Arts & Events

Old Friends Reunite for an Evening of Theater Improv

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Thursday July 09, 2009 - 10:11:00 AM

Bob Ernst, co-founder of the Blake Street Hawkeyes, Berkeley’s innovative theater troupe of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and Ruth Zaporah, dancer and Ernst’s longtime improvisational performance partner, will present an evening of improvisation—”our own version of action theater,” as Ernst put it—at 8 p.m. Saturday, July 11, at Western Sky Studio on Eighth Street, the first time they’ve worked together in Berkeley in eight years. 

Zaporah spoke of her arrival in the Bay Area in 1969, “the same year the Hawkeyes—and a lot of us—were coming here”—from the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area. In a studio on Parker Street, “I was coming from dance, starting to explore improvisation,” and met Ernst, when “he was interested in moving into the physical world, me into acting. I’d taken acting lessons, but they just didn’t connect with me. I’d seen the Hawkeyes—great wild guys. The first time I saw them, they were in loin cloths, grunting! I tell my students that Bobby and I spent tens of thousands of hours together, trying to find out what this theater was we wanted.” 

“I love the dance world,” Zaporah said, “but didn’t like the way you’d build a piece, then perform it just two nights. In theater, you can run for weeks. But I wanted to be an actor from the body, not from mental training.” 

“What we were doing was breaking down boundaries, roles,” Zaporah recalled, “What the culture was doing in Berkeley, too. We couldn’t have done it anywhere else—not back East. We had so much support in the Bay Area—Rob Hurwitt [theater critic then for the East Bay Express, then the Examiner, now the Chronicle] and Bernie Weiner [then the Chronicle’s theater critic].”  

Zaporah couldn’t describe what the two would perform Saturday. “We set up the physical movement; the content comes from that, from movement and voice. We don’t make a plan, now. We did before, once when we did a midnight show for six weeks at the old Eureka Theatre, off Market near Castro in San Francisco. We played archetypes: the Bunny and the Flasher. I guess we were exploring sexuality and didn’t know it! I was raising four kids; I think that was part of Feminism, too.” 

Ernst recalled the first years of the Hawkeyes in Berkeley, after he and playwright John O’Keefe came here together in 1969, later joined by David Schein, all from the Iowa Theater Lab in Iowa City. They shared a warehouse at 2019 Blake St. that had been shop space for the Magic Theatre. “O’Keefe was teaching classes; Dave was crocheting hats and selling them on Telegraph Avenue.”  

O’Keefe had his play Jimmy Beam produced here; the Hawkeyes had their first show Hog’s Tale—“on Easter Sunday, in the old mortuary on Valencia Street in San Francisco that became New College!”—in 1973. Others, including George Coates and Whoopi Goldberg, joined them. “We had one whole season all improvisation, totally wide open, without any sense of structure. Ruth worked with us.” 

The troupe finally broke up; “the [Loma Prieta] Earthquake sort of took care of that in ‘89. Debbie Gwinn was doing one of her Shakespeare collage pieces, of Hamlet. Contact between the East Bay and the city wasn’t so good—and the economics weren’t so good anymore. Everybody moved away.” Ernst moved to San Rafael; in 2000, Zaporah relocated to Santa Fe, N.M. 

“The whole scene was so fertile, with improvisation at the core,” Ernst recalled. “But as money got tighter, people were less interested in being on the edge. Now, it can still be just as fertile—if not quite as funny!” 

He spoke of working with Zaporah: “You take 30 years, establish a history in characters. Nothing conscious happens. But it’s like we’ve married, divorced and married again—then the kids have gotten into trouble. We’ve done science fiction, escaping this planet into outer space. Or mystery, what’s around corner.”  

Of the content of their improvisations, Ernst said, “I wouldn’t call them scores, plot lines, scenarios—it’s what naturally recurs when you’re doing this over and over. And there’s a sense of when you don’t have a set narrative context, ritual becomes important, to let reality creep in. I’ve been doing a lot of music the past few years—drumming, playing harmonica. Ruth plays, too. We often start by just standing there, being open. Psychically, the audience plays a big part. Later, audience members will comment that the stuff that came up in improv was something they were thinking about. I think it’s like a big rope—the braid of human narrative—runs through the space all the time, and like a train, you can ride it, then get off—or get tossed off.” 

Zaporah, who has written books on improvisation—“and I get orders for them from Korea, Vietnam”—tours, teaches, performs solo most of the time. “I’ve been improvising 35 or 40 years, and Bobby’s the only partner I’ve ever had consistently, no others I’ve developed the skills with that I can always tap into. Being on the floor together, the timing, the musicality, all the most essential ways are still available to us. And there’s another reason: he still scares me! That is, he presents challenges onstage that pull me forward in ways nobody else does. That’s what keeps us stimulated. 38 years? We’ve never come offstage and talked about it.”  



8 p.m. Saturday, July 11, at Western Sky Studio, 2525 Eighth St., Berkeley. $20.