There are striking parallels between Ruth Zaporah’s Action Theater and Buddhism. Zaporah’s work demands moment-to-moment attention to our changing experiences without attachment to any one particular action. Teaching and performing improvisation for the past thirty years, she created Action Theater, based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Zaporah now takes her art to students and audiences worldwide and has described her approach in her book Action Theater: The Improvisation of Presence (North Atlantic Books, 1995).
After seeing her perform in San Francisco, this past summer I enrolled in her month-long training. I was thrilled and humbled. Her stunning ability to instantaneously express herself with original movements, sounds and/or language inspires me to expand my own range of expression. The repetitive movements of middle age that had characterized many of my gestures and actions cried out for variety. While most of us can get by with a limited language and movement vocabulary, Action Theater allows us to be more aware of, and go beyond, our habitual modes of expression and behavior.
Zaporah challenges her students to work with whatever others present to them. “Your partner is never wrong.” Accepting one’s experience alone and with others, whether unpleasant or pleasant, is a crucial part of improvisation. As Buddhism teaches, being with what arises is a noble lifelong practice.
Zaporah’s approach highlights life’s inevitable unpredictability. In Action Theater, again and again I discover the relief of entering the improvisation with fewer plans and expectations.
I was delighted to join Inquiring Mind editors Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker in the following interview with Ruth Zaporah, yet another improvisational event in the continuing action theater of life.
Mudita Nisker: How would you describe Action Theater? You must have a good answer by now.
Ruth Zaporah: Are you kidding? It’s only been thirty years. It takes longer than that, doesn’t it? Action Theater is a training in physical theater improvisation, which is a body-based form, as opposed to the more traditional improvisation forms which are situationally based. Over the years, I’ve been looking for a way to train myself and students who work with me to be immediate and to respond from an embodied, rather than from a mental, orientation. So I’ve put together this training, which I am continually putting together.
MN: Please say more about what you mean by an “embodied orientation”?
RZ: To be present, which is what improvisation is all about, you have to be living inside of your body. When your orientation is embodied, every moment of expression is a complete, not a divided, experience. For instance, as I speak to you right now, there is awareness of how these words are forming, what the mouth experience is, and also what I’m hearing, not just in this place where I am sitting, but moving out to include as much as my awareness can contain. At first a student might have difficulty being aware of her own physical experience and her surroundings at the same time. It’s simply too many balls to juggle at once. So in the training you learn to keep more balls up in the air, balls being aspects of awareness, which cannot help but include the body because that’s where we are located.
IM: Could you describe an exercise you might do which helps students become aware of their own bodies?
RZ: Often new students come in the first day of class, change their clothes and go out on the floor. Then they wait for me to tell them what’s going on. So sometimes the first thing I’ll say is, “What we’re going to do right now is you’re going to go back and put on all your clothes [laughter] and then take off your clothes again and come back out on the floor. But as you do that, you can never do it at a normal speed. Your speed has to be either very slow or fast or jerky.” Habitually, we fixate on the content of our actions. But by manipulating the speed of our actions (i.e., dressing or undressing), we draw the sensory experience into awareness. We inhabit the act. We are present.
IM: How might the awareness of the body impact a person’s experience in other ways?
RZ: Last night in one of my workshops, I asked the students to speak autobiographically. But that’s not all I asked them to do. As one person spoke another person would stand behind her, cueing her, saying, “Fast, slow,” so she had to speak either very fast or very slow. Or the person behind her would cue her, saying, “In, out,” so she had to talk like this [inhaling], or like that [exhaling]. So the form demanded that the students be grounded in body experience while performing the mental exercise of talking autobiographically.
In doing this exercise, a person can’t get attached to content, because she has this “body thing” she has to deal with. People want to say, “Leave me alone! I just want to tell my story!” That’s not permitted. My response is, “I will not leave you alone to get attached to that story.”
IM: Too bad they can’t take you home to keep on reminding them to deal with that “body thing!” How much practice does it take before people can bring this awareness out of the studio?
RZ: Every improvisation in the studio is a microcosm of every improvisation in daily life. And eventually it translates. You wake up in the morning, you do what you do, you go to sleep. All of it is an improvisation. Throughout that day you had an infinite number of choices as to how you wanted to play with all the information that was circling. When you are doing an improvisation in the studio—doing these extravagant modes of expression that we don’t do out in the world—the process is exactly the same as it is in day to day life.
Maybe you go home the day of your first class and you think, “That was interesting.” Then you revert to your old habits. It does takes practice, just like sitting on the zafu takes practice. But gradually, as a person goes through this training, he can become more choiceful.
IM: As I am talking to you, I recognize, “I’m gesturing with my right hand.” Do I think to myself, “Maybe I’ll gesture with the other hand; or maybe no hand”?
RZ: As long as you’re thinking about that, you’re split. In the beginning, we are constantly reminding ourselves to be aware because it’s so easy to become unconscious. But after a while, with continued practice, we are not thinking about it any more. We are just enjoying ourselves. We enjoy ourselves not only in pleasant situations but even in unpleasant situations because we don’t get caught in the story. We can play into the story if we want to, but we don’t have to if we don’t want to. We can view it from another angle. Action Theater is all about how we view things.
MN: As a psychotherapist, I’m fascinated with the emphasis that you put on form over content: on how the story gets told through bodily expression, rather than the content of the story.
RZ: We make the mistake of thinking that content exists. What exists is relationship. The dynamic and the energy is in the relationship to the content. I work with relationship to content through the Action Theater form which insists that you always stay in your body. Psychotherapy is a form. I would think good psychotherapists would always be calling the client’s attention to how the form expresses the content.
MN: Yes, for example, cognitive therapy focuses on how a person makes sense of whatever is going on: how they perceive it, what meaning they place on it.
RZ: Okay, so that’s form. If you pay attention to how they make sense of something, you see a pattern. And as soon as you see a pattern, you see form, because pattern is form.
IM: Give us another example of an exercise that calls attention to how a person is relating to the content.
RZ: You and I are sitting having a conversation. Each of us has a person acting as a director sitting behind us. Our directors whisper in our ears different words that describe emotions such as anger, jealousy, seductive, lust, sadness, depression. As we continue our conversation, we are instructed to constantly change the emotional value of our expression. For instance, you say to me, “Your house is lovely,” and my director cues me, “Enraged.” I have to interpret that statement so that it truly angers me. The word that my director says to me is going to color the way I view what my partner just said. I’ve got to interpret her statement in a way that propels me into the designated emotion. Here I have the opportunity to notice that what is pivotal in the conversation is the interpretation each of us brings to it.
Before students do an exercise, I lay out the ground rules. So in this exercise, they set their intention to be flexible in the way that they are going to interpret their partner’s statements. They maintain the intention; otherwise they won’t be able to continue the exercise. They are always balancing intention, awareness and action.
All the work we do with partners is about dealing with our reactions. In a class, you may not like the idea of working with a certain person. You find something creepy about that person; he’s too fat or too thin. You really want to work with those two other people because they’re skilled. So, of course, when I say, “Change partners,” you end up with that dreaded person. Well, that’s no different from finding yourself in a work or social situation with someone you disdain. You must deal with what’s in front of you right now and turn it into a positive experience for yourself.
MN: When I began to do improvisational work, I learned a lot about the challenge of staying in the present. I found that my mind would often go into planning. I’ve noticed this planning mind in meditation, too, getting ready for what I’m going to do next. What do you think it takes to let go of planning?
RZ: I don’t think you should think about letting go of anything. That whole idea of letting go is something I can never understand. When your curiosity becomes aroused, you naturally become attracted to something else. So you don’t let go of planning. Something eventually becomes much more interesting than planning. One thing that you could do with that planning mind is “’fess up” to it, bring the fact that you’re planning into the improvisation itself, rather than thinking it’s something you’re not supposed to be doing. Planning-type thoughts can be the seeds of your next image that then you fertilize with your imagination, using time and space and music and dance and voice and the microphone. You play with it.
IM: You bring your awareness to whatever is arising! “’Fessing up!” It’s Action Theater’s version of the mental noting we do in vipassana.
RZ: Yes. I use the form as a way to pull the students into now. Early on in trainings, I say that when you are a performer, what you want to project to your audience is your moment-to-moment inner experience. Are you listening? Are you looking? Thinking? Sensing? Worrying? Excited? Moment to moment, that’s what we express to our audience.
IM: So the difference between meditation and Action Theater is that in meditation students are aware of “now,” while in Action Theater students are expressing “now.”
RZ: Yes, and that’s a big difference! Not only are you aware of what’s going on, you are aware of how it’s coming out! You are what’s going on and you are what’s coming out.
IM: But isn’t that the leap you make every time you get up off your cushion? The minute I stand up from my cushion and interact with my neighbor, I’m in some way expressing to her. It’s a kind of performance.
RZ: Performance to me is a metaphor. All of the challenges that come up in performance are heightened versions of the challenges that come up in our day-to-day lives. The last hour of every Action Theater class is a performance. It doesn’t matter whether or not my students are headed toward becoming “performers.” For the first couple of hours everyone works simultaneously on the floor. In the last hour—one at a time, in pairs or in small groups—everyone performs! Performance addresses some of our most basic fears—of being seen, of being right, attractive, clever, and so on. We project these fears onto the audience. What a direct way to examine them! By repeatedly performing in front of each other, students relax into themselves, creating space to attend to and care for their actions. Eventually there is joy in the sharing.
MN: Let’s explore some of the resonances between Action Theater and Buddhism. I’ve heard you say that through doing Action Theater people stretch their capacity to experience different “I’s.”
RZ: We constantly practice different ways of being. And we realize that we can be just as legitimately involved in this personality as in that one. After a lot of practice shifting our personas, we see that our personal life, our story of what we think we are, is just another shift, just another form that we pick up. Unfortunately, we’re attached to it!
IM: Had you studied Buddhism before you developed Action Theater? Or did you make parallel discoveries on your own?
RZ: When I was seventeen my father gave me Autobiography of a Yogi to read. For a Jew of his generation, that was quite a remarkable thing for him to do. That got me going and I’ve been going ever since. I’ve always been trying to “figure it all out.” In college I was a philosophy major.
But I was always grounded in the body instead of words. Until my mid thirties, I pretty much didn’t talk. I suffered a lot with that. In the dance studio I found a space that offered me comfort and also release from myself and from the pain of ordinary existence. Through grade school and high school, whenever I was doing dance, physical work, that “place” always became home for me.
When I started getting interested in Eastern ideas, I never made the connection to what I was discovering with my body. My head was trying to figure out what my body already knew. At some point in my mid to late forties, I started to think, “Wait a minute. There’s something that I’m understanding philosophically that I’m already experiencing through movement and improvisation.”
I think the work that I’ve done in improvisation has been more [laughs] illuminating for me than any of my Buddhist practice. That could be because I’ve never been a truly devoted Buddhist student. I’ve done lots of reading and some sesshins. And there have been periods when I’ve sat daily by myself. But my practicing has really been in the studio doing this other form.
IM: In practicing vipassana, first you focus on your breath and the physical sensations as a way of stepping out of the personal story and beginning to become more integrated with the body. Then from that perspective, you begin to be able to see how the personal story happens somewhat independently of your willing it. And you start to have a different relationship to that story, because you are viewing it from a body-centered place. This seems to be what you are talking about in Action Theater.
RZ: Exactly. And, after a while, in practicing meditation, you don’t have to be dealing with your breath anymore, right? You can just be there. Meditation is not about counting your breaths; it’s not about scanning your body. It’s just about being there in the spaciousness of IT. The same is true of improvisation.
Action Theater is just like any other practice; it’s lifelong. But at some point there’s nothing to practice; your view and your knowledge has shifted in such a way that you can’t go back.
IM: I’m reminded of Tibetan dzogchen practice and some stages of Zen or vipassana where the emphasis is really on relaxing into naturalness. You aren’t trying to hold on to any object of awareness. The more relaxation there is, the deeper you are in the space.
RZ: I did practice once with a dzogchen teacher, and what he taught was very familiar to me. It was something I had never felt in my Jewish education or even in my previous Buddhist practice, for that matter. A Buddhist teacher would say, “Focus on your breath” or “Scan your body,” and I would think, “Well, that’s still creating an object. I’m still separated!” Then, a year or so ago, I did a dzogchen retreat with Tsokni Rinpoche. On the very first day that we were sitting, I thought to myself, “I know this place.” When I watched Tsokni just sitting there at the front of the room, he was not doing the whole “rigid thing.” Now, I’ve always appreciated the rigid thing, just like I appreciate the exercises in my training. But after a while, you can’t be stuck on that anymore. You have to give it up. You have to know that you were just practicing your scales. Now you can make the music, and not have to worry about scales or technique. First you’re seeing the nature of yourself, and then you’re just in nature or of nature….
IM: In relaxed natural awareness…
RZ: …where there is no separation between subject and object. When I’m improvising, subject and object don’t exist. I find the same place that I do when I sit. Maybe it’s a space more than place—a place of space. The body is not eliminated. Nothing is eliminated. It’s all contained in that big space. It’s like the background is extraordinarily slow even though the foreground can be popping up [snaps fingers] extraordinarily fast. If I get too spaced into this space, then I’m split. If I get too involved or attached or belief-ing, I’m also split. If I focus on my body, I’m split. If I focus on my mind, I’m split. When I get to this point, I can’t really talk about it.
In meditating I’m sitting still and in improvisation I’m heehawing all over the place. But the rest place, the place of space that’s supporting both of those physical experiences, is exactly the same.