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Improvisation on a higher plane

SANTA FE, N.M. — Some 30 or 40 years ago, Ruth Zaporah was doing a show in Ann Arbor, Mich., in which a stage manager put out props that she had not seen in advance.

One was a big Raggedy Ann doll, which she picked up, called Alice and, in her improvisational, Action Theater style, proceeded to take through a death before she morphed into other characters trying to bring Alice back to life.

After the show, during a time she usually devotes to settling down from her work, she was told she really would want to see some audience members seeking her out.

“These four women were crying and hysterical,” Zaporah said. “A year ago to that day, their friend Alice had died. Before the show, they had had dinner in her memory.”

At the time, Zaporah said, she found the experience quite unsettling. But now, seated in her light-filled home on Santa Fe’s west side, she gave a peaceful smile after telling the story.

“This kind of thing happens all the time,” she added.

It’s a story the lithe, black-clad woman told in response to a request to describe the separate consciousness that she says takes over when she steps onstage and the lights come up.

“When it happened in Ann Arbor, I freaked out,” Zaporah said. “Now I think we have some way to share information if our minds are open and relaxed.”

Santa Feans will get a chance to see what she is talking about when she presents a performance, “Glimpse,” 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Railyard Performance Center. She will work in conjunction with Jeremy Bleich, a local musician who also composes and teaches, and Deborah Fort, a media artist and associate professor in the cinematic arts department at the University of New Mexico.

But don’t ask her what the performance will be about. She doesn’t plan ahead. She simply improvises as she steps in front of an audience.

She stresses, though, that her performances don’t appear to the audiences as improvisations, which too often are sloppy and not very well-executed.

“When you’re dreaming, it seems perfectly real,” Zaporah said as an example of how her performance unfolds. “I feel as if I’m a servant to wherever I’m taken. There’s no ‘me’ that I identify with. … It’s a show doing itself and I happen to be available.

“It really is similar to dreaming.”

But if it seems as if she acts as a conduit to something coming from outside herself, it is a conduit formed by a lifetime of practice.

Ruth Zaporah (Photo by Kate Russell)

Ruth Zaporah (Photo by Kate Russell)

“I’ve been practicing this for 50 or 60 years,” Zaporah said. “There’s a tremendous amount of skill and experience leading up to it.”

She has been teaching that practice both locally, nationally and internationally.

Her technique was sparked when, hired by a university drama department, she found herself in front of a class whose members said they wanted to learn how to embody their characters.

“I didn’t know what ’embody’ meant. … I didn’t know what a character meant,” Zaporah said. Trained as a dancer, she thought of the body as pure form.

But she asked students to walk and “I was fascinated by how differently everyone walks,” she said. “That was the moment I started my love affair with improvisation.”

She calls her method Action Theater and said it’s basically a form of physical theater, but not one that is scripted and planned out in advance in the way it’s performed by a troupe such as Theater Grottesco. It has a narrative of sorts, but it doesn’t unfold in a linear way. And a topic or message may be part of her presentation, but not in an effort to preach, she added.

While her initial grounding was in dance, Zaporah said, she got frustrated with being silent. “I wanted to speak and use my voice in all kinds of ways,” she said. So she took a couple of acting classes, but disliked how mentally based that craft is.

“The way I deliver information is pretty much with my body,” she said.

We engage in a variety of behaviors every day, she noted, from cooking a meal (something she says she loves doing) to teaching a class to performing on stage.

“I think imagination creates all of it,” she said. To connect imagination to everything that happens all day, she said, doesn’t mean she’s delusional. “It just means I’m opening boundaries.”


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