #ith
its vast assortment of stuff.
8n the other hand, #hen #e"re thinking about #hat to do next, #e"re missing out on the
present moment. (e aren"t in our bodies, i.e., #e"re no longer a#are of the information
coming in through our senses. (e lose the present moment because our attention is
focused on the future one. (hen #e reach the future, our actions, thought up in the past, are
no longer relevant. (hile #e #ere thinking, our environment changed.
(e can only think up #hat is already familiar to us. If it is already familiar, then our
actions #ill lack freshness. (hat is freshness9 *resh material is material that comes as a
surprise. It results from an exchange bet#een body, imagination and memory. There"s a
direct link bet#een the three. If our attention is one the sensations of the body, that
a#areness may elicit memory, feeling and imagination. It all happens at once, no particular
starting point.
The practices of Action Theater offer a #ay to proceed that lead to this experience of
spontaneous expression.
)xperience evolves. In the physical #orld, there"s continuous change. 'hange occurs at
speeds varying from lightning fast to leaves%turning%bro#n slo#. 8ften change strikes
#ithout #arning. &ometimes it happens incrementally, step by step. And sometimes change
transpires so slo#ly that it looks like there"s been no change at all.
&ince #e"re part of the physical #orld, #e"re continuously changing, too. (e change our
minds, #hat #e"re doing and ho# #e"re feeling. (e might change in an instant, shift from
one state or condition to another. It"s not al#ays apparent #hy. +ut there"s al#ays an inner
motivation, a bridge that ties one experience to another.
(hen #e change gradually, step by step, or evolve, #e transform. It"s apparent ho#
one state or condition moves into another.
It might appear that #e aren"t changing at all. In such cases, change proceeds subtly,
under the surface. .uring this type of change, by engaging #ith the action #e are already in,
#e develop it.
5odes of change are
:. Shift%stop the action and do something else 0either logically or illogically1.
;. Transform%change the action incrementally until it becomes something else.
<. Develop%continue the action.
(ithin this particular paradigm of change, there are no other choices. All events, actions,
and situations either shift, transform or develop.
Imagine a situation #here all three modes of change occur at the same time. *or
instance, I am talking on the telephone #hile cooking oatmeal on the stove. .uring the
course of the conversation, my feelings gradually change. I move from contentment, step by
step 0transform1. The oatmeal gets too hot and threatens to burn. I stir more rapidly and, in
a panic, I yank the pot from the stove 0shift1. All this #hile, I remain on the phone 0develop1.
Shift, transform and develop offer #ays to proceed that respond to a#areness rather
than thought. All offer #ays to perceive and respond to change. 8n the particular day of the
training described in this article, #e are focusing on the process of shifting.
*A//I,= /)A6)&>R8'?
With Movement
Stand somewhere in the room. lose your eyes. &atch your breath. 'lace 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. &atch the
pause between each breath.
!'m going to call our words to you that describe natural phenomena. )ou'll have
approximately * to +, minutes to explore each one. $hese phenomena -move- in a
particular way. $hey timing, how they travel through space, their weight, shape and dynamic
are peculiar to them. #s you imagine each phenomenon, explore movement within its
inherent .ualities. /on't pantomime, or act out, or its inherent .ualities. /on't pantomime, or
act out, or pretend that you are the phenomenon itself. 0reely explore motion within the
movement .uality the image evokes.
0alling leaves.
4entle bree5es.
#s 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, ga5e of your eyes. /on't hold onto naything or make a story. 2et experiences
come and go as a constant flux. )our imagination responds freely to your body's actions.
6ow, !'ll be calling out the changes in erratic time increments.
0alling 2eaves.
0alling leaves.
!n the next few moments, associate with one or two people in the room and continue to
explore these .ualities but in relation to one another. )ou may both be moving with the
same .uality, or different. 6ow your choices are responses not only to your inner impulses
but your partner's behavior as well.
With Sound
#gain, ! will call out these nouns. 6ow, explore vocal sound and movement actions that
have the .ualities you associate with the words you hear. 1xperience sound and movement
as a single action. $hey start at the same time and stop at the same time. $hey carry the
same feeling and energy.
With Dialogue
Stand facing a partner and begin a conversation. #gain, ! will call out these nouns. &hen
you hear them, assume the .uality of energy in your body that these words suggest. /on't
add any extra movement. Stand fairly still. $hese energies will affect your voice, feelings,
attitudes and even the content of your language. #s you hear me say each new noun, shift
to the appropriate energy while maintaining the content of the conversation.
Falling Leaves/Roc is shift exercise. &tudents 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/Roc, rather than going outside themselves to imitate a
phenomenon, students go inside themselves to find the various states of body%mind
resonant #ith the -ualities of that phenomenon. *or instance, an inner -uality of @rockness@
can manifest in a variety of #ays one can #alk #ith rock%like demeanorA discuss friendship
#ith an impersonal, analytical, steely, rock%like containmentA #ipe his>her bro# #ith a hard,
cold, impenetrable rock%like demeanorA discuss friendship #ith an impersonal, analytical,
steely rock%like persona. 8ne might che# in time to leaves falling, talk about sleep in thunder
voice or spin in circles #ith 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 rageA electricity, madnessA leaves falling, peacefulnessA mud,
sensualityA 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 kno#able.
/ater in this training, more practiced students are prepared to approach the ordinary #ith
extra%ordinary a#areness. Rather than hearing @rock@ as a limitation, they explore rock #ith a
mind open to sensation, feelings and imagination. @Rockness@ opens an avenue into hidden
personal realms, into the @rockness@ living inside. *rom this perspective, they explore their
o#n particular universe.
(e don"t use the #ord @character@ in Action Theater. &ometimes #e say @entity@ or
@physical presence.@ 8r #e say @being.@ @'haracter@ is a confining concept. It asks us to be
someone other than #ho #e are. A someone that can be describes, @a cranky $udge,@ @a
bored #ife,@ a @hard%talking #aitress.@ Instead, #e manifest a vast array of entities, parts of
ourselves that may be, up until then, hidden in our psyches. (e build upon the uncovered
components to create @beings@ that are #hole and complete.
In order to express ourselves in detail, #e must kno# and control our body and mind #e
must become still and empty, a blank screen on #hich #e pro$ect the nature our psyches.
The detailed perception that #e ac-uire through a#areness is reflected by detailed
expression. The follo#ing exercises lead students to#ard physical a#areness, a first step
to#ard controlling the body.
7o# do #e kno# our bodies9 As an instrument to perform daily tasks, such as picking up
things, moving from place to place, thro#ing, kicking and s-uee!ing. As a tender or tough
#rapper 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 #e kno# our bodies as an instrument of communication9 7o# a#are are #e
of #hat it is saying9 .o #e recogni!e its capability for infinite design and meaning9
S!A"# AL"!A$#T
I"m going to call out the letters of the alphabet, A through Z very -uickly. As you hear each
letter, form its shape #ith your body.
,o#, take a partner. Again, I"m going to call out the letter of the alphabet, and #ith your
partner, #ithout talking, and especially #ithout laughing, form the letters together. +oth of
your bodies forming one letter. 'oncentrate4
Shape Alpha%et encourages students to see themselves from the outside. It helps them
determine if their body shape reflects their intention 0in this case, making the letter A1. Also,
if it relates to their environment%their partner"s shape. (atching 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.
4et a new partner. A makes a shape, any shape. B makes a different shape and places it in
relation to A's shape. $hen A steps out of his7her shape and reshapes in relation to B's
shape. $hen B steps out and reshapes in relation to A's shape. /o 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. /on't touch each other. /on't put weight
on each other, because then the other won't be able to change shape. #s you do this, !'m
going to suggest directions from time to time. /esign your shapes accordingly.
onstricted8 $ight8 . . .
#ngular, twisted, knotted8 . . .
ircular, round, arched8 . . .
omplex, detailed8 . . .
0ill your shapes with feeling or attitude. 9egin to speed up varying the .uality of your
shapes%work within the same .uality as your partner, or sometimes different. :ary your
timing. !ncrease your speed until you are moving percussively from shape to shape,
responding impulsively to each other's shapes and meanings.
&e'll repeat a portion of this exercise with one half of the group watching the other.
(hen students begin to #ork #ith feelings, context, story and meaning, they may distract
themselves a#ay from physical a#areness. In this training, #e move back and forth bet#een
exercises that elicit feelings, content and spirit 0e.g., @*alling /eaves>Rock@1 and exercises
that focus primarily on kinetic and sensory a#areness 0e.g. &hape exercises1. (ith practice,
the separation fades and body, mind and spirit integrate #ithin a#areness.
(ith a#areness and experience, #e can choose movement, sound and>or speech
simultaneously or separately #ith clarity. )ach mode has its capabilities and limitationsA #hat
#e can say #ith one #e can"t exactly say #ith another.
In the *alling /eaves>Rock exercise, students #ere directed both #hen to shift and #hat to
shift to 0content1. In the follo#ing exercise students are only directed #hen to shift. They
explore their o#n content choices. /ater in the training, #ith no director, students shift on
their o#n as one #ay to proceed in improvisation.
With Movement
!n partners. One of you is -director,- one of you is -actor.- /irector, you can say one word
only, and that word is -shift.- #ctor, 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 ;ust were doing. !f what you were ;ust doing was upright,
stationary and slow, the next form might be traveling and ;erky, and low to the floor. $his
shift happens abruptly, a sudden switch. &hen 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, fantasi5e or think. 'retend you are nuts, mad, cra5y,
free to irrationally change your mind. 9e passionate, dramatic, ordinary, un%ordinary.
/irector, play with your timing. )ou can say -shift- rapidly, you can say -shift- slowly. 2et
the person stay in their material for longer periods.
&hen you have completed this exercise, have a chat with each other. /irector, tell the
actor how you experienced their range of feeling as well as action. &as there contrast< &as
the actor -connecting- to what they were doing<
Repeat this exercise, changing roles.
With Sound ) Movement
hange partners and repeat this se.uence, but now, shift with sound and movement.
#gain, have a discussion and reverse roles.
With Language
hange partners again and repeat the se.uence with verbal monologues, shifting both the
form =how the language articulates%timing, volume, sound .uality, pitch, etc.> and the content
=choice of words, sub;ect matter>. 0or now, don't concern yourself with movement. &hen
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 $ob is not to pull the actor out of
tough situations. Their $ob is to facilitate the @stretching@ of the actor, even if that means the
actor s-uirms uncomfortable. &-uirming is a good thing. As good as anything else.
Dnfortunately, a person can get lost in s-uirming. They lose their a#areness, their
outside eye, and don"t even kno# they"re s-uirming. They $udge s-uirming as @bad.@ Then
they experience pain, any kind of pain that goes along #ith @doing bad.@
'onverting s-uirming from a bad, uncomfortable thing into simply another thing takes
practice. A#areness has to be tuned. &ensations in all part of the mind and body need to be
noted #hat does s-uirming feel like9 7o# does it move9 +reathe9 (hat"s its timing,
tension9 (ith this a#areness, there"s no more s-uirming, $ut a particular condition that can"t
even be called anything. Dn%nameable yet kno#able.
&ay, @7o# are you9@ ,o# say, @7o# are you9 And listen to yourself. 'an you create a score
of the #ords #ith a line dra#ing9 If a line represents each #ord, #ould the melody and the
timing look like this, E ! E , or this, E E E E , or this ! E E 9 &ay, @7o# are you9@ #ith a
different meaning. (hat does the line look like no#9
The next time you talk on the telephone, have a pencil and paper ready to score the
sound of the language you hear. .istance yourself from the content so that you can listen to
the sound #ithout interpretation. The content of #ords often clouds a#areness, leaving the
listener some#hat deaf, dumb and blind. &core the language as you hear it. )ach #ord may
give a rise or a drop or a stutter.
*rom a -uiet mind and body comes control, comes a#areness. A -uiet mind is a good
listener. It"s free from impediments such as personal agendas, preferences, criticisms, ideas,
opinions and thinking ahead. Bust as a -uiet mind listens, listening -uiets the mind.
TW( *"/TW( D(WN
!'ve set two chairs out. $wo people sit in the chairs, and two other people stand up behind
them. $he rest of us will be audience. $he two people sitting on the chairs will initiate
material. $he two people standing up will echo =repeat>. /uring the course of the exercise,
the initiators can each offer up to three lines, a line being a sentence or a phrase. 1ach one
of these lines must be radically different from one another%the voice .uality, volume, pitch,
speed, content. Once initiated, the line can be repeated by the initiator as many times as
they want. !n addition, the initiators can choose to echo each other's lines. $he people
standing can only echo the lines that they've heard. $hey must echo them exactly. #ll of you
collaborate on the sound composition. 2isten to each other. 'lay off each other. )ou are a
Reverse roles. $he two sitting, stand. $he two standing sit.
7ere students focus on the sound patterns of their language. ,o fancy techni-ues is
needed. ,o perfected voice. ,o years of training. They have all the e-uipment they need
ears and #illingness. They interact like $a!! musicians composing a score from the sounds
of everyday language.
(hen #e #ere children, #e changed our minds on a dime. (e #ere experts on change
and great shifters. (e"d cry one minute and laugh the next. (e"d take seriously #hat #as or
#asn"t serious, and #e @listened@ #ithout distraction to anything that called our attention. (e
believed in #hat #e #ere doing. That"s #hat shift is all about.
Zaporah, Ruth, @A (ay To 3roceed,@ 'ontact +uarterl, , *all :FF:, pp. :G%:H. This article
follo#s one day in a typical Action Theater training.
a discussion with Barbara Dill!" Nanc! Star# S$ith and Ruth %a&orah
&n -ul,. /001. the Movement Studies "rogram of The Naropa &nstitute in $oulder. 'olorado. hosted a
series of seminars 2ith their summer facult,3 What follo2s is an e4cerpt from the panel discussion
2ith $ar%ara Dille, 5moderating6. and guest facult, Nanc, Star Smith and Ruth 7aporah3
$AR$ARA D&LL#8: I"d like to #elcome both these ladies, #ho have taught here at ,aropa beforeA ,ancy
for many years and Ruth for the third time. I #ould like to ask them about the relationship bet#een
improvisation and performance.
NAN'8 STAR9 SM&T!: Ruth and I had a really interesting discussion after our performance last year. (e
reali!ed #e didn"t have the same assumptions about #hat it meant to improvise in performance. I think it
had something to do #ith autonomy, #ith the choices that you make as an improvisor in performance, and it
had to do #ith physical contact. &imone *orti #as also in the performance and she"s familiar #ith contact
improvisation, but also #ith physical contact in general in performance. (e had talked about a fe# rules
#e #eren"t going to talk in the performance, and #e #eren"t going to get into physical contact, or #as it
contact improvisation9 (e immediately got into both. I don"t kno# it I can sum this up, but it had something
to do #ith the ability to continue to make your o#n choices #hen you improvise #ith others, and #hen you
make physical contact #ith someone, in #hat #ay are you directing them or making them have to play your
game. 7o# do you #ork #ith each other"s material9 (hen are going to far9 (hen are you making
decisions for your partner9 (hen are you boxing them in9 And #hen are you too distant9 (hen are you
$ust sort of not relating to each other9
$ar%ara: In the #ork I"ve been doing this summer I"ve thought a lot about this because I see it happening in
any kind of improvisational situation. (hat is the commitment that people believe they have to make as
soon as they establish a relationship #ith someone in an improvisational environment9 (hat do #e bring to
that commitment that is extraneous, conventional, social and personal history... all those things come up for
me. I think it really has to ve addressed because improvisational forms need to have a broader vocabulary.
*or instance, #hen there is a strong contact improvisation vocabulary among a group of students, that
tends to be #hat open improvisation becomes, because that is the most familiar vocabulary. I think there
are a lot of improvisational vocabularies and that there could be some goal of expanding the vocabularies.
Nanc,: Is an improvisational form a language9 7o# doe #e cross languages9 7o# do #e communicate
#ith each other #hen>if #e"re #orking in a different language9 Ruth9
R*T! 7A"(RA!: I think that if you"re improvising #ith another person you"re in a relationship. (hat
applies to improvisational relationship is the same as applies to any relationship, no matter #hat the form of
exchange is. I see that there is a common language that #e all struggle #ith. Any of us #ho have been in
relationship kno# the struggles and the challenges that relationship presents to us. And those same
challenges present themselves to me if I am improvising a performance #ith another person. There"s a kind
of relationship, that some of you might be familiar #ith, #here all the time that you"re together you"re talking
about your relationship. 8r there"s another kind of relationship that is like carpenters building a house. 7ere
they"re not arguing about #hat kind of nails to buy. Their focus is on building this house. It"s not about their
relationship. They"re past that place already. The kind of improvisation that I like, that I have preference to
do #ith other people, is #here it"s about building the house. It"s not about are #e gonna build it may #ay or
are #e gonna build it your #ay.
$ar%ara: +ut #ouldn"t you had to have sat do#n and talked about #hat kind of house you #anted to build
before you started to build it9 If you are taking about protocol of relationship and improvisation, there has to
be some kind of social form. Iou have to introduce one another and find out #hat you"re interested in and
try to articulate the kind of house you #ould like to build together.
Ruth: That can be. And sometimes you $ust #ing it and dive in. &ometimes I have dived in #ith people and
it"s like a castle gets built. It"s about our mind energies kind of cooking. And at other times it"s about us
never getting a house built because #e"re al#ays blocking each other, countering each other, pulling stuff
a#ay from each other, manipulating each other.
:oice: If you"re both hired on to make a house and Ruth is an experienced #ood carpenter and every
house ,ancy has ever made she built out of stone, then there is a language problem. Then you need to
move back out of boards and move back out of stones and $ust move into putting things togetherA letting go
of the language of boards and letting go of the language of stones and finding a more primitive level.
Ruth: 'ould you not build a house of stone and board9 There"s something under the stone and the board
#hich has to do #ith intention. If my intention is to be in control then I"m going to get stuck in the stone and
board routine. If my intention is to take #hatever resources are available in a positive and accepting #ay
#ithout resistance, control, or manipulation, then #hatever resources are available end up building this
cra!y kind of house.
$ar%ara: I think that you have to have some conversationJset up some rehearsal environment. (hat is the
common modality9 (hether it"s sitting%around%the%table%having%coffee rehearsal or #hether it"s actually
spending months mushing around in the space and getting to the most difficult places of your self%
consciousness or of your boredom or of your irritations, or #hatever, #ith the process, then moving beyond
that and having that as a basis for improvisational material.
Nanc,: the =rand Dnion dance>performance collective #as a great example of very different materials
coming to bear in a dance>theatre improvisational situation, #hich I en$oyed tremendously. In their #ork I
sa# a lot of @blocking@ and @countering@ going on. I think #hen you have those difficulties it does drive you
do#n into #hat is more fundamentalJK(hat is performance9 (hat are you doing9", rather than KIs this
improvised or isn"t this improvised".
:oice: .o you have a specific definition of improvisation9
Nanc,: There is a full spectrum. It isn"t one thing. )ven #hen you say Ktotally open improvisation", that"s
relative. I mean, you"ve got your tools, you"ve got your assumptions, and you"ve got your setup. There are
some people #ho might make an improvised piece that has some very specific guidelines they"re going to
#ork #ith this image for five minutes, then they"re going to shift to this, and then this person is going to
come in. They set up a structure of some kind, #hether it"s an idea, or a personnel structure of #ho"s going
to do #hat #ith #homA or #ho"s going to be #hereA and is there going to be music9 +esides that, they don"t
kno# ho# they are going to #ork, #hat"s going to happen. )verything bet#een really set movement to
utterly no plan. +ut you have all your history of your #ay of #orking. That"s a lot. I used to think that #hen I
#ent out to do contact improvision that I didn"t kno# #hat #as going to happen. (ell, I didn"t kno# #hat
dynamic #ould happenA I didn"t kno# #hat kind of relationship #ould happen. +ut there #as a lot I did kno#
that I didn"t even reali!e I kne#, that I #as assuming.
Zaporah, Ruth, @Improvisation in 3erformance,@ 'ontact +uarterl, , &ummer>*all :FF;, pp. L<% LH, a
discussion bet#een Ruth Zaporah, ,ancy &tark &mith and +arbara .illey. All masters in their o#n forms of
physical performance, these three share some ideas.
So$ Nots on Contnt
Fro$ an Action Theater trainin' in Roccatdri'hi" Ital!
$, Ruth 7aporah
I have taught close to fifty month%long trainings. 5aybe more. (ith each training I hope for insight, ne#
ideas, but more important, excitement. I"m not yet prepared to hang up my hat, but I #ill #hen I begin to
only repeat myself.
I"m intent on uncovering the keys to the machinery of improvisation. 7o# exactly does it #ork9 (hat
does it run on, #hat fuels it9 .o the concepts of efficiency, reality, authenticity apply9
In this #riting, I use the #ord @improvisation@ to refer to the form Action Theater. There are many forms
of improvisation. )ach is compromised of different re-uests and intentions, rules and re-uirement. Iet each
also is built upon the relationship bet#een a#areness, imagination and action.
This past Bune, I taught a month training in Roccatederighi, Italy. I #ill share #ith you some insights that
I had #hile #orking there. They"re not ne# idea. +ut the #ay I hold them no# takes me even more directly
into the intrigues of improvisation.
8n the t#elfth day of the training, I began to think about relationship. It seemed that the material of our
improvisations is nothing more than our relationship to the material of our minds, #hether that be
sensations, thoughts, fantasies or feelings. The task of the Action Theater performer is to express not $ust
actions alone but his or her relationship to the actions at the moment of discovery. This is true for all
actions%physical, speech or vocali!ation. 7o# is the performer experiencing the action at the time they are
doing it9 They communicate this information through the expression of their face, the tension in their body,
and the focus and energy emanating through their eyes.
7ere"s #hat I mean Assign yourself a simple gesture. 5aybe #ave your hand. 3ay attention to exactly
ho# you do this, because you #ill be repeating it over and over again in $ust that same #ay. ,o# each time
you repeat the gesture, shift the focus of your eyes, from do#n, to up, to side#ays, to diagonal. ,o#,
change the expression of your face, or the tension of your body each time. &ee ho# the meaning of the
action changes. It feels different, doesn"t it9 Ask a friend to do the same thing so that you can observe or
read the changes of content.
(e talk about actions as being @abstract@ or @concrete.@ Actions are a manifestation of the relationship
bet#een time, shape, space, dynamics and, or course, the body. An abstract actions illustrates only these
formal elements. A concrete action not only contains these elements, but also carries information about the
performer. Through the expression of feeling, emotion, image, or story #e are invited into their imagination.
The action itself does not define its abstractness or concreteness. This is determined by the auxiliary
information provided by the performer. Take, for example, the #ord @house.@ It can be abstract or
ambiguous if the performer does not bring meaning if the performer does not fill the entire actions #ith
content specific to the moment by, again, ho# they do it. Is the actor happy to be clapping9 &orry to be
clapping9 *eeling obliged to clap9
&ome performance modes rely primarily on form to state their case. 7ere, action%#hether it is dance or
the spoken #ord%is abstracted from sotry, dislodged from any identifiable context. (e can"t assign meaning
other than in formal terms time, space, shape, dynamics, composition, relationship.
Rituals are also an example. 7ere, the performer becomes subordinate to the act. It is the act itself that
carries meaning, either as symbol or metaphor. (hen I #ork #ith ne# students, their improvisations are
often ritualistic. Their faces are non%expressive and their actions lack detail and specificity. They appear to
be entranced by #hatever it is that they"re doing but I, the audience, am left out of their experience or inner
I noticed #hen I invited students to play #ith their relationship to action, they #ere more likely to
improvise #ith increased liveliness, focus and commitment. Their attention #as diverted from ho# they
#ere filling moments to ho# they #ere experiencing them.
The #ord @play@ is so overused that I hesitate to contribute to its thinning. Iet I can"t think of a better
#ord to describe my experience of improvising. *rivolity if often associated #ith play. As is childishness,
silliness, and inconse-uentiality. 7o#ever, I think play is the most apt description of #hat it feels like to be
(ith practice and insight, the improviser experiences the manifestations of their body and mind, i.e.,
sensation, thought , imaginings, feeling, memory and intuition, as separate from themselves. They"ve
gained the capability to distinguish the perceiver from themselves. They"ve gained the capacity to
distinguish the perceiver from #hat is being perceived. This releases them from all identifications. ,o# the
improviser has choice. They can either merge into the material or not. (hat a relief44 ,o longer is the
improviser held hostage by their story that habitual material that continues to surface year after year. They
are no# free to respond to all stimuli as they see fit. (ith this insight, one becomes both forgiving and
amused #ith the complexities on oneself%a self seen as a conglomeration of inherited and enculturated
patterns of perception and behavior. A complex system that $ust happened to come together as it did. 7o#
could one take hits so seriously9 7ence the #ord @play.@ The body and mind offer a treasure chest of
enticements that ask to be illuminated, danced #ith, sung, spoken and shared.
A responsibility comes #ith this advantage. &elf%a#areness leads to a collective orientation. (hat binds
us all together is the understanding that #e are all reeling from the identifications that #e constantly make
@This is #ho I am. That is #ho you are.@ As soon as I reali!e that the imaginings of my mind and my
observing self are not one and the same, then neither are yours. 7o# can #e do not feel comraderie for
one another #hen #e"re all #restling #ith illusion9
As improvisers, this understanding frees us up tremendously. (e can experience our bodies and minds
as musical instruments like pianos, or pu!!les, like intricately fitted aspects of the #hole of life. All to be
explored, toyed #ith, decorated, exposed, and #ith curiosity and practice, mastered.
An Action Theater improvisation has content. The improvisers unveil a story. ,o#, this story may be
odd, a nonlinear event, similar to a dream, that erupts from the imagination of the improvisers.
5astery occurs #hen the improviser, #ell%oriented in their body, also follo#s the content of the
improvisation, #hether that content is expressing itself through movement, speech or vocali!ation.
In the third #eek of the training, I began revie#ing content. In Action Theater, content plays a big partA
there is story to every moment of action. +ut #here does the story come from9
It seemed that there are four tracks of attention going on. 8ne track is sensory information entering by
#ay of sight, hearing, touch, kinesthesia, tasting. Another track is the improvisor's inner dialogue #hat
they"re thinking, feeling, imagining, saying to themselves. The third track is the collective narrative of the
improvisation the story that"s building, characters and events%the out#ard content. And the fourth is the
parameters of the container itself, in this case, the Action Theater form.
In Action Theater, the improviser must be a#are of and respond to all four tracks simultaneously. If any
one of these tracks becomes lost, the improvisation falls short and loses its liveliness. The improviser may
choose to emphasi!e one track, placing it in the foreground of experience, yet they must hold the other
tracks in their a#areness. This is no easy task. 8f course, in the doing, experience doesn"t
compartmentali!e like this. )verything happens simultaneously and affects everything else. 7o#ever, in
training, it is useful to separate these tracks for illumination.
I"ve al#ays emphasi!ed the need for clear form and the tactics of embodied action. +ut in Rocca, I
found myself not only introducing but reiterating content as a vital element of each moment of the
improvisation. In the past, I"ve not d#elled on content for fear of putting students in their heads, resulting in
cerebral and deadly creations.
'ontent is like the #eather. It al#ays is. It may be the fantasy story of the improvisation or the anxiety
story of the improviser. In any case, there is al#ays content and that content is evident to anybody
I convinced the students that their process 0thought and feelings about #hat they should or shouldn"t be
doing1 #hich, until then, they had mis$udged as privy to only them, #as visible, tangible, and, in fact, affects
the content of the composition. I noticed a stunning change. &tudents got that they #eren"t invisible. They
#ere in their bodies #hether they kne# it or not and no# they kne# it. They experienced themselves as
part of the content, part of the story, an integral part of the fantasy itself. The content of their personal
process must be ackno#ledged in the improvisation because it"s there any#ay.
The danger of course is that all improvisations #ill be about the improvisers themselves and ho# they
feel about improvising. ,othing is more uninteresting. &o #hat do #e do9
The content of thoughts, $udgments, and feelings can be vie#ed as fertili!er, material that nourishes the
images, characters and events of the improvisation. *or example, suppose during an improvisation I notice
that I am feeling anxious. I don"t feel a part of #hat"s going on. 5y partner"s actions seem unclear. I can
play #ith the feeling of anxiety and, for example, through language, build a narrative of, say, a #oman
confronted by many doors. &he kno#s one of them #ill lead her to a much a#aited engagement and the
others #ill only lead her to more doors, etc. 8r, through movement, anxiety can translate into energy and
fuel #ell%formed movement. The same is true #ith song or vocali!ation. This may shift the content of the
improvisation into a ne# direction, but improvisations can layer many different stories. The task is to
promote the improvisation rather than retard it. &urely that stuff of our minds is often all #e need for fertile
&o, I say to students, @*ollo# the content4@
Zaporah, Ruth, @,otes on'ontent,@ 'ontact +uarterl, , &ummer>*all. :FFM, pp. NG%N;. An examination on
the nature of content. @'ontent is like #eather. It al#ays is.@
(hat)s On M! Mind Now: Fra$s" *istnin'" and E+&rssion
Ruth %a&orah
I have been teaching Action Theater for t#enty%five years. I should say Action Theater has been teaching
me. A form of physical theater improvisation, Action Theater combines movement, vocali!ation, and speech
into integrated expression of the current moment. I began examining this approach in the early :FOGs
#hen, as an improvising dancer, I #anted 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 #ater #ith no sign of #ater any#here.
I suspected there #as a #ay to follo# speech similar to the #ay I #as follo#ing movement. 3roceeding
on this hunch, and #ith interested students and #eekly solo performances in my studio in +erkeley, I dove
into the murky and sometimes extraordinarily ha!ardous #aters of physical theater improvisation. @5urky@
in that every trial, every @/et"s try this,@ #as intuitive, a shot in the dark. @7a!ardous@ because humiliation,
embarrassment, shame, and terror became un#anted but ever%present partners in this dance.
I live #ithin a restless nature. Improvisation supports that nature in that it offers endless pu!!les to be
solved. As soon as I feel I @get@ something 0for example, speech is movement1, I have much more to figure
out 0ho# to move speech and then ho# to teach moving speech, and on and on1. &ince 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 -uestions, metaphysical in
nature. (ho am I9 (ho is improvising9 Is it my personality9 (hat is personality9 (hat"s not personality9
(hat is perception9 (ho is living9
I #as a philosophy student in college, and in :FHM I began an ongoing exploration and practice of
+uddhist mediation%at that time Zen, more recently .!ogchen. +oth practices%meditation and improvisation%
#ork on the mind, the former #ithout physical action, the latter #ith. +oth are about being open to the
present moment and #hat offers. +oth cultivate a -uiet, non%chattering mind, a mind of acceptance rather
than doubt and resistance. +oth cultivate a#areness as a #ay to step back from concept, leaving an open
perceptual field undiminished by immediate naming. (hat did I mean9 Iour 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 al#ays talking to each other, informing
and affecting the #ay I go about both.
(hen I"m improvising, I kno# #hat"s going on but I"m not thinking about it. There doesn"t seem to be
room for thought. +y thought I mean the activity of self%conscious @I.@ there is a#areness, and it seems
that"s all there is. 5y mind>body merges #ith action, and action merges #ith mind>body. The self%conscious
@I@ that analy!es, categori!es, distrusts, doubts, fears, envies, etc., and thus feels separate from
experience, disappears. Action is experienced #ithin as a felt%sense, a kno#ing that is not conceptual but
exists #ithout thought. The improvisation unfolds through my mind>body, using it and all that it kno#s, its
skills and limitation. It doesn"t feel as if ! am creating anything. Instead there is a#areness that is open and
#illing to be led by the event itself. This skill takes practice.
)very fe# years I submit an article to ontact ?uarterly. I notice that #hat 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 #rite about it, to see it clearly #ithin the light of #ords and ideas. 0rames, listening, and
expression are #hat"s on my mind no#.
An improviser follo#s action as it unfolds, each moment leading to the next #ithin the intent of the
improvisation. If I intend a movement improvisation confined to a chair, for example, I follo# moments of
action #hile 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.
(hat constitutes a moment9 (hat is the form of structure9 (hat is the content, story, or meaning9
This, of course, is determined by the improvisor"s perceptions. Action Theater improvisers, contact
improvisor"s perceptions. Action Theater improvisors, contact improvisers, $a!! vocalists, painters, and
poets all vie# moments differently because they have different priorities. +ut, there is an essential condition
hat is common to all moments%one unfolds into the nextA there is no stopping. Actions take place #ithin a
flo#, 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. 3roclivities, perceptions, and
interpretations are not separate from actions. The perceiver and #hat is perceived are the same.
'onse-uently, ho# an action is perceived has as many variables as there are improvisers. The
improvisors" hori!ons of a#areness combined #ith their areas of focus%#hether dance, music, or poetry%
determine #hich variables are dominant and #hich 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
movementA a painter may see color and shapeA a poet, metaphor and symbol.
*or 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. Bust as a frame surrounds a picture on a #all, distinguishing it
from anything else in the room, so an improvisational frame contains and describes the various elements of
the moment. The relationship bet#een these elements creates the content.
7ere are a couple of examples of frames
:. +ody stand still, fingers -uivering. )yes dart, #ith lips tight, speech high and clipped #ith long
pauses. ,arrative describes a baby"s birth.
;. /anguid, circular, and full%bodied movement around the space, #ith occasional pauses as eyes peer
intensely from side to side. +reath audible in a different rhythm than the steps. .uring pause in movement,
the breath becomes slightly louder, fingers tighten together rendering the hands as paddles.
&o #hy frames9 *rames drive a#areness into more specificity. (hat could have been overlooked as
mundane becomes profound, gorgeous, or uni-ue. Action Theater training relentlessly asks improvisers to
notice #hat"s going on, to identify the frame or components of action. )very moment. ,ot through #ords,
not by talking about it or describing it, but $ust as a function of a#areness. 5any exercises re-uire
improvisers to commit themselves to a particular frame, to play #ithin its boundaries%to accept its limits, to
relax any resistance that might be expressed as restlessness or the need to understand or to move on, to
repeat, stop, or think. )ventually, perceiving experience as felt%sense becomes second nature, and
exercises are no longer necessary to channel attention. *rames come and go, beads on a chain of
continuous experience. The frames change spontaneously as the ob$ects of a#areness%#hat 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 #as #orking #ith advanced Action Theater students in Zurich. They kne# the Action Theater language
and tactics, creating neat, #ell%formed, and often interesting improvisations. The improvisations #eren"t
making them, taking them out on a limb, shaking them up, smoothing them out, leading them into surprising
I thought about my o#n $ourney #hen I"m improvising. (hat do I experience9 ,ot only the content of
the actions%the message of the movements or the meaning of the #ords%bu the underneath. (hat is that9
(hat is the source9 (hat is it that erupts into action and #hat do I do that allo#s me to be available to
It is difficult to talk about these things%the underneath, the source, the positioning of the mind>body that
causes availability%for the #ords on chooses are never -uite right, because the #ords are
conceptuali!ations of a nonconceptual experience. (ithin 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
kno#ing, and that kno#ing improvises a sho#.
7aving said that, here is an attempt at putting this nonconceptual experience into #ords
2isten8 2isten without listening to anything. 2isten to the sound of space. 2istening listens. &ithin the
sound of space, other sounds occur, gestures appear, images illuminate, and thoughts travel.
$he bird calls at the window. #t first there is no idea of -bird.- $hen in an instant the idea of bird comes
into mind. 0irst, it was ;ust a sound. $hen the name bird.
# gesture occurs in space. $he hand turns over or the eyes shift or a word is spoken. @ust that. $hen in
a flash ! assign meaning.
$he foot steps. @ust that. $o describe it to you, ! say the foot stepped. 9ut as the foot stepped, when it
was sleeping there was no thought( foot stepping. Only listening and not ;ust with the ears.
After some time of practice, a kind of spacious identifying occurs, #here the attention of the improviser
is not narro#ed by #hat happened, instead, happenings occur #ithin the a#areness of silence and space.
The improviser merges #ithin each happening and simultaneously rest #ithin the space that holds each
happening. This is not experienced as a split of attention. There is al#ays a sense of completely unified
moment%moment to moment. There is a magic to this.
(hat is magic9 (hen #e resist immediately naming experience, moments of action open, pointing
to#ard unkno#n 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 $ourneys #ithin vibrational fields, moving me on and on into some kind of animal
memory or maybe even plant or rock. (orking #ithin frames doesn"t inhibit this. A frame is like a boat%#e
sit in it to paddle but our attention is on the scenery.
(hile improvising, #e cannot help but be moved by the comings and goings of things. 8ur $ob is to
hitch a ride on the passing events by accepting and playing #ithin each moment as it becomes another. +ut
#ith time #e cannot help but also be moved by #hat doesn"t come and go the silent space #ithin #hich all
is held. That is the space of listening.
8ne 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. &ometimes they change their
expressions slo#ly, sometimes -uickly. ,o thought. ,o story. ,o emotions like sad, happy, angry, or
seductive are guiding them. Their instruction is to follo# the flesh of the face%to let sensations of the flesh
lead them through changes%to notice #hat is happening on a sensation level 0the chin is pulling do#n or the
lips are tight or the bro# is creasing1 and then go further in that direction until some other sensation
becomes noticeable and then follo# that. The trick is to allo# inner feelings to change along #ith the flesh,
to stay connected%to feel the congruence of the inner experience #ith the outer manifestation. 8ne is not
leading the other. +oth the face and feeling simultaneously ride #aves of evolving mind>body states.
(hy do #e practice facial flexibility9 The $ob of Action Theater improvisers is to manifest their moment%
to%moment experience%not $ust what they"re doing but how they are experiencing #hat they"re doing either
its meaning or ho# it feels or both. 5eaning and feeling may be t#o different things. *or example, I can lift
my shoulders in disgust%@disgust@ being the meaning. 8r the lift of the shoulders connect #ith a mind state
that has no name, that can"t be called anything, but has an energetic -uality to it 0light, dense, constricted,
open, aske#, dull, etc.1, and that -uality extends through my face and eyes.
Try this Raise your right hand and look directly ahead. Raise it again and shift your eyes 0not your
head1 to the right, no# do#n, no# up. ,o# directly ahead and raise one eyebro#. These little ad$ustments
may add or change the meaning of #hat might have been simply a physical action.
The facial changes are experienced as movement, as are those of the eyes, the arm, the foot. *acial
movement is an e-ual 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. )motions are #hat #e call
psycho%physical experiences that are the result of conceptual interpretations of past, current, future, or
imaginal events. *or example, something%an image, memory, current event%comes into our a#areness. (e
make a $udgment about it, consciously or unconsciously. It"s good. It"s bad. It"s mean, ugly, sublime, sexy.
Then our bodies react to the story #e"ve created, and as long as #e continue to fuel the story, our bodies
continue to fuel the story, our bodies continue to react. 8ur attention is on the story. It could go like this
! hear a piece of music. !t reminds me of my father who passed away last year. $hat was one of his
favorites. ! begin to long for my father, feel deserted, unprotected. $hat's where ! dwell%under the weighted
thoughts of being unprotected. ! think of all the ways !'m unprotected, vulnerable, etc. ! feel lonely, angry at
having to always fend for myself. 6ow !'m caught in a downward spiral of a pathetic story. 3y mood
changes, my body feels heavy, my perceptions are contracted. ! lie in bed in a state of gloomy inertia.
*eeling states may look like emotions but the improvisor"s relationship to the experience is -uite
different. There is no $udgment or evaluation, no thing is good or bad. *eeling states arise spontaneously
and linger until replaced by another. The shift from one feeling of state to another is determined by the
content and musicality of each moment of the improvisation, as sensed by the improviser. Dnlike emotions,
feelings states are unnameable. They can"t be called happy, sad, or lonely. The state of the mind and body
are congruent, intentional, and happen simultaneously, #hereas #ith an emotion, the condition of the body
is a response to the thoughts of the mind. In a sense, feelings ar passing fancies, #hether dark or light,
tense or relaxed, pretty or ugly. They appear only to be replaced by others. The improviser is free to play
#ithin a vast array of mind states.
In Action Theater, #e practice performing from a non%conceptual base. Dsing movement and sound, #e
improvise through feeling states and actions that are preverbal, that have no language or story supporting
them. Iet they are true, recogni!able, and content%ful.
/ater, #hen #e introduce language into our practice, #e remain rooted in the nonconceptual experience
of the moment. (e hear the sound and feel the passage of the #ord as it moves through our mouths.
Zaporah, Ruth, @(hat"s on my 5ind ,o#,@ 'ontact +uarterl, , (inter>&pring, ;GG;, pp. N:%NH. )ssays on
frames, listening and expression, three basic components of Action Theater improvisation.
Ps!ch Mts So$a:
Accssin' Crati,it! Throu'h Ruth %a&orah-s Action Thatr
b! Susanna Morrow" MFA" PhD

This article establishes #ction $heater pedagogy as a vital and uni-ue contribution to the field of
improvisational training. .eveloped by performer%pedagogue Ruth Zaporah during the :FOGs boom in
experimental performance in the &an *rancisco +ay area, and in continual refinement over the past LG
years, this interdisciplinary model bridges enables performers to become creators. *undamental to #ction
$heater pedagogy is embodied presence, a state of a#areness in #hich performers maintain conscious
contact #ith their somatic experience as they improvise. An examination of Zaporahs performance style,
renders an account of the aesthetic of #ction $heater, #hich 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. *acets from the historical context in #hich Zaporah developed are briefly identified. ?ey
features of #ction $heater pedagogy J the interdependent relationship bet#een form and content and the
practice of framing and shifting J are treated in depth to portray the originality and efficacy of this training.
Informed by intervie#s #ith Zaporah and her long%term students, as #ell as my practice of and research
into #ction $heater, this article concludes by positioning #ction $heater #ithin related performance
9e,2ords: improvisation, interdisciplinary performance, a#areness, physical theater, psychophysical
In ;GGO, I attended an hour%long solo performance in &anta *e, ,e# 5exico by the then seventy year
old Ruth Zaporah and #itnessed immediate poeisis in action #here her #ild imagination and precise
techni-ue rendered a cohesive, inventive and clear performance at speed % #ithout rehearsal. As she
traveled through a changing landscape #ithin herself J peopled by various characters, some pedestrian
and some primalA her sense of humor, use of space, timing, and composition surprised and delighted me.
Zaporah #as in the moment of creation, on the precipice of the unkno#n and fully committed to the present
Zaporahs techni-ue, #hich she has codified into the practice of PAction Theater,Q allo#s 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 $ourney that has
taken her to engagements throughout the Dnited &tates, )urope 0especially =ermany, )stonia, and Italy1,
Israel, 'hina and +osnia. &he also #rites about improvisation from a sub$ective perspective as a
performer>pedagogue. *rom the early :FMGs, ontact ?uarterly has featured her articles and intervie#sA
her performance reflection, P.ance a +ody (ith a 5ind of Its 8#n,Q has been anthologi!ed in $aken by
Surprise( # /ance !mprovisation Reader and 9eing. In :FFN she published #ction $heater( $he
!mprovisation of 'resence, a book of over :GG exercises and short essays that gives a sample outline of a
month%long intensive. In ;GGH she self%published #ction $heater( $he 3anual, a companion volume to her
book outlining advanced exercises and innovations in her theory and terminology. &he has been a
compelling force in the development of postmodern dance>theater improvisation especially on the (est
'oast of the Dnited &tatesA and has also given language to the connection bet#een body%based
improvisation and +uddhist meditation practice.
The principal venue for her evolution as a practitioner%pedagogue #as the &an *rancisco +ay Area
during the explosion of interdisciplinary performance in the :FOGsA like other members of that community
such as Anna 7alprin, 5angrove 0'ontact Improvisation1 and the =roto#ski%inspired +lake &treet
7a#keyes, Ruth Zaporah strove to erase the boundaries bet#een dance and theater and the hierarchy of
scripted or set #ork over improvisation. Through regular teaching and performing in solo and #ith other
collaborators from theater and dance, she learned to synergi!e movement, sound and speech into a
continuous creative flo#.
)mbodied presence is the cornerstone of Action Theater attention rooted to the present moment
through the tracking of sensory experience as it develops and changes. In her earliest experiments #ith
pure improvisation 0improvisation #ith no predetermined limits or prepared material10i1Zaporah had a
breakthrough #hen she reali!ed that staying a#are of physical sensations as they evolved in her moment%
to%moment experience freed her mind from the pressure of creating. Rather than Ptrying to come up #ith
something,Q con$oining her body and mind in present a#areness opened her to inspiration and allo#ed
content to form itself through the medium of her actions. (hen describing a solo performance she remarks,
Pthe dance had danced itselfQ 0:FFO, p. :<;1. *or Zaporah, automatic creativity is not a disembodied trance
state, but, instead, demands a heightened level of listening combined #ith the formal dexterity to render
impulse into action.
If embodied presence is the cornerstone of Action Theater, formal dexterity and the ability to PlistenQ to
oneself and ones 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 #ith 6ie#points
training, Zaporahs exercises deconstruct various elements of performance 0e.g., space, movement, facial
expression, voice, emotion, speech and relationships1 isolating them from one another, and thereby,
challenging practitioners to increase a#areness of themselves in performance and expand their expressive
palettes. &tudents first learn principles of form through movement by exploring a #ide variety of self%
generated PframesQ J a limited repertoire of formal choices fueled by a specific internal feeling state
0content1. As students PshiftQ from one frame to another, #ith 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 #ith their movement, and
finally progress to #hat Zaporah terms Pphysical narrativeQ human speech grounded in the sensory
experience of the body. Action Theater gives practitioners a grammar of performance to allo# the emotions,
stories or sensations they are experiencing to be clearly communicated to audiences and ensembles
through relevant formal choices. Bust as grammar assists #riters in making their meanings clear, choices in
timing, spatial orientation, speed, and other matters make performers internal experience intelligible.
.espite Zaporahs innovations as a physical theater improviser and her highly effective training model,
her #ork has been under%researched, eluding capture on the page by scholar%practitioners. This article
offers a preliminary glimpse into the #orld 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,
intervie#s #ith Zaporah and her long time students, as #ell as historical research into the development of
Action Theater, this essay seeks to identify key features of Ruth Zaporahs performance and pedagogy and
evaluate ho# these features enrich the field of dance>theater improvisation. The first section characteri!es
the aesthetics of Action Theater and the aims of training in this form. The historical context in #hich
Zaporah developed is then briefly considered. &alient features of the practice of Action Theater follo# #ith
tangible exercises and my sub$ective experience as a student. *inally, the essay concludes by positioning
Action Theater #ithin the context of contemporary performer training.
She &s What She Teaches: Aesthetics of Action Theater
(atching Ruth Zaporah in one of her performance pieces is like an
exercise in surreal meditation R...S The changes #ere mercurial, characters
flo#ing into one another imperceptibly R...S The language of the body and
that of the voice merge identities. The body movement has a literal,
narrative -ualityA #hereas the voice is an extension of the body"s moving
arts.@ 0Tucker, :FMO1
In an intervie# Benny &chaffer, long time student of Action Theater, remarked that Zaporah Pis the #ork
she teaches,Q characteri!ing the strong link bet#een her performances and her pedagogy 0;GGL, pers.
comm., M Buly1. As such, Tuckers revie# above reveals distinguishing traits of Zaporah as a performer and
hence Action Theater as a practice. Tucker attests to Zaporahs mastery of form J her ability to synergi!e
the actions of moving and speaking, bridging the disciplinary divide bet#een theater and dance. Zaporahs
proclivity for Pmercurial changesQ forms an integral part of Action Theater pedagogy as #ell. Zaporahs
ability to change herself J appearing as a ne# character, in a ne# environment, or simply playing #ithin a
ne# physical vocabulary J keeps her improvisations multi%layered and unexpected. As she shifts, the story
for the audience also changes, leaping abruptly into ne# imaginative terrain in the style of postmodern
montage. *or example, in the ;GGO performance I #itnessed, she embodied a teenager on the internet, a
#oman trying to choose bet#een living in a house or the $ungle, and a mysterious ghost%like PbeingQ mostly
expressed through sound, and numerous other identities. &ome of these characters, or in her terminology
Pframes,Q resurfaced at intervals in the performance, lending cohesion to the eventA ho#ever, her
performances never follo# a single narrative thread, and often her characters are some#hat alienated from
reality through eccentricities in their movement or speech. Tucker describes this performance as Pan
exercise in surreal meditationQ partially due to the dream%like shifting terrain of content, but perhaps also
because she recogni!ed the #ild shifts and turns of her o#n body>mind in Zaporahs !any performance.
There is a meditative aspect to Zaporahs performances as #ell as the training she created. In her vie#,
improvisation training is a form of active meditation, calling performance skills a Pvehicle through #hich #e
investigate ho# the mind #orksQ 0'ushman, :FF:1.
*irst and foremost, Action Theater is a performance practiceA ho#ever its evolution has been informed
by Zaporahs exploration and in-uiry into the nature of being through the study of )astern spiritual
practices, particularly +uddhism. Zaporah approaches improvisation as a laboratory for discovering
practical, embodied #ays of removing obstacles J primarily mental constructs J that veil the ability to
perceive reality directly and participate in creative flo#. It is this dialogue among performance, teaching and
a#areness practice that makes her contribution to theater remarkable. Action Theater is a set of tools and
also a method of in-uiry. As such, Action Theater not only attracts performers #ho #ish 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 bet#een improvisation and
spirituality, performance scholar .avid =ere remarks
Indeed, the rhetoric of magic runs throughout the discussion of
improvisation to theori!e about improvisation is to theori!e about
consciousness, and to theori!e about consciousness is to push the
boundaries of physical discourse to#ard consideration of the spirit, the
divine, the unfathomable, and the unimaginable 0=ere, ;GG< xiv1.
A 'limate for Free Spirits: 7aporah=s !istorical 'onte4t

+eginning as early at :FLN #ith the arrival of dancer>choreographer Anna 7alprin, the &an *rancisco +ay
Area became host to a distinct culture of performance that held values in conscious opposition to the
aesthetic tastes in ,e# Iork 'ity 0Ross, ;GGO p. HF1. *or many of the artists #ho relocated to the +ay Area
bet#een :FLN%:FOG, this area of America represented the freedom to create an arts scene Pfrom scratch%Q
one that represented the cultural ideals that #ould come to full flo#er in the :FHGs.
+y the end of the :FHGs a P(est 'oastQ style of performance had emerged. There #ere 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 A ;1 interdisciplinary collaboration J
especially dancers using language and actors using sound and movementA <1 interaction #ith political life
0including rituals and happenings1A and L1 a sense of humor and playfulness as opposed to the more
studied and serious reputation of ,e# Iork 'ity artists 0#rtists in 1xile, ;GGG1. +erkeley had become #hat
dance historian Banice Ross calls Pa climate for free spiritsQ 0:FMG1, or #hat Robert 7ur#itt characteri!es as
a seething and lively Photbed of experimental theaterQ 0:FFO1. Artists #ere not expected to cohere to a
single aestheticA and audiences #ere #illing to support artists even #hen they gave PbadQ performances,
generally appreciating risk%taking more than mastery.
(hen she moved from +altimore, 5aryland to +erkeley, 'alifornia in :FHF, Zaporah #alked into a
community ripe for experimentation not only in improvisational performance, but in performance training.
Dnlike traditional acting #hich emphasi!es the use of an external script and the donning of roles created by
an author, or traditional dance #hich teaches movement vocabulary, many community members #anted to
actuali!e themselves through creativity. Improvisation particularly appealed to these students because it
allo#ed them an avenue for spontaneous self expression. &oon after her arrival, Zaporah #as introduced to
dance improvisation by Al (under, a former instructor for Al#in ,ikolais in ,e# Iork 'ity. Though her
techni-ue bears little resemblance to (unders #ork, Zaporah credits him as her Pone and only
improvisation mentorQ 0:FFN, dedication1 because he recogni!ed her natural talent for improvisation,
encouraging her to develop her gifts.
In :FO:, (under and Zaporah, along #ith aerial dance pioneer Terry &endgraff, opened the +erkeley
.ance Theater =ymnasium, hosting classes, #orkshops and ongoing studio performances. Zaporah began
to teach and regularly perform improvisations, preferring to learn on her feet, developing according to her
o#n tastes rather than studying a specific techni-ue. &he asserts PI #as so dedicated to the discovery
process that I isolated myself from my dance and theater colleagues, not peeking outside of my laboratory,
not #anting to see #hat others #ere doingQ0:FFN p. xx1. Zaporahs desire to speak, an urge to break free
of the soundless gestures of dance, led her to theater. +y :FON, Zaporah considered herself a theater artist
rather than a dancer, coining the term PAction TheaterQ to describe her original pedagogy. In Zaporahs
vie#, theater, as opposed to dance, #as the medium for narrative, emotional expression, and character.
Though she collaborated #ith other dancers, the development of the aesthetic of Action Theater, #ith its
emphasis on rapid s#itching of characters, a combination of sound, movement and language, and pure
improvisation evolved through Zaporahs solo exploration and collaboration #ith theater artists.
7er most influential collaborator, #ith #hom she still performs today, #as +ob )rnst, member of the
Ber!ey =roto#ski influenced +lake &treet 7a#keyes.0ii1
'ollaborating #ith )rnst, a musician as #ell as an actor, compelled Zaporah to use her voice expressively.
At times in the studio, they #ould improvise only #ith sound, allo#ing a series of vocal sounds to develop
over long intervals of time or playing drums #ith one another to underscore a narrative. Returning to the
primordial -uality of sound elevated the composition of their improvisations making them structurally similar
to music and aesthetically layered. Zaporah and )rnst #ere able to bridge the divide bet#een their differing
backgrounds in theater and dance, creating as t#o artists rather than as an actor and a dancer. This
interdisciplinary #ay 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 #hat she herself has learned in LG years of performing. As Zaporah explains, PI self%examine #hat I
do #hen I perform... and I break it all up into exercises and scoresQ 0:FOH1. As opposed to directors #ho are
separated from the process of performing, Zaporah teaches from inside performance. &he leads her
students through doors she has opened in herself. +ecause her performances #ere improvised, there are
no scripts or scores that remainA ho#ever Action Theater endures as a vital relic of her participation in the
(est%'oast D.&. experimental arts movement.
"racticing Action Theater

I began my study of Action Theater in ;GG< as a 3h. student in Theater #ith a focus on pedagogy and
devising. I #as attracted to Zaporahs #ork because it purportedly bridged the art>life divide. 7aving earned
an 5*A in Acting and #orked professionally as both an actress and a dancer, I #as at a point in my career
#here performance skills, in and of themselves, #ere not my main impetus for training. Action Theater
excited me because it #ould force me to break a#ay from traditional scripted performance, and push me to
create #ork of my o#n #ith movement, sound and speech.
The multiple trainings I have attended #ith Zaporah since ;GG< have follo#ed roughly the same format,
though her teaching constantly evolves as she re%articulates principles and develops ne# exercises. A day
of training consists of ; sessions, a <%hour morning session follo#ed by a ;%hour afternoon session.
5orning sessions begin #ith 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. &tudents #ork alone and in ensemble,
using their bodies, voices or #ords according to the exercises demands. Afternoon sessions are devoted to
performance in #hich all students execute an improvisatory score in solo or small groups #ith their other
classmates serving as the audience 0a score in this context is a formal limitation of some sort, e.g. sitting in
chairs and only using voices1. The skills developed in the exercises are al#ays immediately applied to
performance because, in Zaporahs vie#, the pressures of performance provide the impetus for learning to
exteriori!e the fruits of inner exploration. Although one focus of Action Theater is to sensiti!e 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 -uipped, P$ust
because youre feeling something is not enough of a reason for me to be looking at itQ 0;GGN1.
8ne aspect of the theory underlying Action Theater pedagogy is the relationship bet#een form and
content. In Zaporahs vie#, 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. 0orm encompasses details of an actions executionTho# it is doneT#hereas content describes
the intention of an actionT#hy it is done both in terms of instrumental use and sub%textual motivation.
'ontent in Action Theater is a complex concept, but a provisional definition includes 0a1 a type of
experience, such as confusion, fear, or rageA b1 an action, such as dancing for an audience, putting on
clothes, or scrubbing a floorA or c1 a character, such as a #orn%out father, a neurotic hostess, or an excited
child. All actions should be motivated by a specific goal and enlivened by a human presence.0iii1
In several of her exercises for beginners, students play #ith the form of a familiar action, such as putting
on a sock, speeding it up, slo#ing it do#n, and changing its se-uence and timing, in order to Plook at a
common action in an uncommon #ayQ 0:FFN, p.;1. Zaporahs emphasis on form is rare for a theater artistA
actors trained in psychological realism tend to d#ell on motivations for actions rather than on the details of
an action itself. 7o#ever, because she came to theater through dance, Zaporahs formal mastery led her
investigation of forms relationship to content. &he developed a training that engenders a dialogue bet#een
these essentially inseparable aspects of action.
*ormal dexterity must become second nature to an improviser, a fluent skill, because in performance
there is no time to analy!e content or to experiment #ith form. Action Theater envisions the actor as creator
rather than as an interpreter. (hen #orking #ith set content, such as a scripted play, an actors #ork is to
bring the #ords, situations, and character to life. In Action Theater, the actor fleshes out the #orlds that are
being created in his or her psyche in the moment. 5any improvisational techni-ues use predetermined
characters, scenarios, themes or locales to serve as the starting point and container for the development of
content. +y contrast, Action Theater students Pstart fresh,Q perhaps contained by formal parameters such as
only using sound or movement, ho#ever the content remains completely open. &cenarios and characters
are not forbidden in Action TheaterA rather, they are one possibility among many. In describing ho# her
approach is different than scenario%based improvisation, Zaporah #rites, P/ifelike and non%lifelike situations
arise through physical explorations #ithin forms and frame#orksQ 0;GGH1.
Frames and Shifts
The Pforms and frame#orksQ of Action Theater function at the interstice bet#een formal structure and
enlivened content. The practice of Pframing and shiftingQ engenders a dynamic relationship bet#een form
and content, and thus constitutes the core of Action Theater pedagogy. In her manual, Zaporah defines her
use of the term PframeQ by explaining that
every moment of action is comprised of certain elementsTthe structure or
shape, timing, relationship to space, dynamic, and the state of mind
RcontentS that fuels the action. The composite of these elements in any
instant #ould be the frame. Bust as a frame surrounds a picture on a #all,
distinguishing it from anything else in the room, so an action frame contains
and describes the content of the current improvisational moment. 0p. :O%:M1
+y practicing framing, students identify particular elements of the action in #hich they are immersed
and then play #ithin those limitations, exhausting the compositional possibilities.0iv1
In her exercises, Zaporah distinguishes three types of frames 0a1 movement, 0b1 sound and movement,
and 0c1 physical narrative. A physical narrative is a frame that contains #ordsA Zaporah -ualifies the
narrative as PphysicalQ to remind students to pay attention to the form of the #ords 0e.g., the movement of
the mouth, cadence, and so on1 rather than only the story described by the #ords. &tudents play #ithin the
boundaries of a self%generated frame rather than immediately moving onto another action. They go in depth
#ith their experience, discovering the intricacies of #hat might have initially appeared to be a movement on
the #ay to something elseA for example, if a student #alks across the room to get a chair, the #alking is an
action, in and of itself, and not merely a scene shift. (hen a seemingly trivial action becomes a frame, the
student notices and plays #ith the formal components of her actionTin this case, #alkingA as she crosses
the room to get the chair, she might #alk in an irregular rhythm, take several steps for#ard and several
back#ard, or play #ith the force of her steps. In framing this action, the student also attends to the content
of the actionTho# the action makes her feel. The content may be only the somatic experience of #alking,
or it may arouse a feeling of excitement or trepidationA 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 ne# material is generated through the exploration of form.
To create a variety of frames, students practice Pshifting,Q a fairly straightfor#ard practice in #hich they
move from one frame into a ne# frame 0contrasting in form and content1, not gradually but immediately.
Although the concept is easy to understand, it is very difficult to practice. &hifting feels a#k#ard and
unnatural to many students, because either they become so immersed in a frame that they cannot shift out
of it -uickly or they do not allo# themselves to be saturated by their current frame because they kno# it is
only temporary. Zaporah, ho#ever, believes that shifting is as natural as childs play, stating that P#hen #e
#ere children, #e changed our minds on a dime. (e #ere experts on change and great shifters. (ed cry
one minute and laugh the next. RCS (e believed in #hat #e #ere doing, and #e dropped it #ithout a
thought if something else took our attention. Thats #hat shift is all aboutQ0:FFN, p. <O1. In the
maturation>sociali!ation process, most adults iron out their mood s#ings and develop the ability to block out
inner and outer stimuli to retain a single%pointed focus. Action Theater training #orks at undoing #hat
Zaporah vie#s as habits of repression, loosening and relaxing habitual behaviors and mental constructs to
replace the deadness of habit #ith conscious, embodied experience. &tudents learn to commit to an action
completely, and, simultaneously, be a#are of its context 0e.g., its shaping and the environment.1. They also
learn to maintain a focus that is flexible and responsive, regaining a sense of child%like play #hile engaging
their adult capacity for a#areness of self, others, and the environment.
3racticing frames and shifts strengthens performers agility in giving form to a #ide variety of contents.
*or example, in the exercise, Ptrading frames,Q students #ork in pairs, interrupting one another #ith
contrasting framesA parameters may dictate that partners only use one type of frame 0movement, sound
and movement, physical narrative1 or that they explore all three types. 5y partner and I stand in neutral 0a
state of alertness #ith the eyes moving1A my partner begins a movement frameA I notice, experience, and
then respond to his or her movement frame #ith a contrasting movement frame. Zaporahs most recent
teaching refrain, Pnotice, experience, respondQ 0intermediate ;GGM1 coaches actors to notice #hat their
partner is doing, and #hen the partner shifts frames, to experience these ne# actions inter%sub$ectively 0as
if the partners actions #ere the ones o#n1 and then respond from this absorbed state.
The opposite of Pnotice, experience, respondQ is to see something, ob$ectify it by attaching a name to it,
such as Pa temper tantrum,Q 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. *or example, if I label my partners action as a Ptemper tantrum,Q my response
#ill be limited to Pcompleting the sceneQ by becoming his teacher or parentA ho#ever, if I experience my
partners action from an embodied orientation, I #ill energetically absorb the force of his fists against the
ground, and the tension in his head and torso. As I connect to my partners actions as if they #ere mine, my
body leads me into the next frame. Rather than Pcompleting the scene,Q my response #ill add a ne#
dimension to the improvisation. The frame I create contrasts my partners frame in terms of form and
content. 3erhaps I stroke my hair, subtly shifting from side to side #hile singing a lullaby. To continue the
exercise, #hen I begin my frame, my partner pauses #ithin his frame, experiences this ne# frame, and
then interrupts my frame #ith a ne# contrasting frame. 8ver the course of the exercise, students endeavor
not to repeat movements, emotions, tones of voice, or characters. As students search their body>minds for
ne# #ays 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 ne# frames0v1
The Ptrading framesQ exercise is often follo#ed by Psolo shifts,Q #here students respond to their o#n
frames #ith contrasting frames. As students determine the limits of their frames, they interrupt themselves,
immediately shifting into a ne# frame #ithout pausing. The speed at #hich students must shift demands
that they move beyond conceptual thinking about contrast and #ork in an instinctual #ay. In my private
instruction #ith Zaporah 0;GGN1, I had an experience in Psolo shiftsQ that taught me ho# much possibility
and complexity exists #ithin a seemingly limited range. At one point in my improvisation, I shifted into a
frame defined by the follo#ing formal components. 5y body #as in a kneeling position, facing profile to the
audience, and my actions #ere comprised of slapping the floor #ith my hands, clapping, standing on my
knees, and t#isting my torso. Although I could shift in and out of frames at #ill, I played #ithin this frame for
almost :G minutes, and as I accepted the formal boundaries of the frame, I became a#are of a compelling
feeling state. It #as as if the action had its o#n development, a vitality produced by the interplay of form
and content. ,oticing and accepting the limits of this frame enabled me to find a ne# place in myself #here
I #as fully absorbed in my action, and completely committed, but #ithout any PideaQ about #hat I #as doing.
I #as not conceptually separate from my action, thinking about form, content, or contrast, as often happens
#hen learning a ne# skill setA instead, I #as in a moment of grace, #here these elements integrated
themselves, and I had a glimpse of the play and mystery that underlies Action Theater improvisation.
#m%odied Speech:
The experience in movement described above #as one of embodied presence, in #hich I #ent beyond
tracking the form of my action to #hat Zaporah calls Psaturation.Q A performer is saturated #hen she is not
only a#are 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 PIts not an easy thing, to become fully embodied, to allo# the body to inform
the content of every action. (e tend to narro# our focus onto the story and function of our actions, #hether
movement or speech. +y opening to the bodys experience, each moment becomes particular, unpredicted,
inspired and freshQ 0;GGH, p. <1.
8pening to the bodys experience informs every moment of Action Theater including speech. In
3hysical ,arratives, the language imagination collaborates #ith 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 bet#een the semantic and somatic. As Zaporah explains,
&o even in speech there is an unpredictability as the sensory experience of
speech rubs against the execution of the #ords and vice versa, creating an
unforeseen $ourney. +y allo#ing the physical experience of speech to
interact #ith the vocabulary itself, speech becomes a present experienceQ
0;GGH, p. ::%:;1.
&ome Action Theater exercises, although based in the body, restrict movement to allo# 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. (hen improvising narratives it is especially tempting for the mind to $ump ahead of the
bodys expression, mapping out a train of thought that the body then lumbers behind as if taking dictationA
as the performer moves out of relationship to the unkno#n, the audience #ill also become distanced from
the performance. In embodied presence, the performers imagination is engaged in the inchoate story and
at the same time, he allo#s the somatic experience of speaking to affect the content.
In ;GGN, I #orked #ith Zaporah privately. &he gave me an exercise #ith narratives in #hich she
provided a kind of gibberishTa string of sounds that resembled speechA I then began a narrative mimicking
the -ualities of her gibberish. In other #ords, the sound of the voice determined and preceded #hich #ords
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. (hen I #as able to stay embodied, my #ord choice #as much richer because I #as feeling the
#ords in my mouth and savoring the sensual experience of speech.
"ositioning Action Theater:

3ositioning Action Theater #ithin the broader improvisational movement brings Zaporahs model into
sharper focus and reveals the key elements that make her training uni-ue. Action Theater incorporates
elements of dance and theater and #as developed #ithin the post%modern dance movement in the Dnited
&tates. These artists came of age in the :FOGs primarily through their connection to the Budson .ance
Theater and shared a fascination #ith improvisation, chance procedures and montage. Improvisational
performance decentrali!ed the director>choreographer as the primary source of artistic vision, instead
allo#ing for ensemble creation that highlighted the individuality of each performer. As the barrier bet#een
performers and creators dissolved, disciplinary divides blurred as dancers began to speak and actors
engaged in physical theater.
The shift a#ay from the hierarchy of director>choreographer over performers necessitated a different
type of training emphasi!ing compositional a#areness and the ability to instinctually respond to impulses
from internal directives or ensemble members rather than promoting particular techni-ues and facility in
learning choreography. Reflecting upon peak performance experiences, such as effortlessly connecting to
creative flo# or responding spontaneously to a group impulse, allo#ed performers to identify constituent
components. These components then became the building blocks of improvisational training.
In esche#ing predetermined se-uences and imposed movement vocabularies, many post%modern
innovators including Ruth Zaporah instead concentrated on formal constraints that allo#ed for individual
responses even #hile encouraging compositional a#areness. Through explorative play #ithin frame#orks,
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 ob$ective of
training. Accessing this state of mind involved tuning into bodily sensation and energetic impulse and
moving beyond a limited sense of selfA these PskillsQ allo#ed performers to inhabit aspects of the human
experience that #ere suppressed in day to day life. The post%modern aesthetic movement in the Dnited
&tates seeded various trainings that have been in continual development from the :FOGs to the present. In
particular, 6ie#points training pioneered by 5ary 8verlie and &imone *ortis /ogomotion most closely
resemble Action Theater, and can therefore serve to position Zaporahs training #ithin a #ider context of
contemporary performance practices.
6ie#points training as adapted for theater by Anne +ogart and Tina /andau, shares pedagogical aims
#ith 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.
'oncerned #ith visual and physical clarity, as #ell as spontaneity, Action Theater and 6ie#points trainings
espouse a reciprocal relationship bet#een external formal precision and inner imaginative freedom. +oth
Zaporah and +ogart push actors to move beyond psychological realism, giving up $udgments about #hat
does and does not constitute Pnormal behavior.Q Through improvisation, practitioners seek to rediscover
elements of the human experience marginali!ed in daily lifeA this excavation yields more than improved
performance skills. /essons learned in the training open doors #ithin the mind>body of the practitioner
0+ogart U /andau ;GGN, p. :F1.
These t#o methods share common aims #ithin the process of training % creating ensemble, expanding
the expressive palette, and so on J but the end products in public performance differ. 6ie#points training
uses improvisation as a means to create scripted performances. As theater artists, +ogart and /andau
have found #ays to bridge the divide bet#een improvisation and composition, culling group explorations,
and shaping the material to then be presented as a consistent product. +y 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 intervie#, +arbara .illey, former member
of Budson 'hurch identified Zaporah as one of the fe# improvisers of her generation #ho 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
a#areness needed to repeat material, Action Theater practice encourages a creative state of presence on
#hich performers can rely.
In encouraging creativity, Action Theater practice invites students to access content in their exploration
of formsA in contrast, 6ie#points exercises focus primarily on forms, adding content later in the process of
composition. Zaporah consistently challenges students to access a living presence #ithin improvisational
exercisesA though formal parameters may dictate the range of choices #ithin a given score, students move
through and beyond these practical constraints to detect and embody the human>being alive #ithin 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 #ith the
same energy as the body and vice versa. In Zaporahs vie#, the eyes convey living presence. As in some
forms of traditional Asian theater, eye movements suggest characters and>or situationsA in Action Theater,
eyes function similarly and also inform the improviser about the character they are inhabiting in any given
Action Theater and 6ie#points training also differ in their approaches to language and sound.
'onsonant #ith Action Theater training, exercises in 6ocal 6ie#points have t#o principle aims, to :1 instill
an Pa#areness of pure sound separate from psychological or linguistic meaningAQ and ;1 Phighlight the
limitations of ones vocal range and subse-uently encourage more radical and dynamic vocal choicesQ
0+ogart U /andau ;GGN, p. :GN1. 7o#ever, 6ie#points training begins #ith scripted text, #hereas students
in Action Theater never engage #ith the #ritten #ord. (hile 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, #hile +ogart and /andau suggest addressing vocal #ork later in the process. *or
example, on the first day of Action Theater training, the morning session is often limited to movement onlyA
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 6ie#points, ?rista .enio remarked in
an intervie# that the vocal pedagogy of Action Theater is more elaborate and effective than that of 6ocal
6ie#points 0;GGN1.
Along #ith 6ie#points, &imone *ortis P/ogomotionQ shares similarities #ith Action Theater. *ortis
training appeals mainly to dancers #ho #ish to incorporate speech into their improvisations. /ike Zaporah,
*orti #as trained in dance and made certain discoveries about improvising speech as she related her
fluency #ith movement to her language imagination. As in Action Theater, students of /ogomotion learn to
connect to inner imagery through sensual grounding in the body, and intuitively flo# bet#een speaking and
moving as they improvise 0*orti ;GG<, p. H;1. As in Action Theater, exercises in /ogomotion apply both to
ensemble and solo performance. *urthermore, like Zaporah, *orti regularly performs improvisation in solo
and in small groups.
The philosophies of Action Theater and /ogomotion differ from one another on several key points,
primarily in relation to characters and personal material. (hile both trainings address the creation of
narratives, Action Theater emphasi!es much more the #ay #ords are spoken than /ogomotionA students
are challenged to enhance their vocal imagination by exploring diverse registers as #ell as rhythms of
speaking. In exploring voice, students discover distinct characters, #hereas in *ortis #ork, the language
seems to come from the individual performers themselves. *or example, /ogomotion narratives often
incorporate memories from the performers life made vivid through sensory details. In contrast, Zaporah
discourages the use of personal material partly because, in her vie#, if material belongs to a performer,
then it limits the extent to #hich 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 depersonali!ed. In a training intensive, she gave the example of a former student #ho found herself
#eeping during an improvisation. Rather than dissolving into this cathartic moment, she coached the
student to tune into the sound of #eeping and treat the component sounds as elements of a frame 0;GG<1.
7oning the ability to be fully invested in the moment of #eeping #hile at the same time a#are of its shaping
grounds performers in the present moment so that they do not regress into their past.
Though both Zaporah and *orti both perform improvisations, their method of preparation differs. In her
performances, &imone *orti establishes a Ppoint of departureQ as a predetermined inspiration for the
improvisation 07ermann ;GG<1. The various processes she uses to foment content J selecting random
#ords from the dictionary, ;G%minute timed #ritings, visits to natural environments, and so on J connect
improvisers to an inner #ell of sensations, memories and associations before they step onto the stage. In
contrast, Zaporah demands that students enter the performance space PemptyQ and give shape to impulses
that arise in the present moment, unconditioned by past experience. &peaking of her preparatory process,
Zaporah alludes to the difficulty of approaching each performance as if it is an empty canvas PI have
planned nothing and that has kept me very busyQ 0;GGN1.

P'all it magic or spirit or skill, as you #ish, but the spark that sets improvisation in motion comes on top of
committed labor. (ithout the fuel of training, the spark #ould have nothing to burn 0=ere ;GG<, xv1.Q
The practice of Action Theater provides a place to laborA to hone a#areness, 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. 'ultivating a total response change is an aesthetically uni-ue feature of
Action Theater training, and it is not arbitrary, utili!ed only for its efficacy in performer training. +eing
congruent #ith change is to be fully human and vibrantly alive. (hat might seem inhuman J a performer
rapidly shifting in and out of personae and universes % is actually -ualitatively and -uantitatively more
human. Zaporah asserts that Action Theater exercises Pdisturb the status -uoQ 0;GGH, p. L1 % by breaking
do#n patterns and forcing ne# types of coordinations. &tudents avail themselves not only to ne# #ays of
expressing, but also to undiscovered aspects of themselves and the human experience. The studio
becomes a liminal space that sparks transformations.
0i1The definition of Ppure improvisationQ is borro#ed from Improvisation scholars, 7a!el &mith and Roger
0ii1*ounding members of the +lake &treet 7a#keyes #ere originally part of the Io#a Theater /ab, #ere the
first Americans to adopt =roto#skis model proposed in To#ards a 3oor Theater, subscribing to extensive
and grueling performer training, a minimalist aesthetic #here the performer is fore grounded,
experimentation #ith simple musical instruments, and theater as a Pspiritual actQ 0(olford1.
0iii1P7umanQ is broadly construed in Zaporahs usage including primal and uncanny expressions.
0iv1Zaporahs most recent definition of frames is simpler and suggests that action has agency in forming
itself PRA frame isS a constellation of elements that are continually reorgani!ing themselvesQ 0intermediate
training ;GGM1.
0v1Though in this exercise, all frames must be ne# material, in performance scores, returning to previous
material 0from the improvisation1 is encouraged because it creates pattern and structure, making the
improvisation more coherent.
&usanna 5orro# 5*A, 3h., "s,che meets Soma. accessing creativit, through Ruth 7aporah>s
Action Theater.Theater. Dance and "erformance Training , vol ;, ;G::. An in depth #ell researched
article placing Action Theater in historical perspective along #ith a vie# into Zaporah"s process.
Nw Pr.or$anc: Action Thatr
b! Nanc! Bc#r
Ruth Zaporah is part of a rapidly gro#ing number of &an *rancisco +ay Area dancers #ho are
presenting improvisation as a performance mode. In the +erkeley community of #hich Zaporah is a
member, ideas #hose sources can be traced to )astern philosophies, physical disciplines, or the
humanistic psychology movement, are a part of the prevailing value system. Among those ideas #hich
have become shibboleths are proscriptions to @live in the moment@, or in the @here and no#@, @focus upon
process, not product@ and @become self%actuali!ed@. Zaporah"s Action Theater is one of the currently
flouring forms of improvisation that can be seen as an extension of these values into dance and theater
Action Theatre, according to its creator Ruth Zaporah, is a kind of @living publicly@.
+efore a performance, Zaporah provides herself #ith a fe# props, perhaps some alternate clothing,
maybe a radio or phonograph. &he #ill probably decide to decide the time into three or more segments, but
she #ill never employ script or director.
At an Action Theatre performance, audience members sit on the floor on t#o sides of Zaporah"s studio.
There is no stage, no curtain and only a very basic lighting system. (hen the audience enters Zaporah is,
typically, #alking around in the performance space, doing stretching exercises, arranging props, perhaps
chatting #ith someone. The demarcation bet#een her pre%performance activity and the beginning of the
performance itself is never distinct. &imilarly, the ending is undefined. After a number of se-uences
Zaporah suddenly bo#s, $oins the clapping, seats herself outside the studio and chats #ith the audience.
There is no backstage and no backstage mysti-ue.
Zaporah"s performances are intensifications and abstractions of her life experience. 7er intent is to
transform the memories and emotions that she experiences during a performance into material that is both
metaphoric and archetypal.
After attending a performance of Action Theatre, I asked Zaporah to retrace the association #hich led to
the contents of the evening. (hen she sat on a park bench and alluded to @little ones@ and @big ones@, I
gradually reali!ed she #as referring to little and big passers%by. Zaporah explained that #hen she #as a
child, she and her father #ould go to places such as the airport or a train station or a park bench and #ould
sit and @people #atch@. &he recalls these trips as adventures that #ere an important part of her theatrical
training. Zaporah also recalls dancing for her family every &unday night. In #hat she no# remembers as a
ritual, she al#ays appealed tor her father to @start her@ and he al#ays told her to begin by pushing her hair
aside #ith one hand and then the other. In the performance, #hen Zaporah found herself s#eeping her hair
to the sides #ith alternate hands, her response #as to intensify this gesture, transforming it into a dramatic
arm motion #hich gradually involved her #hole body.
The sight of a friend in the audience #ho #as giving Zaporah piano lessons, led her to the highly
charged command, @blacks and #hites, play them4@ and a recent compliment from another friend #ho told
Zaporah she had @class@ became transformed into an extended monologue on the class system. In this
se-uence, she portrayed the lo#er class as a midget, the upper class as a big fat lady and the middle class
as a middle%si!ed person. Zaporah amplified this humorous and graphic presentation of an abstract
concept by crouching, standing and getting up on the park bench. At one point, #hile standing on the
bench, she authoritatively ordered the middle class to @march in unison back#ards4@
Zaporah explained that a recent visit to a studio #ith #hite #alls, floor and ceiling, led her to play the
role of a helpless #aif, abandoned in a similar setting. After reali!ing that there #ere doors in this
unresponsive environment, 0they didn"t tell me there #ere doors@1, she stared blankly at the audience and
enlisted their corroboration of her bi!arre imagined memories @3eople came in and I #as covered #ith
money, remember that9 Then men came in and I #as covered #ith men, remember that9@
(hen I asked Zaporah ho# she evaluates #hat comes out in a performance she explained, @I attempt
to hit a transcendent space #here I can pull out all the stops and I"m not holding back. Also, I like to feel
that #hat I"ve done has been entertaining. If the performance #as successful, the audience #alks out and
feels high. In one #ay or another they #ere touched.@
Ruth Zaporah"s background is primarily in modern dance. &he traces the origins of her interest in
improvisation to :FHO #hen she #as hired by To#son &tate 'ollege in 5aryland to teach dance to drama
students. &he soon reali!ed that her students #ere interested in movement only as it related to theatrical
roles, so she developed improvisational exercises to help them. /ater she used improvisation as a
techni-ue for teaching dance students. At first her improvisation exercises focused upon the traditional
elements of dance time, space, shape and energy. 7o#ever, Zaporah valued those times #hen students"
responses #ould reveal something going on inside themselvesA she gradually developed exercises that
encouraged them to develop personal motivation for their movement and that allo#ed them to @sho# #ho
they #ere at that moment@. Today Zaporah sees her teaching and her performances as a form of @physical
Action Theatre is dependent upon the scope of Zaporah"s skills and personality. This fact is at the core
of both its limitations and strengths as a theatrical form. After having seen t#o or more performances of
Action Theatre, the personnae Zaporah is likely to reveal become predictable she #ill probably emerge, in
turn, as vacuous, seductive, timid and as @tough broad@. The success of Zaporah"s improvisations rests
upon the fact that she has a !any sense of humor, is a skilled dancer, and an actress #ith a protean face
and a very po#erful voice. (ithin moments she can appear beautiful or plain, blank or animated, very
young or very old, out of control or excessively controlled, authoritarian or meek. Although Zaporah"s usual
conversational tone is subdued, the sounds she makes in a performance are often astonishingly
expressive. &he manages to integrate disparate se-uences in a #ay that gives each performance a sense
of unity.
+ecker, ,ancy, @Action Theatre,@ Ne2 "erformance , 6olume :, ,o.;, :FMN. A description of Zaporah and
her #ork.
B! Ruth %a&orah
From the ver, %eginning, the beginning being fifteen to eighteen years ago, I reali!ed improvisation is a
hunt to find ease, comfort, and play. (e all kno# the misery of feeling lost, confused, or panicked, and I
sa# that improvisation #as fertile territory for exploring those feelings. That"s precisely #hat still best
excites ad fascinates me about the process. Improvisation is life in microcosm moment%to%moment
challenge of maintaining a mind of lively flo# and avoiding a mind of dullness and discomfort. Improvisation
presents the same intrigues, pitfalls, and re#ards.
8perating in the mind of lively flo# re-uire a shift of consciousness, an ob$ectivity of self and other.
Imagine looking in a mirror #ithout $udgment and #ithout #anting anything. /ook #ith curiosity at your face.
/ook at it not as it should be, but as it is. The #onder of it. If #e perceive our present experience clearly,
#ithout reference to past or future, likes or labels, each moment in our experience #ill resolve in the next
moment. That resolution is also a ne# moment, a beginning. This is Improvisation the lively flo#.
&ara and Ingeborg are collaborating to construct a narrative. They are improvising #ith a structure that
re-uires them to take turns adding a verbal segment to the narrative the other has $ust delivered. A #ays
into the exercise, I notice &ara is restless and having difficulty. I interrupt to ask her #hat is going on. &ara
says that she can"t relate to the @monster #ith red eyes and green feet@ that Ingeborg has $ust introduced. It
isn"t real for her. &ara is stuck in the past, in an old conception of a .isneyland monster. I suggest that she
accept Ingeborg"s monster 0material offered is al#ays a gift1 and give it a personal of her choice. &he can
create her o#n experience of monster 0or green feet1, personali!e it or develop it as metaphor. /ook in the
mirror #ithout $udgment.
/ast year a student, after being in #orkshop for three or four months, asked, @(hat is improvisation9 A
bag of tricks9@ &he #as referring to the skills and techni-ues she had been accumulating over the past
#eeks. Techni-ues of this nature
!mprovise action using movements, sounds, and language, randomly alternating these forms and yet
never doing more than one at a time.
$ell a story and through the expression of the story, display an emotional subtext that is different than
the content of the language.
These could be vie#ed as tricks. 8r they could be vie#ed as exercises to a#aken the endless
possibilities of spontaneous expression%free, idiosyncratic unpredictable, and authentic to the spirit of the
performer. A spontaneous mind #orks from an unencumbered perspective. To find this, in #orkshop, #e
look at experience. (e take it apart. (e look at experience. (e take it apart. (e look at our behavior, our
habits. (e take them apart. Then #e experiment #ith putting the parts back together in unfamiliar #ays,
#hich often feel a#k#ard. (e learn that #e can do this. (e are free to reconstruct our expression to reveal
our spontaneous inner selves. In the studio, #e practice consciously creating experience. Through this
practice 0not $ust by thinking or reading about it1, #e come to reali!e that #e are continually creating our
experience%in the studio and in the outside #orld.
A student in the middle of the room is surrounded by the other students, #ho are standing near the
#alls in a large circle. &lo#ly they approach the student in the center. As they move in, they speak in loud
voices, in #ords and tones that are angry, seductive, threatening, insulting. The student in the center is
instructed to only stand in the center, to #atch, to listen, and to breathe. The students approach closer and
closer, until they are right on top of the student in the center. Their voices are loud, their tones are cruel,
frightening, demonic. The student in the center practices &#$"!64.
&omething ne#, some ne# information comes into our consciousness. (e respond #ith thought,
feeling or action, or, most often #ith a combination of these. There can be a s#eet space bet#een the
information coming in and the response going out. In that space, #e can observe the moment. (e can see
it clearly even before #e feel the impulse to act. *or most of us, the impulse to act and even the nature of
the act are reflexive. 7abits. Touch a hot stove, pull our hand a#ay. =et a smile, feel liked. (e respond to
information in #ays that are familially or culturally prescribed, or in #ays #e created at one time in our lives
because that response #as useful for a particular situation. +ut no# is no#. And no#, in that s#eet
moment, #e can perceive #ith clarity and create our experience. (e can rest and #atch and choose our
response. (e can design our action. (e can make art.
3racticing improvisation reminds me of the potential in a simple act, and of the bravery I need to fully
execute it. In the process, a simple act becomes a #ork of #onder.
Zaporah, Ruth, @0,ot1 a +ag of Tricks,@ 'ontact +uarterl, , &pring>&ummer :FMO, pp. <H,<O. A look at ho#
a focus on can a#aken spontaneity.
Th Crati, S&irit: An Articl .ro$ 3o'a 4ournal"
S&t$br5Octobr 6776
Action Thatr
In the (arehouse &tudio in +erkeley, 'alifornia, performance artist Ruth Zaporah is teaching a group if
improvisational acting students to @create a catastrophe.@ (e"ve been #orking in small groups, letting
surreal, nonlinear scenes spontaneously unfold through movement, sound, and free%form language 0no
dialogue allo#ed1. Zaporah is gently poking fun at our efforts.
@Iou think #hat you"re doing is really special, someho#,@ she says. @Important. &acred even. Iou"re
afraid to dive off and shake the #hole thing up, especially #hen you don"t really kno# #hat you"re going to
To practice shaking things up, Zaporah instructs us to take turns creating catastrophesJradically
changing an unfolding scene by introducing material that bears absolutely no relationship to #hat has come
before. (hen someone in the group derails a scene in this #ay, the rest of the group must instantly
respond, letting go of #hat #e #ere doing, flo#ing seamlessly into the ne# 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 actingJand much more. @If I had to say I teach on thing, it #ould be a#areness,@ says
Zaporah. @I used to think I #as teaching performance skills. +ut in the last fe# years I"ve reali!ed that the
performance skills are really a vehicle through #hich #e investigate ho# the mind #orks. (e #ork on being
spontaneous, on breaking through and cracking up the #ay #e perceive our #orld.@
Zaporah turned to improvisation from a background in traditional dance because she #as interested in
investigating @ho# to bring the #hole person into performance. +ecause dance certainly didn"t do it. I
couldn"t even #atch dance performances, I thought they #ere so boring, I #asn"t seeing people, I #as
seeing highly skilled, highly trained physical machines.@
/ess than half of Zaporah"s students are interested in performing formally. The skills she teaches, she
claims, are e-ually applicable offstage and on stage. (hether #e"re in front of an audience, sitting at the
dinner table #ith our family, or lying alone in our bed, the basic components of our experience are the
@3erformance skills are a very valuable #ay of teaching a#areness, because you look at formal
elements like time, shape, and space, #hich are al#ays #ith you,@ she explains. @(hen people start looking
at their timing, for instanceJho# they respond in a moment%to%moment #ayJthey reali!e that life is $ust
change. ,othing ever stops, nothing ever ends, nothing eve starts, everything is $ust changing. &o the more
I"m #illing to go #ith the constant changing, the better I feel.@
The process is both terrifying and exhilarating, I discover as my group launches into the catastrophe
exercise. 5ore that anything I"ve ever done, it catapults me into the present momentA there"s no time to
think about #hat"s $ust happened or to plan for #hat"s about to happen, to criti-ue my performance or doubt
my ability. 8ur story line dissolves and reforms. 'onsensus reality shifts moment by moment as the
imaginary #orld #e"re collectively creating coalesces and breaks apart again and again. 8ne moment #e"re
rebelliously tearing off our clothes and tossing them into the cornerA a second later #e"re fashion models,
preening and prancing as #e put on each other"s discarded fineryA abruptly #e"re guilty children, scurrying
to pick up the mess before 5om #alks in the door.
8ne #oman begins dreamily reciting the names of colors @+lue, red, yello#, orange, banana,
stra#berry, apple. . .@ @*ruit salad9@ asks another member of the ensemble. A third $umps up eagerly @I"ll
have some4@ As the group clusters around to sample from her invisible bo#l, a man kneels at our feet to
take measurements, fro#ning thoughtfully. @6ery good,@ he says. @(ith a little more #ork, you"ll be $ust
#here you ought to be for your age group.@
/et go, Zaporah keeps reminding us. /et go. @(e take ourselves so seriously, then #e get attached to
being serious. The catastrophe exercise saysJyes, this is very serious, and then bang, it"s gone,@ she says.
@It"s not serious at all. ,othing is. And everything is.@
Danc: A Bod! with a Mind o. Its Own b! Ruth %a&orah
I am a physical performer of improvisation theater. As both actor and dancer I #eave images through
movement, language and vocali!ation. I enter the performing arena #ith no pre%arranged concepts. I begin
#ith a spontaneous action and then, step by step, build a scenario until the content is reali!ed and the
piece feels complete. (ithin 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 #hat happens.
The year #as :FOH. I #as performing in Ann Arbor. I had asked the presenters to create a set #ithin
#hich I #ould improvise. That evening, the set included a Raggedy Ann%like doll #hich #as lying on the
floor do#nstage center. )arly on the doll dre# my attention. I named her Alice. (ithin the first fifteen
minutes of the improvisation, Alice died. The remainder of the sho# focused on ho# others in her life
responded to her death.
As I #as bo#ing at the end of the sho# I noticed three #omen sitting on the floor near #here Alice had
been lying. (hile everyone else clapped, they #ere completely still. /ater, 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. +efore my performance, they had gone out to dinner together to honor her passing. A shock #ent
through my body and left me trembling. The territory of embodied improvisation that I had $ust visited had
implications beyond my comprehension. If I ere to continue, for my o#n safety, I must observe very closely.
(hen I refer to the body, I also refer to the mind, for the t#o are kno#n through one another, and are
inseparable. The body kno#s itself through the mind as the mind kno#s itself through the body. &ometimes
it is convenient to talk about the body and the mind as separate entities. (e can talk about taming or
disciplining the body, -uieting the mind, relaxing the body, focusing attention. +ut can you imagine doing
any of these things #ithout both body and mind9
I have been practicing physical improvisation for thirty years. 5y mind and body, their oneness, is the
instrument of my art. &ometimes my body seems to have a mind of its o#n. It fidgets, slumps and $erks
#hile my mental attention is else#here. And conversely, my mind, 0as #e all experience in meditation
practice1, fidgets, slumps and $erks #hile my body appears to be calm and still. (e talk about the mind and
body as if they #ere separate but, in fact, it"s our attention that"s split. Through improvisational practice,
a#areness expands to hold our entire self.
@Ruthy, dance for us.@ I"m L years old. At every family event, this invitation is spoken by some one. I
never decline. I am shy, buy #hen I dance I have a voice, I am seen. In the family, I am a .ancer.
&imultaneously, another and -uite different reali!ation #as bre#ing. At H, in :FL;, I began formal
.ance studies. Three afternoons and most of &aturday mornings of each and every #eek. I attended +allet
class. This regimen continued through 7igh &chool. +allet classes in those days #ere exceedingly
impersonal. The student #as seen only as a body. A student arrived, silently changed clothes in a grey and
metal locker room, careful not to let her ga!e turn to#ard another naked body, entered the glistening #hite
and mirrored ballet room, and #ithin the vacuum of her isolation, inched along to#ard 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 #rite this, it"s clear that those hours in ballet class #ere often a place of pure bodily experience.
Ies, there #ere times charged #ith $udgement, moments filled #ith confusion, self hatred, or pride. +ut
there #ere also stretches of non%restful, calm. I relaxed into the action itself, losing all sense of self, of Ruth,
of me.
.ance is silent. The lips are shut tight. The motion can be serene or violent. )ither #ay, there"s no
guarantee that because the body is filling every moment #ith action, the mind can"t also be filling every
e-uivalent moment #ith disembodied thought. *or me the thoughts #ere often about the action $udging,
evaluating or directing.
'an #e stop thoughts so that our body and mind are aligned into a singular happening9 I"m not sure #e
have to stop anything. (hat I remember is that I came upon a secret place of silence and I #as repeatedly
dra#n to it. ,either my family, friends or teachers guided or prepared me. At the time, I couldn"t have talked
about it either. It $ust seemed right. I #as continually dra#n to this place, more like space, and that space
became home.
.ance itself is thoughtless. It is its o#n event. It doesn"t follo# anything and it doesn"t lead any#here. It
is not about gain or absolution. .ance dances itself and is not at all tied to the conceptual #orld or even the
concept of dance.
Dntil my <Gs, I danced, danced and danced, took classes, created dances and taught both techni-ue
and improvisation. 8nly #hen dancing did I feel truly peaceful. I kne# my body and its capabilities and
danced #ithin my limitations. I remained focused on the actions themselves, and they al#ays offered cues
for further explorations. I remained relaxed and imagination thrived. I kne# that if I #as fascinated, so too
#ould be the audience. All of this kno#ledge integrated into my a#areness. A#areness danced.
Then, in the early KOGs, I became restless #ithin the confinement of silence. I felt handicapped. I #anted
to talk, to be heard, to explore @real@ life, grapple #ith its issues. I began to experiment #ith speech,
character, and vocali!ation of feeling. (restling #ith these forms for a very long time, I tripped over myself
continually, forcing analy!ing, and constructing. I #as determined to create meaningful content. All this led
to more separation, myself from myself. )ventually, ho#ever, I got a clueA I felt my mouth moving. 5y mind
had relaxed its hold on content. I had experienced speech and feeling as their o#n danceJmovements
arising and falling a#ay, 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 #ith a partner, each of our bodies becomes an extension of the other. I perceive her body as no
other than my o#nA her voice, my voiceA 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, s#eat, motion. I"m not alone in this. .ance 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.
+ob and I are improvising together on stage. The performance begins #ith both of us standing, playing
conga drums. (e chant. 5y voice is inside of his and his is inside of mine. (e #ail. I begin a narrative on
top of the clamorous beat. 5y voice and the sound of the drums rise, s#ell and recede together. I tell of a
#oman, sitting before the fire in her living room. &he feels the familiar cold #ind slipping in from under her
front door. &he"s tried to seal the space under the door many times, to no avail. The #ind continues to
torment her as it slams against her fragile body.
As these #ords escapes from my lips, I sense that I"m follo#ing a script that is #riting itself. )ach #ord
comes on its o#n, I discover it as i hear and feel it forming itself. The beats of +ob"s drum and the timing of
my #ords are riding on the same energy. )ven though #e"re not doing the same thing, our bodies have
Abruptly, as if #e #ere being directed, #e stop. +ob crosses the floor. 7e sees a river bet#een us and
is intent on crossing its ha!ardous #aters. I too see the river and share his distress. I reach out to him and
thro# him a line of a song #hich he repeats. I sing, he sings, again and again, until #e are both on the
same side of the river.
In the altered state and extraordinary space of performance, +ob is me and I am him. ,o boundaries
exist bet#een us. 7is river is T7) river, real and tangibleA his distress, mineA his safety, also mine.
*or many years, I struggled #ith the a#k#ard moments that follo# a performance. Audience members
#ould come backstage to offer their appreciation, to tell me ho# much they loved the piece of me. If the
performance had been a struggle for me, if I had been plagued by $udgements, I felt ashamed, as if I"d
pulled one over on them. 8r I felt overly exposed, the soft belly of my psyche hung out on the line of
If I had sailed through the sho# #ithout a disembodied thought, I #as still unable to receive their praise.
7ere they #ere talking to Ruth and yet, ever so vaguely, I suspected that it #asn"t Ruth they had #itnessed.
Ruth #asn"t there. Instead the dance had danced itself.
After years of practice in performance, I have learned to no longer identify #ith content as it arises. I
don"t kno# #here it comes from, certainly not al#ays from my personal experience. The episode of the
Raggedy Ann doll, Alice, begins to make sense. If the performer is truly riding the energy of the moment,
#ithout any ego interference, the audience recogni!es this dynamic and relaxes into it. The performance
becomes a collective experience, the audience and the performer meeting in a clear space.
I am leading a training in *reiburg, =ermany, Buly :FFN. It is the fourth of #hat is to be :G days of #ork.
The students are grappling #ith an improvisation score that focuses on relationship. (hether their partner
is pro$ecting an image through movement, vocali!ation or speech, they are to respond #ith a contrasting
form. *or 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 o#nJto
vie# their partner"s body and all its actions as extensions of their o#n body #ith no sense of separation.
They are to consider that one body, not t#o, 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. &tudents relax. They are -uicker to respond.
After#ard, they say this idea of no o#nership has helped them to vie# all action as having e-ual value.
@Ruthy, dance for us.@ The dancing that began #ith a child"s need to be seen became, over the years, a
release from the separate self.
5ovement, speech, action. It"s all dance emanating from the inside out, one movement nourishing the
next, uncoiling itself.
Iou reach your hand out.
7and reaches,
,o hand.
'ushman, Anne, @The &pirit of 'reativity,@ 8oga -ournal , &eptember>8ctober :FF:, pp. NG% NM,:G;%
:G<. A description of Zaporah and her #ork as an expression of spirit.