It's all dance

Tony Osborne talks improvisation with Ruth Zaporah

In August Tony Osborne attended a one-month intensive workshop in Berkeley, California with improviser Ruth Zaporah. She originally trained as a dancer but for the last thirty years has been stretching the boundaries which enclose dance and developing her own style of improvisational performance which she calls Action Theatre.

RZ When I originally coined the term, Action Theatre, because I’d come from dance, I needed to make the distinction that there was a whole instrument at play rather than just dance and its techniques. Dance is theatre for me. Theatre is when one or more people get up in front of another group of people and create a fantasy world. That’s why politics is theatre. A politician gets up there and creates a fantasy world and we all believe it. That too is theatre.

TO Did you get bored with the lack of attention to what the body is saying? Was there a dissatisfaction with technique? It seems to me that dance languages have a sort of bathos built into them.

RZ When it’s just technique?

TO Yes.

RZ That was always the problem my teachers had with me. They always said I was too dramatic. I didn’t clean out enough. I didn’t just do the technique. I was always visible. I kept switching teachers until finally I started teaching… looking inward for the teacher.

TO So did the idea of teaching what you do now come before you met other improvisers? Did you meet Al Wunder before this point?

RZ Before I met Al Wunder I was teaching improvisation on the east coast. I got a job with a theatre department teaching movement to the actors. I looked at these actors and I knew that my dance class was not going to be possible. So I asked them what they wanted and they said they wanted to embody their characters. At the time I didn’t know what ‘embody’ meant because that was not something that we were taught in dance classes. I didn’t know what character was because that’s a theatre term, not a dance term. So I said, “Okay, walk, sit, pick up something” etcetera, and I just started improvising and seeing what was coming back—this was telling me what I wanted to see next. Then I had to figure out some kind of framework. That’s how this all started. Then when I moved to San Francisco [in the 1970s] there was this guy, Al Wunder, who was teaching a much more formal kind of improvisation that he’d learned from his teacher, Alwin Nikolai. So Al and I hooked up and put a studio together because we were both interested in improvisation.

TO Improvisation means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Theatre and dance practitioners might employ it in certain specific and varying ways but people like yourself and Al Wunder have created the genre of improvised performance which, paradoxically, doesn’t necessarily relate to theatre or dance processes generically, even though it employs both.

RZ Al Wunder’s work was always very dancerly but I haven’t seen his work in a long time. (Al Wunder has lived and worked in Melbourne for over ten years).

TO I think Al Wunder’s Theatre of the Ordinary is very much about creating form; finding form in all sorts of stuff.

RZ Well, this work isn’t really theatre improvisation in the traditional sense because theatre improvisation deals with situation. This work doesn’t ‘set up’ situation and it doesn’t fit into any genre of dance because it deals with situation.

TO Would hybrid be an appropriate word?

RZ I don’t think so, because its not like I studied dance and I studied theatre and then figured out how to put them together. What happened was I just extended myself from dance and kept on extending from a body-based form—expanding the avenues of experience and expression from body-base to include language, speech, vocalising. Its all body-based to me. Its all dance. Then that includes content which just grew out of my original body-based interest in action which started with dance. The action extended into my mouth and language.

TO You talked earlier about embodiment and in your work you talk a lot about inhabiting or ‘filling out’ an action in performance. It seems to me that in a lot of dance and theatre the body is a bit absent; that is, there’s a lot of text or intellect going on but the performers’ bodies are unconsciously telling a different story.

RZ The body’s just supporting the text? Propping up this instrument so that the mouth can…

TO Yes, with very little connection between text and body—something in the body tells you that the performer is lying. It occurs to me to ask why this work isn’t more prevalent in training institutions.

RZ That’s a very good question. I’m not very good at promoting myself, I guess. I just keep on doing my thing. I think they should at least check out what I’m doing. I’ve never had anyone to take care of that side of things for me, you know, like an agent or secretary.

TO Have you ever felt the need to?

RZ I’m just beginning to because I’m going to be sixty next year and at some point I would like to retire, and so I would like to make some money, although I can’t imagine retiring. If I had set this whole thing up in New York, I think it would be different at this point. I think this work would be much more known. Out here [San Francisco] it’s like, in a sense, the boondocks. It’s like a little town in a way… I’m not a hustler and don’t go after it … maybe having a book out will make a difference.

TO What made you write a book about the one month ‘trainings’ which you conduct twice a year?

RZ For about ten years I’ve been wanting to write a book about this work… because I think it’s really useful and I felt like for me to just hold it for myself was very selfish in a way. I don’t feel like it’s mine. I feel like I worked this out with all the people that have been working with me for the last fifteen or twenty years. It just got too big for me to hold as my private stuff. I know that I probably work with a couple of hundred different students every year and I know that a lot of them go back and teach this work in their own way. In order to protect the integrity of the work I wanted this book out so that they could have that.

Action Theatre: The Improvisation of Presence is published in the U.S. by North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California.

RealTime issue #10 Dec-Jan 1995 pg. 28

© Tony Osborne; for permission to reproduce apply to

1 December 1995