Ruth Zaporah is part of a rapidly growing number of San Francisco Bay Area dancers who are presenting improvisation as a performance mode. In the Berkeley community of which Zaporah is a member, ideas whose sources can be traced to Eastern philosophies, physical disciplines, or the humanistic psychology movement, are a part of the prevailing value system. Among those ideas which have become shibboleths are proscriptions to "live in the moment", or in the "here and now", "focus upon process, not product" and "become self-actualized". 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 performance.|
Action Theatre, according to its creator Ruth Zaporah, is a kind of "living publicly".
Before a performance, Zaporah provides herself with a few props, perhaps some alternate clothing, maybe a radio or phonograph. She will probably decide to decide the time into three or more segments, but she will never employ script or director.
At an Action Theatre performance, audience members sit on the floor on two sides of Zaporah's studio. There is no stage, no curtain and only a very basic lighting system. When the audience enters Zaporah is, typically, walking around in the performance space, doing stretching exercises, arranging props, perhaps chatting with someone. The demarcation between her pre-performance activity and the beginning of the performance itself is never distinct. Similarly, the ending is undefined. After a number of sequences Zaporah suddenly bows, joins the clapping, seats herself outside the studio and chats with the audience. There is no backstage and no backstage mystique.
Zaporah's performances are intensifications and abstractions of her life experience. Her 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 which led to the contents of the evening. When she sat on a park bench and alluded to "little ones" and "big ones", I gradually realized she was referring to little and big passers-by. Zaporah explained that when she was a child, she and her father would go to places such as the airport or a train station or a park bench and would sit and "people watch". She recalls these trips as adventures that were an important part of her theatrical training. Zaporah also recalls dancing for her family every Sunday night. In what she now remembers as a ritual, she always appealed tor her father to "start her" and he always told her to begin by pushing her hair aside with one hand and then the other. In the performance, when Zaporah found herself sweeping her hair to the sides with alternate hands, her response was to intensify this gesture, transforming it into a dramatic arm motion which gradually involved her whole body.
The sight of a friend in the audience who was giving Zaporah piano lessons, led her to the highly charged command, "blacks and whites, play them!" and a recent compliment from another friend who told Zaporah she had "class" became transformed into an extended monologue on the class system. In this sequence, she portrayed the lower class as a midget, the upper class as a big fat lady and the middle class as a middle-sized 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, while standing on the bench, she authoritatively ordered the middle class to "march in unison backwards!"
Zaporah explained that a recent visit to a studio with white walls, floor and ceiling, led her to play the role of a helpless waif, abandoned in a similar setting. After realizing that there were doors in this unresponsive environment, (they didn't tell me there were doors"), she stared blankly at the audience and enlisted their corroboration of her bizarre imagined memories: "People came in and I was covered with money, remember that? Then men came in and I was covered with men, remember that?"
When I asked Zaporah how she evaluates what comes out in a performance she explained, "I attempt to hit a transcendent space where I can pull out all the stops and I'm not holding back. Also, I like to feel that what I've done has been entertaining. If the performance was successful, the audience walks out and feels high. In one way or another they were touched."
Ruth Zaporah's background is primarily in modern dance. She traces the origins of her interest in improvisation to 1967 when she was hired by Towson State College in Maryland to teach dance to drama students. She soon realized that her students were interested in movement only as it related to theatrical roles, so she developed improvisational exercises to help them. Later she used improvisation as a technique for teaching dance students. At first her improvisation exercises focused upon the traditional elements of dance: time, space, shape and energy. However, Zaporah valued those times when students' responses would reveal something going on inside themselves; she gradually developed exercises that encouraged them to develop personal motivation for their movement and that allowed them to "show who they were at that moment". Today Zaporah sees her teaching and her performances as a form of "physical theater".
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 two or more performances of Action Theatre, the personnae Zaporah is likely to reveal become predictable: she will 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 zany sense of humor, is a skilled dancer, and an actress with a protean face and a very powerful voice. Within 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. She manages to integrate disparate sequences in a way that gives each performance a sense of unity.
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THE IMPROVISATION OF PRESENCE
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ACTION THEATER: The Practice
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