Some Notes on Content
From an Action Theater training in Roccatederighi, Italy

By Ruth Zaporah

I have taught close to fifty month-long trainings. Maybe more. With each training I hope for insight, new ideas, but more important, excitement. I'm not yet prepared to hang up my hat, but I will when I begin to only repeat myself.
      I'm intent on uncovering the keys to the machinery of improvisation. How exactly does it work? What does it run on, what fuels it? Do the concepts of efficiency, reality, authenticity apply?
      In this writing, I use the word "improvisation" to refer to the form Action Theater. There are many forms of improvisation. Each is compromised of different requests and intentions, rules and requirement. Yet each also is built upon the relationship between awareness, imagination and action.
      This past June, I taught a month training in Roccatederighi, Italy. I will share with you some insights that I had while working there. They're not new idea. But the way I hold them now takes me even more directly into the intrigues of improvisation.
      On the twelfth 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, whether that be sensations, thoughts, fantasies or feelings. The task of the Action Theater performer is to express not just actions alone but his or her relationship to the actions at the moment of discovery. This is true for all actions-physical, speech or vocalization. How is the performer experiencing the action at the time they are doing it? They communicate this information through the expression of their face, the tension in their body, and the focus and energy emanating through their eyes.
      Here's what I mean: Assign yourself a simple gesture. Maybe wave your hand. Pay attention to exactly how you do this, because you will be repeating it over and over again in just that same way. Now each time you repeat the gesture, shift the focus of your eyes, from down, to up, to sideways, to diagonal. Now, change the expression of your face, or the tension of your body each time. See how the meaning of the action changes. It feels different, doesn't it? Ask a friend to do the same thing so that you can observe or read the changes of content.
      We talk about actions as being "abstract" or "concrete." Actions are a manifestation of the relationship between 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 we 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 word "house." It can be abstract or ambiguous if the performer does not bring meaning if the performer does not fill the entire actions with content specific to the moment by, again, how they do it. Is the actor happy to be clapping? Sorry to be clapping? Feeling obliged to clap?
      Some performance modes rely primarily on form to state their case. Here, action-whether it is dance or the spoken word-is abstracted from sotry, dislodged from any identifiable context. We can't assign meaning other than in formal terms: time, space, shape, dynamics, composition, relationship.
      Rituals are also an example. Here, the performer becomes subordinate to the act. It is the act itself that carries meaning, either as symbol or metaphor. When I work with new students, their improvisations are often ritualistic. Their faces are non-expressive and their actions lack detail and specificity. They appear to be entranced by whatever it is that they're doing but I, the audience, am left out of their experience or inner story.
      I noticed when I invited students to play with their relationship to action, they were more likely to improvise with increased liveliness, focus and commitment. Their attention was diverted from how they were filling moments to how they were experiencing them.
      The word "play" is so overused that I hesitate to contribute to its thinning. Yet I can't think of a better word to describe my experience of improvising. Frivolity if often associated with play. As is childishness, silliness, and inconsequentiality. However, I think play is the most apt description of what it feels like to be improvising.
      With 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 what is being perceived. This releases them from all identifications. Now the improviser has choice. They can either merge into the material or not. What a relief!! No longer is the improviser held hostage by their story: that habitual material that continues to surface year after year. They are now free to respond to all stimuli as they see fit. With this insight, one becomes both forgiving and amused with the complexities on oneself-a self seen as a conglomeration of inherited and enculturated patterns of perception and behavior. A complex system that just happened to come together as it did. How could one take hits so seriously? Hence the word "play." The body and mind offer a treasure chest of enticements that ask to be illuminated, danced with, sung, spoken and shared.
      A responsibility comes with this advantage. Self-awareness leads to a collective orientation. What binds us all together is the understanding that we are all reeling from the identifications that we constantly make: "This is who I am. That is who you are." As soon as I realize that the imaginings of my mind and my observing self are not one and the same, then neither are yours. How can we do not feel comraderie for one another when we're all wrestling with illusion?
      As improvisers, this understanding frees us up tremendously. We can experience our bodies and minds as musical instruments like pianos, or puzzles, like intricately fitted aspects of the whole of life. All to be explored, toyed with, decorated, exposed, and with curiosity and practice, mastered.
      An Action Theater improvisation has content. The improvisers unveil a story. Now, this story may be odd, a nonlinear event, similar to a dream, that erupts from the imagination of the improvisers.
      Mastery occurs when the improviser, well-oriented in their body, also follows the content of the improvisation, whether that content is expressing itself through movement, speech or vocalization.
      In the third week of the training, I began reviewing content. In Action Theater, content plays a big part; there is story to every moment of action. But where does the story come from?
      It seemed that there are four tracks of attention going on. One track is sensory information entering by way of sight, hearing, touch, kinesthesia, tasting. Another track is the improvisor's inner dialogue: what 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 outward 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 aware 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 emphasize one track, placing it in the foreground of experience, yet they must hold the other tracks in their awareness. This is no easy task. Of course, in the doing, experience doesn't compartmentalize like this. Everything happens simultaneously and affects everything else. However, in training, it is useful to separate these tracks for illumination.
      I've always emphasized the need for clear form and the tactics of embodied action. But 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 dwelled on content for fear of putting students in their heads, resulting in cerebral and deadly creations.
      Content is like the weather. It always is. It may be the fantasy story of the improvisation or the anxiety story of the improviser. In any case, there is always content and that content is evident to anybody watching.
      I convinced the students that their process (thought and feelings about what they should or shouldn't be doing) which, until then, they had misjudged as privy to only them, was visible, tangible, and, in fact, affects the content of the composition. I noticed a stunning change. Students got that they weren't invisible. They were in their bodies whether they knew it or not and now they knew 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 acknowledged in the improvisation because it's there anyway.
      The danger of course is that all improvisations will be about the improvisers themselves and how they feel about improvising. Nothing is more uninteresting. So what do we do?
      The content of thoughts, judgments, and feelings can be viewed as fertilizer, material that nourishes the images, characters and events of the improvisation. For example, suppose during an improvisation I notice that I am feeling anxious. I don't feel a part of what's going on. My partner's actions seem unclear. I can play with the feeling of anxiety and, for example, through language, build a narrative of, say, a woman confronted by many doors. She knows one of them will lead her to a much awaited engagement and the others will only lead her to more doors, etc. Or, through movement, anxiety can translate into energy and fuel well-formed movement. The same is true with song or vocalization. This may shift the content of the improvisation into a new direction, but improvisations can layer many different stories. The task is to promote the improvisation rather than retard it. Surely that stuff of our minds is often all we need for fertile imagery.
      So, I say to students, "Follow the content!"



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