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Theatre, Dance and Performance Training

ISSN: 1944-3927 (Print) 1944-3919 (Online) Journal homepage:

Psyche meets Soma: accessing creativity through
Ruth Zaporah's Action Theater

Susanna Morrow MFA, PhD

To cite this article: Susanna Morrow MFA, PhD (2011) Psyche meets Soma: accessing creativity
through Ruth Zaporah's Action Theater , Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, 2:1, 99-113,
DOI: 10.1080/19443927.2010.543987

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Published online: 14 Mar 2011.

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As she travelled through a changing landscape within herself – peopled by various characters. Zaporah was in the moment of creation. which she has codified into the practice of Action Theater. pedagogy is ‘embodied presence’. Dance and Performance Training ISSN 1944-3927 print/ISSN 1944-3919 online Ó 2011 Taylor & Francis http://www.2010. and improvise a performance that demands a deep connection to her imagination Theatre. and dream-like enactments of multiple aspects of human experience.informaworld. Fundamental to Action Theater. as well as the practice of and research into Action Theater. DOI: 10. on the precipice of the unknown and fully committed to the present moment. speech and sound. this interdisciplinary model enables performers to become creators. some pedestrian and some primal – her sense of humour. timing. a state of awareness in which performers maintain conscious contact with their somatic experience as they improvise. MFA. Dance and Performance Training. Developed by performer-pedagogue Ruth Zaporah during the 1970s’ boom in experimental performance in the San Francisco Bay area. An examination of Zaporah’s performance style renders an account of the aesthetic of Action Theater. Theatre. Zaporah’s technique. allows her to enter an empty performance space. this article concludes by positioning Action Theater within related performance practices.543987 . Keywords: improvisation. inventive and clear performance at speed and without rehearsal.1080/19443927. psychophysical training In 2007. abrupt changes in character and formal style. Vol. New Mexico by the then 70-year-old Ruth Zaporah and witnessed immediate poeisis in action – her wild imagination and precise technique rendered a cohesive. I attended an hour-long solo performance in Santa Fe. Informed by interviews with Zaporah and her long-term students. interdisciplinary performance. use of space. Key features of Action Theater pedagogy – the interdependent relationship between form and content and the practice of framing and shifting – are treated in depth to portray the originality and efficacy of this training. physical theatre. 2(1). Facets from the historical context in which Zaporah developed are briefly identified. 99–113 SOURCE Psyche meets Soma: accessing creativity through Ruth Zaporah’s Action Theater Downloaded by [University of California Davis] at 23:25 26 February 2016 Susanna Morrow. which favours the integration of movement. and composition surprised and delighted me. and in continual refinement over the past 40 years. PhD This article establishes Action Theater pedagogy as a vital and unique contribution to the field of improvisational training. awareness. often alone.

freed her mind from the pressure of creating. is the cornerstone of Action Theater. Zaporah’s exercises deconstruct various elements of performance (e. She has been a compelling force in the development of postmodern dance/ theatre improvisation especially on the West Coast of the United States. ‘Dance: a Body With a Mind of Its Own’. has been anthologised in Taken by Surprise: A Dance Improvisation Reader and Being (2003). As with Viewpoints training. ‘the dance had danced itself’ (1997. In 2006 she self-published Action Theater: the Manual. voice. Morrow and an immediate. like other members of that community such as Anna Halprin. ‘Embodied presence’. Students first . Action Theater practice hones performance skills through exploration. a book of over 100 exercises and short essays that gives a sample outline of a month-long intensive training. facial expression. speech and relationships). emotion. Contact Quarterly has featured her articles and interviews. When describing a solo performance she remarks. Israel. For Zaporah. attention rooted to the present moment through the tracking of sensory experience as it develops and changes. instead. China and Bosnia. demands a heightened level of listening combined with the formal dexterity to render impulse into action. formal dexterity and the ability to ‘listen’ to oneself and one’s acting partners form its structure. sound and speech into a continuous creative flow. In her earliest experiments with pure improvisation (improvisation with no predetermined limits or prepared 1. a journey that has taken her to engagements throughout the United States. conjoining her body and mind in present awareness opened Dean (1997).. Estonia and Italy). and has also given language to the connection between body-based improvisation and Buddhist meditation practice. her to inspiration and allowed content to form itself through the medium of her actions. Rather than ‘trying to come up Hazel Smith and Roger with something’. Through regular teaching and performing in solo and with other collaborators from theatre and dance. She also writes about improvisation from a subjective perspective as a performer/pedagogue. In 1995 she published Action Theater: The Improvisation of Presence. her performance reflection. lucid enactment of its stirrings that coheres as a composition. If ‘embodied presence’ is the cornerstone of Action Theater. isolating them from one another. a companion volume to her book Downloaded by [University of California Davis] at 23:25 26 February 2016 outlining advanced exercises and innovations in her theory and terminology. Europe (especially Germany. This skill has evolved over her 40-year career as an improvisational performer and teacher. space.g. she learned to synergise movement. The principal venue for her evolution as a practitioner-pedagogue was the San Francisco Bay Area during the explosion of interdisciplinary performance in the 1970s. movement. Mangrove (Contact Improvisation) and the Grotowski-inspired Blake Street Hawkeyes. 100 S. p. Since the early 1980s. and thereby challenging practitioners to increase awareness of themselves in performance and expand their expressive palettes. The definition of ‘pure material)1 Zaporah had a breakthrough when she realised that staying aware improvisation’ is of physical sensations as they evolved in her moment-to-moment experience borrowed from Improvisation scholars. As opposed to training models that teach a vocabulary of movements. Ruth Zaporah strove to erase the boundaries between dance and theatre and the hierarchy of scripted or set work over improvisation. automatic creativity is not a disembodied trance state but. 132).

This article offers a preliminary glimpse into the world of Action Theater through my body/mind as academic researcher and student of Action Theater over the past seven years. and other matters make Downloaded by [University of California Davis] at 23:25 26 February 2016 performers’ internal experience intelligible. interviews with Zaporah and her long time students. and finally progress to what Zaporah terms ‘physical narrative’: human speech grounded in the sensory experience of the body. they become more limber physically. with the aim of finding contrasts in both form and content. students incorporate vocal sound with their movement. and imaginatively. as well as historical research into the development of Action Theater. Salient features of the practice of Action Theater follow with tangible exercises. Informed by personal experiences in the training. choices in timing. eluding capture on the page by scholar-practitioners. Finally. Figure 1 Railyard performance. The first section characterises the aesthetics of Action Theater and the aims of training in this form. speed. Action Theater gives practitioners a grammar of performance to allow the emotions. this essay seeks to identify key features of Zaporah’s performance and pedagogy and evaluate how these features enrich the field of dance/theatre improvisation. . Theatre. After exploring movement frames principally in duets and small groups. spatial orientation. The historical context in which Zaporah developed is then briefly considered. emotionally. her work has been under-researched. Just as grammar assists writers in making their meanings clear. stories or sensations they are experiencing to be clearly communicated to audiences through relevant formal choices. Dance and Performance Training 101 SOURCE learn principles of form through movement by exploring a wide variety of self-generated ‘frames’ – a limited repertoire of formal choices fuelled by a specific internal feeling state (content). the essay concludes by positioning Action Theater within the context of contemporary performer training. Despite Zaporah’s innovations as a physical theatre improviser and her highly effective training model. As students ‘shift’ from one frame to another.

characters flowing into one another imperceptibly . Tucker attests Downloaded by [University of California Davis] at 23:25 26 February 2016 to Zaporah’s mastery of form – her ability to synergise the actions of moving and speaking. teaching and awareness practice that makes her contribution to theatre remarkable. remarked that Zaporah ‘is the work she teaches’. .. or simply playing within a new physical vocabulary – keeps her improvisations multi-layered and unexpected. As such. improvisation training is a form of active meditation. her performances never follow a single narrative thread. and numerous other identities. narrative quality. There is a meditative aspect to Zaporah’s performances as well as the training she created. long time student of Action Theater. For example. pers. The language of the body and that of the voice merge identities. performance scholar David Gere remarks: . Zaporah’s ability to change herself – appearing as a new character. Reflecting on the connection between improvisation and spirituality. she embodied a teenager on the internet. in the 2007 performance I witnessed. but perhaps also because she recognised the wild shifts and turns of her own body/mind in Zaporah’s zany performance. Zaporah approaches improvisation as a laboratory for discovering practical. . particularly Buddhism. . however. it also appeals to practitioners interested in gaining spiritual insight and enhancing their sense of possibility and play in everyday life. The changes were mercurial. 102 S. embodied ways of removing obstacles – primarily mental constructs – that veil the ability to perceive reality directly and participate in creative flow. resurfaced at intervals in the performance. she calls performance skills a ‘vehicle through which we investigate how the mind works’ (Cushman 1991). comm. . Action Theater is a performance practice. Some of these characters. or in her terminology ‘frames’. and often her characters are somewhat alienated from reality through eccentricities in their movement or speech. characterising the strong link between her performances and her pedagogy. lending cohesion to the event. (Tucker 1987) In an interview Jenny Schaffer (2004. bridging the disciplinary divide between theatre and dance. in a new environment. As such. Tucker describes this performance as ‘an exercise in surreal meditation’ partially due to the dream-like shifting terrain of content. 8 July). The body movement has a literal. Action Theater not only attracts performers who wish to gain improvisation skills. Marilyn Tucker’s review above reveals distinguishing traits of Zaporah as a performer and hence Action Theater as a practice. leaping abruptly into new imaginative terrain in the style of postmodern montage. Morrow She is what she teaches: aesthetics of Action Theater Watching Ruth Zaporah in one of her performance pieces is like an exercise in surreal meditation . a woman trying to choose between living in a house or the jungle. Zaporah’s proclivity for ‘mercurial changes’ forms an integral part of Action Theater pedagogy as well. In her view. the story for the audience also changes. whereas the voice is an extension of the body’s moving arts. First and foremost. It is this dialogue among performance. and a mysterious ghost-like ‘being’ mostly expressed through sound. however its evolution has been informed by Zaporah’s exploration and inquiry into the nature of being through the study of Eastern spiritual practices. Action Theater is a set of tools and also a method of inquiry. As she shifts.

p. opened the Berkeley Dance Theater Gymnasium. There were several outstanding features of this style: 1) an emphasis on life-reflecting rather than virtuosic performances that revealed the individual human more than exhibiting technical mastery. California in 1969. workshops and ongoing studio performances. Maryland to Berkeley. p. Zaporah walked into a community ripe for experimentation not only in improvisational performance. For many of the artists who relocated Downloaded by [University of California Davis] at 23:25 26 February 2016 to the Bay Area between 1945 and 1970. (Gere 2003. Zaporah began to teach and regularly perform improvisations. a former instructor for Alwin Nikolais in New York City. along with aerial dance pioneer Terry Sendgraff. encouraging her to develop her gifts. xiv) A climate for free spirits: Zaporah’s historical context Beginning as early at 1945 with the arrival of dancer/choreographer Anna Halprin. but in performance training. this area of America represented the freedom to create an arts scene ‘from scratch’. Unlike traditional acting which emphasises the use of an external script and the donning of roles created by an author. the San Francisco Bay Area became host to a distinct culture of performance that held values in conscious opposition to the aesthetic tastes in New York City (Ross 2007. Soon after her arrival. 3) interaction with political life (including rituals and happenings). and 4) a sense of humour and playfulness as opposed to the more studied and serious reputation of New York City artists (Artists in Exile 2000). 69). Though her technique bears little resemblance to Wunder’s work. Zaporah (1995. generally appreciating risk-taking more than mastery. a ‘West Coast’ style of performance had emerged. Dance and Performance Training 103 SOURCE Indeed. preferring to learn on her feet. and to theorize about consciousness is to push the boundaries of physical discourse toward consideration of the spirit. 2) interdisciplinary collaboration – especially dancers using language and actors using sound and movement. By the end of that decade. Theatre. or what Robert Hurwitt (1997) characterises as a seething and lively ‘hotbed of experimental theater’. the unfathomable. Berkeley had become what dance historian Janice Ross (1980. dedication) credits him as her ‘one and only improvisation mentor’ because he recognised her natural talent for improvisation. the divine. When she moved from Baltimore. and the unimaginable. many community members wanted to actualise themselves through creativity. and audiences were willing to support artists even when they gave ‘bad’ performances. developing according to her own tastes rather than studying a specific technique. Improvisation particularly appealed to these students because it allowed them an avenue for spontaneous self-expression. Wunder and Zaporah. the rhetoric of magic runs throughout the discussion of improvisation: to theorize about improvisation is to theorize about consciousness. Artists were not expected to cohere to a single aesthetic. p. or traditional dance which teaches movement vocabulary. She asserts: ‘I was so dedicated to the discovery process that I isolated myself . 52) calls ‘a climate for free spirits’. In 1971. Zaporah was introduced to dance improvisation by Al Wunder. hosting classes. one that represented the cultural ideals that would come to full flower in the 1960s.

Action Theater excited me because it would force me to break away from traditional scripted performance. . movement and language. making them structurally similar to subscribing to extensive and grueling performer music and aesthetically layered. a musician as well as an actor. and theater Theater enables students to learn what she herself has learned in 40 years of as a ‘spiritual act’ performing. Zaporah and Ernst were able to bridge the training. and push me to create work of my own with movement. member of the Jerzey Grotowski influenced Blake Street Downloaded by [University of California Davis] at 23:25 26 February 2016 2.2 Collaborating with Ernst. I was at a point in my career where performance skills. was the medium for narrative. an urge to break free of the soundless gestures of dance. . a three-hour morning session followed by a two- hour afternoon session. ‘I self-examine what I do when I (Wolford 2000). not wanting to see what others were doing’ (Zaporah 1995. and pure improvisation evolved through Zaporah’s solo exploration and collaboration with theatre artists. though her teaching constantly evolves as she re-articulates principles and develops new exercises. xx). was Bob Ernst. I was attracted to Zaporah’s work because it purported to bridge the art/life divide. At times in the studio they were originally part of the Iowa Theater Lab. Founding members of the Hawkeyes. with its emphasis on rapid switching of characters. creating as aesthetic where the two artists rather than as an actor and a dancer. Returning to the primordial quality of sound elevated Towards a Poor Theater. there are no scripts or scores that remain. allowing a series of vocal sounds to were the first Americans develop over long intervals of time or playing drums with one another to to adopt Grotowski’s model proposed in underscore a narrative. the development of the aesthetic of Action Theater. perform . Blake Street Hawkeyes compelled Zaporah to use her voice expressively. led her to theatre. theatre. Her most influential collaborator. Morrow from my dance and theater colleagues. In Zaporah’s view. Though she collaborated with other dancers. were not my main impetus for training. coining the term ‘Action Theater’ to describe her original pedagogy. a minimalist divide between their differing backgrounds in theatre and dance. a combination of sound. sound and speech. 104 S. Practising Action Theater I began my study of Action Theater in 2003 as a PhD student in Theater with a focus on pedagogy and devising. As Zaporah (1976) explains. This interdisciplinary way of performer is fore grounded. By 1975. experimentation with The overall vision behind the exercises that Zaporah teaches in Action simple musical instruments. Having earned an MFA in Acting and worked professionally as both an actress and a dancer. the composition of their improvisations. with whom she still performs today. p. performing became one of the aims of Action Theater training. however Action Theater endures as a vital relic of her participation in the West-Coast US experimental arts movement. Because her performances were improvised. in and of themselves. Zaporah teaches from inside performance. She leads her students through doors she has opened in herself. emotional expression and character. The multiple trainings I have attended with Zaporah since 2003 have followed roughly the same format. As opposed to directors who are separated from the process of performing. not peeking outside of my laboratory. and I break it all up into exercises and scores’. Morning sessions begin with a variety of exercises centred on honing a specific skill such as the expressive use of the eyes or . A day of training consists of two sessions. Zaporah considered herself a theatre artist rather than a dancer. and would improvise only with sound. as opposed to dance. Zaporah’s desire to speak.

‘just because you’re feeling something is not Downloaded by [University of California Davis] at 23:25 26 February 2016 enough of a reason for me to be looking at it’ (Morrow 2005). a familiar action. In Action Theater. By contrast.g. sitting in chairs and only using voices). all actions. and changing its sequence and timing. ‘Human’ is broadly by a human presence. such as a scripted play. however the content remains completely open. situations and character to life. or an excited child. Action Theater envisions the actor as creator rather than as an interpreter. such as putting on a sock. In one training I attended Zaporah quipped. All actions should be motivated by a specific goal and enlivened 3. scenarios. Many improvisational techniques use predetermined characters. speeding it up. such as a worn-out father. such as confusion. Scenarios and characters are not forbidden in Action Theater. or scrubbing a floor. themes or locales to serve as the starting point and container for the development of content. including movement. in order to ‘look at a common action in an uncommon way’ (Zaporah 1995. Form encompasses details of an action’s execution – how it is done – whereas content describes the intention of an action – why it is done in terms of both instrumental use and subtextual motivation. the pressures of performance provide the impetus for learning to exteriorise the fruits of inner exploration. and speech. putting on clothes. sound. slowing it down. The skills developed in the exercises are always immediately applied to performance because.3 construed in Zaporah’s In several of her exercises for beginners. but a provisional definition includes: a) a type of experience. such as dancing for an audience. a neurotic hostess. Zaporah’s emphasis on form is rare for a theatre artist. perhaps contained by formal parameters such as only using sound or movement. an actor’s work is to bring the words. In describing how her . Students work alone and in ensemble. using their bodies. they are one possibility among many. in Zaporah’s view. In Zaporah’s view. the actor fleshes out the worlds that are being created in his or her psyche in the moment. b) an action. One aspect of the theory underlying Action Theater pedagogy is the relationship between form and content. However. a fluent skill.2). the end goal of performance demands that expression be precise and compelling to the audience. rather. Action Theater students ‘start fresh’. or rage. Theatre. Afternoon sessions are devoted to performance in which all students execute an improvisatory score in solo or small groups with their other classmates serving as the audience (a score in this context is a formal limitation of some sort. Content in Action Theater is a complex concept. Although one focus of Action Theater is to sensitise the student to inner sensations and imagery as a resource for creativity. actors trained in psychological realism tend to dwell on motivations for actions rather than on the details of an action itself. She developed a training that engenders a dialogue between these essentially inseparable aspects of action. Dance and Performance Training 105 SOURCE the integration of movement and speech. fear. students play with the form of usage including primal and uncanny expressions. are comprised of form and content. such that their interplay determines the meaning of an action to an audience and/or acting partners. because in performance there is no time to analyse content or to experiment with form. When working with set content. p. or c) a character. because she came to theatre through dance. e. Formal dexterity must become second nature to an improviser. voices or words according to the exercise’s demands. Zaporah’s formal mastery led her investigation of content.

‘Lifelike and non-lifelike situations arise through physical explorations within forms and frameworks’. In her manual. Zaporah (2006. Morrow Downloaded by [University of California Davis] at 23:25 26 February 2016 Figure 2 A trio of performers. 106 S.g. relationship to space.4 action has agency in In her exercises. exhausting definition of frames is simpler and suggests that the compositional possibilities. so an action frame contains and describes the content of the current improvisational moment. timing. Zaporah qualifies the narrative as continually reorganizing ‘physical’ to remind students to pay attention to the form of the words (e. and so on) rather than only the story described by the words. 22) writes. 17–18) defines her use of the term ‘frame’ by explaining that: every moment of action is comprised of certain elements – the structure or shape. students identify particular elements of the action in 4. Frames and shifts The ‘forms and frameworks’ of Action Theater function at the interstice between formal structure and enlivened content. and c) physical narrative. Zaporah (2006. p. cadence. Just as a frame surrounds a picture on a wall. By practising framing. Students play within the boundaries of a . themselves’ (intermediate training 2008). A physical is] a constellation of elements that are narrative is a frame that contains words. distinguishing it from anything else in the room. Zaporah’s most recent which they are immersed and then play within those limitations.. the movement of the mouth. and thus constitutes the core of Action Theater pedagogy. The composite of these elements in any instant would be the frame. approach is different than scenario-based improvisation. b) sound and movement. pp. Zaporah distinguishes three types of frames: a) forming itself: ‘[A frame movement. dynamic. The practice of ‘framing and shifting’ engenders a dynamic relationship between form and content. and the state of mind [content] that fuels the action.

and the environment. framing a simple action enriches the improvisation. be aware of its context (e. Theatre. believes that shifting is as natural as child’s play.. loosening and relaxing habitual behaviours and mental constructs to replace the deadness of habit with conscious. To create a variety of frames. and we dropped it without a thought if something else took our attention. such as Downloaded by [University of California Davis] at 23:25 26 February 2016 the chair becoming a sleeping parent she attempts to sneak past. They also learn to maintain a focus that is flexible and responsive. In the maturation/socialisation process. if a student walks across the room to get a chair. and not merely a scene shift. p. . because either 1) they become so immersed in a frame that they cannot shift out of it quickly or 2) they do not allow themselves to be saturated by their current frame since they perceive it as only temporary. I notice. as she crosses the room to get the chair. for example. take several steps forward and several backward. For example. We were experts on change and great shifters. In framing this action. stating that: when we were children. discovering the intricacies of what might have initially appeared to be a movement on the way to something else. and. Although the concept is easy to understand. may generate a story of some kind. we changed our minds on a dime. The content may be only the somatic experience of walking. . They explore their experience in depth. it is very difficult to do. in and of itself. a fairly straightforward practice in which they move from one frame into a new frame (contrasting in form and content). because new material is generated through the exploration of form. walking. Practising frames and shifts strengthens performers’ agility in giving form to a wide variety of contents. 37). That’s what shift is all about. its shaping and the environment). Thus. physical narrative) or that they explore all three types. however.g. regaining a sense of child-like play while engaging their adult capacity for awareness of self. We’d cry one minute and laugh the next. or it may arouse a feeling of excitement or trepidation. most adults iron out their mood swings and develop the ability to block out inner and outer stimuli to retain a single-pointed focus. the walking is an action. Zaporah (1995. others. We believed in what we were doing. the student notices and plays with the formal components of her action – in this case. she might walk in an irregular rhythm. in turn. simultaneously. sound and movement. parameters may dictate that partners only use one type of frame (movement. interrupting one another with contrasting frames. and then respond to his or her movement frame with a contrasting movement frame. Action Theater training seeks to undo what Zaporah views as habits of repression. Shifting feels awkward and unnatural to many students. My partner and I stand in neutral (a state of alertness with the eyes moving). my partner begins a movement frame. or play with the force of her steps. embodied experience. students practise ‘shifting’. . When a seemingly trivial action becomes a frame. experience. the student also attends to the content of the action – how the action makes her feel. not gradually but immediately. . Students learn to commit to an action completely. that feeling. Dance and Performance Training 107 SOURCE self-generated frame rather than immediately moving on to another action. in the exercise ‘trading frames’ students work in pairs.

my body leads me into the next frame. or characters. The opposite of ‘notice. my response will be limited to ‘completing the scene’ by becoming his teacher or parent. I shifted into a frame defined by the following formal components. and completely committed. students endeavour not to repeat movements. experience. experience. my response will add a new dimension to the improvisation. Morrow Zaporah’s most recent teaching refrain. emotionally and physically. The frame I create contrasts my partner’s frame in terms of form and content. content. emotions. At one point in my improvisation. and my actions were comprised of slapping the floor with my hands. Rather than ‘completing the scene’. objectify it by attaching a name to it. they become more integrated mentally. As students previous material (from determine the limits of their frames. I will Downloaded by [University of California Davis] at 23:25 26 February 2016 energetically absorb the force of his fists against the ground. returning to students respond to their own frames with contrasting frames.5 frames must be new The trading frames exercise is often followed by ‘solo shifts’. The speed at which students must creates pattern and shift demands that they move beyond conceptual thinking about contrast and structure. Over the course of the exercise. respond’ is to see something. such as ‘a temper tantrum’. a vitality produced by the interplay of form and content. feeling minute movements and sensing subtle shifts in mental and emotional states 5. and twisting my torso. and as I accepted the formal boundaries of the frame. tones of voice. I was not conceptually separate from my action. Though in this exercise. Noticing and accepting the limits of this frame enabled me to find a new place in myself where I was fully absorbed in my action. instead. however. experience in solo shifts that taught me how much possibility and complexity exists within a seemingly limited range. To continue the exercise. I was in a moment of grace. and I had a glimpse of the play and mystery that underlies Action Theater improvisation. ‘notice. my partner pauses within his frame. they interrupt themselves. and then interrupts my frame with a new contrasting frame. subtly shifting from side to side while singing a lullaby. In my private instruction with Zaporah (2005). As I connect to my partner’s actions as if they were mine. if I experience my partner’s action from an embodied orientation. As students search their body/minds for new ways of being. 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. but without any ‘idea’ about what I was doing. if I label my partner’s action as a ‘temper tantrum’. as often happens when learning a new skill set. respond’ (Morrow 2008) coaches actors to notice what their partner is doing and. clapping. thinking about form. Although I could shift in and out of frames at will. all as clues for new frames. I had an coherent. It was as if the action had its own development. facing profile to the audience. Perhaps I stroke my hair. to experience these new actions inter- subjectively (as if the partner’s actions were one’s own) and then respond from this absorbed state. where these elements integrated themselves. and the tension in his head and torso. or contrast. My body was in a kneeling position. immediately the improvisation) is encouraged because it shifting into a new frame without pausing. 108 S. experiences this new frame. in performance scores. when the partner shifts frames. I played within this frame for almost 10 minutes. I became aware of a compelling feeling state. standing on my knees. making the improvisation more work instinctively. For example. . and respond based on previous experience. when I begin my frame. where material.

These artists came of age in the 1970s primarily through their connection to New York City’s Judson Dance Theater and shared a fascination with improvisation. Dance and Performance Training 109 SOURCE The experience in movement described above was one of embodied presence. disciplinary divides blurred as dancers began to speak and actors engaged in physical theatre. inspired and fresh. whether movement or speech. Zaporah (2006. to allow the body to inform the content of every action. to become fully embodied. Theatre. As the barrier between performers and creators dissolved. attune to ensemble members and connect to inspiration. Reflecting upon peak performance experiences. The post- modern aesthetic movement in the United States seeded various trainings . Improvisational performance decentralised the director/choreographer as the primary source of artistic vision. distinguishing it from our habitual tendency to use an action as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself: It’s not an easy thing. instead allowing for ensemble creation that highlighted the individuality of each performer. many post-modern innovators including Ruth Zaporah instead concentrated on formal constraints that allowed for individual responses even while encouraging compositional awareness. Accessing this state of mind involved tuning into bodily sensation and energetic impulse and moving beyond a limited sense of self. in which I went beyond tracking the form of my action to what Zaporah calls ‘saturation’. The shift away from the hierarchy of director/choreographer over performers necessitated a different type of training emphasising composi- tional awareness and the ability instinctively to respond to impulses from internal directives or ensemble members rather than promoting particular techniques and facility in learning choreography. chance procedures and montage. Through explorative play within frameworks. each moment becomes particular. 3) proclaims the benefits of embodied presence. We tend to narrow our focus onto the story and function of our actions. such as effortlessly connecting to creative flow or responding spontaneously to a group impulse. Downloaded by [University of California Davis] at 23:25 26 February 2016 Positioning Action Theater Positioning Action Theater within the broader improvisational movement brings Zaporah’s model into sharper focus and reveals the key elements that make her training unique. The focus needed to perform set material differed from that of improvisational performance to such an extent that the creative state of mind became an objective of training. A performer is saturated when she is not only aware of herself in action. but also gives herself over to the experience of its execution so that the embodied experience propels the improvisation into fresh territory. enlarge their perceptual fields. p. practitioners developed abilities to inhabit their senses. By opening to the body’s experience. unpredicted. these ‘skills’ allowed performers to inhabit aspects of the human experience that were suppressed in day to day life. In eschewing predetermined sequences and imposed movement vocabul- aries. Action Theater developed alongside the post-modern dance movement in the United States. These components then became the building blocks of improvisational training. allowed performers to identify constituent components.

In performance. In both types of training. identified Zaporah as one of the few improvisers of her generation who remained faithful to a purely spontaneous performance form throughout her career. in Action Theater. In particular. 110 S. Viewpoints training uses improvisation as a means to create scripted performances. By contrast. In encouraging creativity. in contrast. Barbara Dilley. As in some forms of traditional Asian theatre. This excavation yields more than improved performance skills – lessons learned in the training open doors within the mind/body of the practitioner (Bogart and Landau 2005. Rather than cultivating the awareness needed to repeat material. particularly eye movements. Viewpoints training pioneered by Mary Overlie and Simone Forti’s Logomotion most closely resemble Action Theater. eye movements suggest characters and/or situations. practitioners seek to rediscover elements of the human experience marginalised in daily life by pedestrian codes of behaviour. Action Theater practice encourages a creative state of presence on which performers can rely. Morrow that have been in continual development from the 1970s to the present. Action Theater and Viewpoints trainings espouse a reciprocal relationship between external formal precision and inner imaginative freedom. students gain compositional skills and expand their expressive palettes through exercises limiting their range of choices to one or more components of action. Viewpoints exercises focus primarily on forms. and so on – but the end products differ. Viewpoints training as adapted for theatre by Anne Bogart and Tina Landau (1995). and shaping the material to then be presented as a consistent product. the ability to repeat performances is never addressed. eyes function similarly and also inform the improviser about the character they are inhabiting in any given moment. Concerned with visual and physical clarity. As such. adding content later in the process of composition. as well as spontaneity. In the practice of Action Theater. These two methods share common aims within the process of training – creating ensemble. Zaporah consistently challenges students to access a living presence within improvisational exercises. students move through and beyond these practical constraints to detect and embody the human/being alive within their movements. p. former member of Judson Church. As theatre artists. culling group explorations. In a personal interview. Through improvisation. though formal parameters may dictate the range of choices within a given score. and can therefore serve to position Zaporah’s training within a wider context of contemporary performance practices. so that the face becomes filled with the same energy as the body and vice versa. students develop a plasticity in facial gestures. Action Theater training is steadfastly improvisational. Action Theater training consistently challenges students to face the fear of having nothing to do or say. Zaporah is often compared to a mime or post-modern vaudevillian because of her facial expressions and stylistic use of rhythm and timing. Bogart and Landau have found ways to bridge the divide between improvisation and composition. expanding the expressive palette. . giving up judgments about what does and does not constitute ‘normal behaviour’. Though Action Theater exercises can be used to generate material. Both Zaporah and Bogart push actors to move beyond Downloaded by [University of California Davis] at 23:25 26 February 2016 psychological realism. Action Theater practice invites students to access content in their exploration of forms. shares pedagogical aims with Action Theater. 19).

and intuitively flow between speaking and moving as they improvise (Forti 2003. whereas in Forti’s work. Rather than dissolving into this cathartic moment. In contrast. if material belongs to a performer. in Action Theater ensemble members often collectively develop narratives. the morning session is often limited to movement only. students of Logomotion learn to connect to inner imagery through sensual grounding in the body. then it limits the extent to which the material can be put into play within the improvisation. The philosophies of Action Theater and Logomotion differ from one another on several key points. Zaporah discourages the use of personal material partly because. Zaporah recommends that it be depersonalised. exercises in Vocal Viewpoints have two principal aims. To illustrate. Forti’s training appeals mainly to dancers who wish to incorporate speech into their improvisations. students are challenged to enhance their vocal imagination by exploring diverse registers as well as rhythms of speaking. the language seems to come from the individual performers themselves. Krista Denio remarked in an interview that the vocal pedagogy of Action Theater is more elaborate and effective than that of Vocal Viewpoints (2005). If personal material arises in an improvisation. while Bogart and Landau suggest addressing vocal work later in the process. 62). Consistent with Action Theater training. As in Action Theater. students discover distinct characters. While both trainings address the creation of narratives. primarily in relation to characters and personal material. students of Action Theater explore sound and movement in the initial phases of training. Like Zaporah. whereas students in Action Theater never engage with the written word. Logomotion narratives often incorporate memories from the performer’s life made vivid through sensory details. Thus her method supports the integration of movement. However. sound and language by incorporating these skills on each day of training. Zaporah introduces Downloaded by [University of California Davis] at 23:25 26 February 2016 scores focusing exclusively on vocal sound and/or language. Simone Forti’s Logomotion shares substantive similarities with Action Theater as well as revealing contrasts. on the first day of Action Theater training. in the afternoon. both trainings contain exercises that apply to both ensemble and solo work. Forti regularly performs improvisation in solo and in small groups and. Along with Viewpoints. In a training intensive. For example. in her view. While both trainings apply lessons learned in movement to the physical act of speaking. Forti was trained in dance and made certain discoveries about improvising speech as she related her fluency with movement to her language imagination. as such. An advanced practitioner in both Action Theater and Viewpoints. she coached the student to tune into the sound of weeping and treat the component sounds as elements of a . Like Zaporah. In exploring voice. 105). so that content belongs to no one performer. For example. 1) to instil an ‘awareness of pure sound separate from psychological or linguistic meaning’ and 2) to ‘highlight the limitations of one’s vocal range and subsequently encourage more radical and dynamic vocal choices’ (Bogart and Landau 2005. Viewpoints training begins with scripted text. she gave the example of a former student who found herself weeping during an improvisation. Theatre. Dance and Performance Training 111 SOURCE Action Theater and Viewpoints training also differ in their approaches to language and sound. p. Action Theater emphasises much more the way words are spoken than Logomotion. p.

the spark would have nothing to burn. Without the fuel of training. The various processes she uses to foment content – selecting random words from the dictionary. and it is not arbitrary. p. Zaporah (2005) alludes to the difficulty of approaching each performance as if it is an empty canvas: ‘I have planned nothing and that has kept me very busy’. 20-minute timed writings. performance skills and responsiveness in the context of imaginative play. Honing the ability to be fully invested in the moment of weeping while at the same time aware of its shaping grounds performers in the present moment so that they do not regress into their past. frame (Morrow 2003). (Gere 2003. Simone Forti establishes a ‘point of departure’ as a predetermined inspiration for the improvisation (Hermann 2003). memories and associations before they step onto the stage. In contrast. but the spark that sets improvisation in motion comes on top of committed labor. unconditioned by past experience. xv) The practice of Action Theater provides a place to labour and to hone awareness. utilised only for its efficacy in performer . their method of preparation differs. In her performances. The most basic exercises in Action Theater challenge students to expand their range of responses to change. visits to natural environments. Conclusion Call it magic or spirit or skill. Cultivating a total response change is an aesthetically unique feature of Action Theater training. and so on – connect improvisers to an inner well of sensations. Although both Zaporah and Forti perform improvisations. thus loosening the scar tissue of their egos and broadening the basis for creativity. Morrow Downloaded by [University of California Davis] at 23:25 26 February 2016 Figure 3 Ruth Zaporah in Raincoat. Zaporah demands that students enter the performance space ‘empty’ and give shape to impulses that arise in the present moment. as you wish. 112 S. Speaking of her preparatory process.

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