(NOT) A BAG OF TRICKS
By Ruth Zaporah

From the very beginning, the beginning being fifteen to eighteen years ago, I realized improvisation is a hunt to find ease, comfort, and play. We all know the misery of feeling lost, confused, or panicked, and I saw that improvisation was fertile territory for exploring those feelings. That's precisely what still best excites ad fascinates me about the process. Improvisation is life in microcosm: moment-to-moment challenge of maintaining a mind of lively flow and avoiding a mind of dullness and discomfort. Improvisation presents the same intrigues, pitfalls, and rewards.
      Operating in the mind of lively flow require a shift of consciousness, an objectivity of self and other. Imagine looking in a mirror without judgment and without wanting anything. Look with curiosity at your face. Look at it not as it should be, but as it is. The wonder of it. If we perceive our present experience clearly, without reference to past or future, likes or labels, each moment in our experience will resolve in the next moment. That resolution is also a new moment, a beginning. This is Improvisation: the lively flow.
      Sara and Ingeborg are collaborating to construct a narrative. They are improvising with a structure that requires them to take turns adding a verbal segment to the narrative the other has just delivered. A ways into the exercise, I notice Sara is restless and having difficulty. I interrupt to ask her what is going on. Sara says that she can't relate to the "monster with red eyes and green feet" that Ingeborg has just introduced. It isn't real for her. Sara is stuck in the past, in an old conception of a Disneyland monster. I suggest that she accept Ingeborg's monster (material offered is always a gift) and give it a personal of her choice. She can create her own experience of monster (or green feet), personalize it or develop it as metaphor. Look in the mirror without judgment.
      Last year a student, after being in workshop for three or four months, asked, "What is improvisation? A bag of tricks?" She was referring to the skills and techniques she had been accumulating over the past weeks. Techniques of this nature:
      Improvise action using movements, sounds, and language, randomly alternating these forms and yet never doing more than one at a time.
Or
      Tell 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 viewed as tricks. Or they could be viewed as exercises to awaken the endless possibilities of spontaneous expression-free, idiosyncratic unpredictable, and authentic to the spirit of the performer. A spontaneous mind works from an unencumbered perspective. To find this, in workshop, we look at experience. We take it apart. We look at experience. We take it apart. We look at our behavior, our habits. We take them apart. Then we experiment with putting the parts back together in unfamiliar ways, which often feel awkward. We learn that we can do this. We are free to reconstruct our expression to reveal our spontaneous inner selves. In the studio, we practice consciously creating experience. Through this practice (not just by thinking or reading about it), we come to realize that we are continually creating our experience-in the studio and in the outside world.
      A student in the middle of the room is surrounded by the other students, who are standing near the walls in a large circle. Slowly they approach the student in the center. As they move in, they speak in loud voices, in words and tones that are angry, seductive, threatening, insulting. The student in the center is instructed to only stand in the center, to watch, 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 WATCHING.
      Something new, some new information comes into our consciousness. We respond with thought, feeling or action, or, most often with a combination of these. There can be a sweet space between the information coming in and the response going out. In that space, we can observe the moment. We can see it clearly even before we feel the impulse to act. For most of us, the impulse to act and even the nature of the act are reflexive. Habits. Touch a hot stove, pull our hand away. Get a smile, feel liked. We respond to information in ways that are familially or culturally prescribed, or in ways we created at one time in our lives because that response was useful for a particular situation. But now is now. And now, in that sweet moment, we can perceive with clarity and create our experience. We can rest and watch and choose our response. We can design our action. We can make art.
      Practicing 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 work of wonder.



Ruth Zaporah
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