Performance Community Onstage and on the Street: Castillo Theatre and Heiner Müller's Germania 3

The Drama Review, Vol. 47, No. 3 (T179), Fall 2003
By Dan Friedman


   The Castillo Theatre is a theatre that isn’t a theatre.

   It is a theatre in that it produces plays, sells tickets, and has a membership base. Since its founding almost 20 years ago, the Castillo Theatre has mounted nearly 100 productions by some 20 playwrights, including Bertolt Brecht, Ed Bullins, Aimé Césaire, Laurence Holder, Heiner Müller, Yosef Mundy, Peter Weiss, and its own artistic director and playwright-in-residence, Fred Newman. It has built a diverse, nontraditional audience that fills its small auditorium for virtually every performance. Its 1995 production of Season in the Congo by Césaire was invited to the 1996 25th SERMAC (Service Municipal d’Action Culturelle) Festival in Martinique, and its production of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade won “Best of the Fest” at New York City’s first Midtown International Theatre Festival in 2000. 

   Having done 11 Heiner Müller productions—more than any other American theatre—Castillo has become the main stage for the work of Müller in the United States. Some of these productions have been directed by distinguished colleagues of Müller’s. Joseph Szeiler, artistic director of Vienna’s Angelus Novus, directed Explosion of a Memory (Description of a Picture) at Castillo in 1987. Stephan Suschke, a protégé of Müller’s at the Berliner Ensemble, directed medeamaterial at Castillo in 1997. However, it is for the productions directed by its artistic director Fred Newman that Castillo’s Müller work is best known. These productions are notable for their integration of song, comedy, and American popular culture with the German playwright’s dense and often grim texts. While many “traditional” avantgardists frowned on them, Müller himself found Castillo’s productions of great interest. 

   Yet while it has produced plays, comedy nights, and improvisational performance happenings for nearly two decades, in a certain sense Castillo isn’t a theatre: it is not an organization whose primary mission is the production of plays. The major concern of the tiny full-time staff and some 150 volunteers involved in Castillo is community building and, in a more general sense, human growth and development. Castillo’s improvisationary aesthetic grows out of those concerns. 

   Castillo’s eight founders were artists (a dancer, two musicians, three painters and two theatre people) who found each other through their involvement in various grassroots community groups and left-of-center independent electoral activity. Much of this activity had been initiated and led by Newman, a Stanford-trained philosopher, who has been a community activist and political organizer since 1968. 

   This group of artists (myself included) raised the question of how to engage the cultural Left, which, like the rest of the Left, was dying. It was out of those dialogues that in 1984 the Castillo Theatre (called, in its early years, the Castillo Cultural Center), named after the Guatemalan poet and revolutionary Otto Rene Castillo, was founded. The shared assumption of the founders was that social change is, in the most fundamental sense, a cultural, not a political, phenomenon (Brenner 1992; Friedman 2000).

   One of the earliest manifestations of this founding principal, Centers for Change, a loose grouping of Maoist-influenced collectives organized by Newman in the early 1970s, regularly held cultural evenings and began experimenting with the development of a nonpsychological therapy, later called social therapy. Throughout its history, the community has been characterized by an informal blending of politics, therapy, and performance within an improvisational environment. By the turn of the century, this blending of culture and politics had reached the point that the community—now involving tens of thousands and international in scope—was referring to itself as a “performance community.” 

   Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is to deconstruct a particular Castillo production. By taking a close look at how a play was chosen, who was involved in the production, how it was worked on, and how Newman directed it, we will see something of the blending of therapy, politics, and performance in Castillo’s community. This may also shed light on how Castillo views both the power and limitations of the theatre and therefore on the nature of Castillo’s distinct brand of “political theatre.”

   In October 2001 Castillo opened the American premier of Müller’s last play, Germania 3 Ghosts at Deadman, English version by Carl Weber. As is standard practice at Castillo, the cast was a mix of experienced and inexperienced stage performers. Among the fifteen, four were trained actors and four were volunteer workers at Castillo who had never before appeared onstage. The rest of the cast consisted of activists in the community who had prior experience on Castillo’s stage. 

   Castillo’s unusual casting practice grows from our belief that performance is a developmental activity that should not be the sole purview of specialists. For us, performance is the dialectical activity of being who you are and who you are not/who you are becoming at the same time (Newman 1996a; Holzman 1999:49–71). We share with Müller the conviction that it is in “the space between I and I” (in Lotringer 1990:48), what Victor Turner has termed the “liminoid” (1987:29) that new cultural and social discoveries are made and innovations become possible. Performance, we are convinced, can take place anywhere—at work, at school, at home. However, it is the theatre that for over two millennia has given performance institutional legitimacy. Therefore, providing nonactors with the chance to perform in the theatre is, for us, part of the process of breaking down the distinction between “onstage” and “offstage” and making performance more generally available in everyday life.

   Castillo had been introduced to Germania 3 by Stephan Suschke in March of 1997, when he was serving as co-artistic director at the Berliner Ensemble. At the time, he was in New York directing Müller’s medeamaterial at Castillo. Before he returned to Berlin, Suschke left us a copy of Germania 3, which had not yet been translated into English. When he gave us the script, he said that Müller had promised the American premier to Robert Wilson.

   In my capacity as Castillo’s dramaturg, I attempted a translation. Although I never got very far, the attempt gave me a sense of the play’s topic, structure, and characters, which I was able to share with Newman and others at Castillo. The piece—it would be a stretch to call it a play in any traditional sense of the word—is the last of Müller’s Germania series, each a dramatic collage of scenes exploring issues of German history and culture. Each of Germania 3’s nine scenes explores some aspect of German history from World War II to the 1990s. Hence, the piece is also an examination of the struggle between capitalism/fascism on the one hand, and communism on the other—the world-historic struggle that shaped German and European history in the 20th century. It is, in the words of Jonathan Kalb, among “the most rigorously disjunctive and least tonally unified” of Müller’s plays (2001:234). Each scene introduces an entirely new setting and set of characters, ranging from Stalin, Hitler, and Helene Weigel to unnamed German and Russian soldiers to a contemporary Croatian immigrant worker. Stylistically, the scenes vary from the farcical to the expressionistic, from early-19th-century romanticism to the agonizingly beautiful poetic monologues in which Müller excelled. It contains sizable quotations from German literature and layer upon layer of allusions to German and communist history. 

   When no Wilson production materialized, we contacted the Elisabeth Marton Agency, which holds the rights to Müller’s work in the United States, and let them know that we were interested in producing the American premier of the piece. (It had received its world premier at the Bochum Schauspielhaus in May 1996 under the direction of Leander Haussmann). In the spring of 2000 Marton gave us the go-ahead for the production and sent us the then unpublished English translation by Weber. 

   A few months later, a gathering of Castillo actors, designers, and other volunteers was held in Newman’s living room to read the script. Before each scene was read, I gave a brief introduction, providing a rudimentary background on its characters and historical and literary references. At the end of the reading, Newman declared that he had no idea what the play was about. In general, the readers felt confused and overwhelmed. It was the exciting confusion that artists often feel at the beginning of a creative process, made more intense by Müller’s conscious defiance of the limitations of the stage. 

   This mixture of excitement and bafflement is a regular part of each Castillo production of a Müller play. As Newman said at a meeting of Castillo and other cultural activists a few months after Germania 3’s production:

   People should come to see these plays because it will be helpful to their development. And if you don’t get it, come again five times. You shouldn’t expect to “get” it. These plays are not designed to “get.” They challenge us. [...] Where did the notion come from that we have to understand things we go to see? Part of the experience of culture is the experience of things that are incomprehensible. We learn by being exposed to what we don’t know. (2002a) 

   Soon after the reading in Newman’s living room, I began a workshop open to all in the community to explore Germania 3. We approached the script as we do all others, with an experimental attitude and improvisational method rather than with a preconceived interpretation. The workshop met once or twice a week for five months. At its height, it was attended by about 20 people. The participants included Emilie Charlotte, Castillo’s resident costume designer, and Dave DeChristopher and Jeremy Black, both professional actors and members of Castillo’s ensemble. Most of the workshop participants, however, were Castillo’s organizers/activists/fundraisers and others who had had a long-time relationship with Castillo, including activists with the East Side Institute for Short Term Psychotherapy (social therapy’s research and educational center) and the New York Independence Party (the third largest electoral party in the state). 

   Each participant in the workshop was encouraged to become a director, to choose a scene from the text and, working with others in the workshop, to rehearse and perform it. When each scene was presented to the workshop, we would talk about the ideas and problems, political as well as artistic, raised by the scene and the performance. Often the same scene would be modified and performed again, sometimes more than once. It was in this way that the history of World War II, the battle between fascism and communism, Stalin, Brecht, and other subjects of Müller’s text were discussed relative to the United States and to our community’s work. From week to week, participants would build on ideas that had been explored in previous sessions. 

   In addition to providing a forum for discussing the content of Müller’s script, this process also challenged participants who had never directed before to figure out how to stage a Müller script. It was a laboratory of theatrical exploration; it was also one of Castillo’s numerous experiments with democratizing the production of culture. Indeed, one of the main reasons we do Müller is to put his work, which we consider among the most theatrically and politically sophisticated in the world, in the hands of ordinary people. It is they, we believe, who have the power to do something impactive with the new ways of seeing implicit in his texts.

   Throughout the workshop period, I met regularly with Newman to describe our activity and discuss the meanings that were emerging from it. The major insight that we came to at this point was that both the Nazis and the Communists in the script were emotionally underdeveloped. Their emotional range was essentially the same—anger, humiliation, fear, lust, and disgust. As the relationship between emotionality and political change had been an ongoing concern of our community since its inception, this would become a major statement of our production. Whether Müller intended it to or not, the text began to speak to us of the inability of Communists to change the world when they were incapable of changing themselves—when they were, in fact, the emotional twins of the fascists.

   During this period, Newman decided that the addition of songs that would bring the political exploration of the scenes to the foreground might help make the performance more accessible to Castillo’s audience. “Accessible” is often a term of scorn among theatre artists who consider themselves avantgarde or fringe. Castillo, however, sees its strategic task as liberating performance from the institutional constraints of the theatre, not further distancing or rarifying it. “Accessible” to us doesn’t mean “easy.” We have too much respect for our audiences, and for ordinary people in general, to dumb down complex work; we want our audiences to stretch. At the same time, we do work to find points of contact between the text and the audience—and, for American audiences, music is one such point.

   Newman asked me to identify places in the script where it would be both helpful and possible to place a song. He then wrote the words and music to seven songs which, for the most part, emphasized the emotional and political impoverishment that we saw among both the Nazis and the Communists of Germania 3. The final production opened and closed with a song, “Sex and Politics”: 

Sex and politics
They’re about the same
Someone gets fucked
Someone gets blamed

Sex and politics
They both begin in passion
Sex and politics
Yet betrayal is the fashion

Sex and politics
They make the world go ’round
Sex and politics
We all wind up in the ground

Sex and politics
The Nazis and the Reds
Sex and politics
They look the same in beds. 

   After about three months, Newman attended a workshop where some of the scenes were performed for him. His major response was that that they weren’t terrifying enough; they failed to tap into the fear and horror that underlay the entire script. It was difficult to face head on the unrelenting atrocities and failures compiled in Germania 3, but that, we agreed, was the task given us by Müller. The conviction that the play needed to evoke fear was the main thing Newman took from the workshop into rehearsals, and into the raw, sometimes melodic, sometimes frantic music he wrote for the songs. When rehearsal began, one of Newman’s earliest decisions was that all the actors should be onstage at all times, a decision that, in effect, made the actors themselves a part of the mise-en-scène on Castillo’s small stage. Since they also sang (and moved) to most of the songs, the cast functioned as a classic chorus, with individual actors stepping forward to perform individuated characters. This is an approach Newman has often used in large-cast productions, for example in Césaire’s A Season in the Congo (1995), Brecht’s Galileo (1996), and Weiss’s Marat/Sade (2000). The continuous presence of the chorus addresses the practical problem of getting a large cast on and off a small stage with no wing space, but it is much more than that—it reflects Newman’s belief that performance is by its nature a social, not an individual, activity. In the course of the rehearsal process, Newman focused almost entirely on directing the ensemble; over six weeks he gave individual acting suggestions on only two occasions.

   The chorus of Germania 3, reinforcing the fear and dread of the script, was to be “dead.” Newman’s concept was that the cast was performing as the 55 million dead of World War II and, beyond that, the hundreds of millions killed in the 20th century’s struggle between capitalism and communism. The dead were producing Müller’s fragmented history play. The deadness of the chorus was conveyed perhaps most viscerally through the costumes designed by Charlotte: distressed off-white tunics and pants that suggested both concentration camp uniforms and hospital garb, spattered with blood and dirt. Various costume pieces—hats, jackets, belts, and so on—were used to indicate individuated characters in particular scenes. The actors also used makeup to give their faces a death-like pallor. 

   As the rehearsal process unfolded, it became clear that with all the characters and the innumerable historical references in the script, more than the songs was needed to make the performance even slightly comprehensible to our audience. Newman then asked me to write sequences in which an onstage historian would step forward, stop the action, and fill in the historical background necessary to understand the scene. 

   For example, the opening scene is a conversation in front of the Berlin Wall between Ernst Thälmann, the leader of the German Communist Party in the 1920s and early ’30s who was killed at Buchenwald, and Walter Ulbricht, the leader of the German Democratic Republic in the 1950s and ’60s. As they discuss, rather cryptically, the failure of German socialism, the ghost of Rosa Luxemburg, the leader of the failed German communist revolution of 1919, known as the Spartacus Uprising, is led to her death. During the uprising, Luxemburg was captured by a militia loyal to the Social Democratic government; they battered her to death with rifle butts and threw her body into a canal. Without that information, the scene would make no sense to most American audiences. So the onstage historian stopped the action at the appropriate time and introduced the characters to the audience. This part was performed with a German accent by veteran Castillo actor Roger Grunwald, who had played Heiner Müller himself in two previous Castillo productions (An Obituary—Heiner Müller: A Man without a Behind [1997] and Revising Germany [1998], both by Newman) and hence was associated with Müller by many, although by no means all, of the audience. 

   Obviously, we grappled strenuously with Müller’s text. Yet Newman’s approach to directing—as with all of his organizing—was anything but centered on the text. Rehearsals began without any of the individual roles being cast, and focused, for the first few weeks, on the cast learning the songs and discovering how to move together. 

   “The text is just one element, and, for me, not necessarily the most important, in the development of the play,” said Newman in a discussion of the Germania 3 production held in July 2002:

   “In that respect I resemble [Robert] Wilson or [Merce] Cunningham in that I don’t think the various elements of the production necessarily have to be coordinated. For me the text fits into a play the way the substance of a conversation fits into the activity of a conversation. It’s something to hang the performance on. It’s the hanger, not the coat. Whether it’s a play or a conversation, it’s about the performance, not about the content.” (2000b) 

   The focus on performance instead of text has a long history at Castillo. The first “play” ever directed by Newman, A Demonstration: Common Women, the Uncommon Lives of Ordinary Women (1986), was a partly scripted, partly improvised evening built on the encounter of two groups of women—one mostly African American and Puerto Rican welfare mothers and the other mostly white radical lesbian feminists. The performers weren’t actors, but welfare mothers and lesbian feminists from the political community. The second play directed by Newman, produced the same year, From Gold to Platinum, was created from a series of improvisations and discussions on what a second American Revolution might look like. The improvisations were held at meetings of grassroots organizations from East New York to the South Bronx to the Upper West Side. I attended all of these meetings, which were audiotaped, and wrote scenes based on the improvisations, which Newman then directed, often using as performers the very people who had created the scenes. 

   Not only does improvisation have deep roots in Castillo’s history; it has been consciously nurtured as the core of Castillo’s approach to performance. From 1990 to 1998 Castillo had a resident improvisational comedy troupe, the Gayggles, that performed every Saturday night at 11:00 p.m. (more or less) after the “feature” play at Castillo had ended. Newman and several of the core group of actors at Castillo were members of the Gayggles, which went through a number of transformations over the years, but eventually came to be known for creating entire musical comedies on the spot based on suggestions from the audience. 

   In 1996, Performance of a Lifetime, an organization dedicated to staging improvisational performances by “nonperformers” was founded by Newman along with David Nackman and Cathy Salit, two members of the Gayggles and long-time Castillo actors. Performance of a Lifetime works with people who have no formal acting or performance training to improvise full-length plays, which are subsequently performed by them in front of an audience. Performance of a Lifetime brings improvisational performance into corporations, government agencies, hospitals, and nonprofit organizations, where employees learn to use it to address a variety of work issues, including diversity, team building, managing change, and developing conversational and presentational skills. As Newman said at a Performance of a Lifetime event in 1996:

   “At Performance of a Lifetime we provide nonperformers with a stage, because in our society a stage gives them a certain authority to perform. We talk to participants in the language of theatre and performance to get them in a performatory and theatrical mode, to have this new experience. [...] With this kind of support, people discover that we can do things through performance that we never thought we could do [...] It doesn’t take great skill to make a funny face, to make a sound you never made before, to do something socially onstage that you haven’t allowed yourself to do before. In a sense, we’re trying to broaden each person’s notion of “what you’re allowed to do.” We think that’s developmental.” (1996b) 

   This confidence in the capacity of improvisational performance to help us go where we’ve never gone before has remained a characteristic of Newman’s approach to directing at Castillo, even when he works with written scripts. 

   Of all the aspects of improvisational performance in which he is interested, Newman has always placed the most emphasis on movement. This, in itself, doesn’t distinguish him from many other directors . However, unlike most directors, Newman gives little attention to the formal aspects of movement; it is the improvisational interplay between people in motion that primarily interests him. As he puts it: “The statement of a play or a conversation doesn’t come from the text, it comes from the totality—and the totality can be seen more in the movement than in anything else” (2000b). 

   The movement in Germania 3 was improvised by the cast around the set and the music. Sheila Goloborotko, a Brazilian-born artist and designer, who had designed four previous Müller productions (among others) for Castillo—Hamletmachine (1996), medeamaterial and An Obituary—Heiner Müller: A Man without a Behind in repertory (1997), and The Mission (1998)—was asked to design Germania 3. Inspired by Müller’s repeated imagery of capitalism as an “ice age” and the state of the world as a “frozen storm” (see, for example, Hamletmachine, 1977; The Task, 1979; Explosion of a Memory/Description of a Picture, 1981), Goloborotko came up with 10 iceberg-like irregularly shaped cones, about eight feet tall, painted white and mounted on wheels so that they could be rolled into various configurations. 

   The “icebergs” were constructed early in the rehearsal process so that Newman and the actors could experiment with using—and moving—them. They were arranged in different configurations for various scenes. Sometimes the movement of the icebergs became part of the scene; more often the icebergs became the architecture within which the tempo and kinesis of the actors emerged.

   During rehearsals, the cast created movements within the limitations imposed by the icebergs and the small stage. For example, in the party scene—the most “realistic” in the text—in which a group of East German intellectuals and bureaucrats at a cocktail party learn of Khrushchev’s speech denouncing Stalin at the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, the performers created a dance out of free-style movement. It wasn’t preset; virtually nothing is when Newman directs. Instead it took shape by repeatedly improvising within the scene. The actors responded to themselves and to each other: their movement wasn’t determined by the text; in fact, it had very little direct relation to the text at all. It is not clear that the actors ever understood the text.  But what was important was that they did know the scene they had created, and that they themselves were responsible for that creation. The stage movement and everything else that eventually made up the production was the result, for the most part, not of Newman’s “vision” (he insists he has none) but of what the actors did onstage (and off) during rehearsals. For example, a member of the company told Newman that Yuriko Hoshina, a young Japanese member of the cast who volunteered in Castillo’s costume shop, had a beautiful singing voice, just right for the song, “I Tore Up Your Picture, Comrade Stalin.” The song follows the party scene:

I tore up your picture Comrade Stalin
The day after Khrushchev’s sad speech
He exposed you as tyrant and hoodlum
Whose violence determined his reach

You have destroyed me
And millions of others all round
Communism dies with you
A better world’s not to be found

So I tore up your picture Comrade Stalin
I threw the pieces into the wind
For in doing what you did, you murderer,
It means that our whole world has sinned. 

   She did have a beautiful voice and did wind up performing the song alone. A similar thing happened with Bonnie Natko, who looked and projected very young. Because of that quality, she and Yuriko performed as children the scene in which, after reunification, West Germans return to the East to reclaim their grandparents’ manor house.

   “I gave a huge amount of room to let things like that develop,” reflected Newman:

   Those decisions had nothing to do with the text, they had to do with who the actors were and how they interacted together. For Castillo, the rehearsal is a period of play, of improvisation with and without the script. From the play, the “play” emerges. The cast plays an active, powerful role in the creation of the play. (2002b)

   Newman’s approach to directing, in which he builds with what the actors and designers give him, has its roots both in the “yes/and” of improvisational theatre and in his work as a social therapist. The activity of social therapy is the building of the group, which involves everyone working improvisationally—not to diagnose, objectify, or analyze, but to create new meanings and new emotions (to develop emotionally). It is a social activity that is not scientific but performative and improvisational. (Holzman 1999:55) In recent years Newman has spoken frequently of the influence of his theatre work on his therapy and visa versa. Indeed, he has taken to referring to his therapy groups as long-running improvisational plays:

   “My directing resembles my therapy. The participants often don’t realize the extent to which they are doing the therapy—or the directing. What you see onstage grows out of the interaction of the actors with the text, the set, the music and, most importantly, with each other. I do no thinking about what the play will look like antecedent to the rehearsals. I learn the play through the rehearsals; in that sense, I follow the rules not of theatre but of social therapy.

   “My directing is therapeutic. I don’t mean by that that it’s analytic or psychological. I mean that I don’t come into the rehearsal process with a predetermined vision or goal. I don’t work to make a statement onstage; I don’t seek a resolution either in the dramatic action or in the characters. The acting is an interaction between the performers, it’s not a statement about anything; it’s not an insight into any character. The acting itself is a nonstatement, it’s an activity, an activity you can watch.” (2002b)

   While acting functions on many levels, for Newman it is first and foremost movement. The basic building block of Newman’s productions is the response of the actors to each other’s movements:

   Germania 3 was basically a dance. It didn’t look like a dance to the audience because the dancers didn’t know how to dance and the choreographer didn’t know how to choreograph! What was beautiful was how the ensemble came to move together onstage. The beauty in the plays I direct is not in the grace or the precision, but in how the cast finds a different way to move together in every play. (2002b)

   Examining how movement develops on Castillo’s stage provides insight into the Castillo Theatre’s offstage performance. 

   The 71-seat theatre is located in an 8,500 square-foot loft that takes up the entire second floor of 500 Greenwich Street in Soho in Manhattan. Castillo shares the space with the East Side Center (where social therapy is practiced) and the East Side Institute for Short Term Psychotherapy (where social therapy is researched and taught). It is also the headquarters of the All Stars Project, Inc., a nonprofit organization that supports, among other things, performance-oriented supplementary educational programs involving tens of thousands of inner-city youth every year as well as the Castillo Theatre. Hence, 500 Greenwich Street is much more than a theatre or even a cultural center; it is the physical center of a performatory community and as such reveals much about the community. (In late 2003 Castillo and the All Stars will be moving to a new three-theater cultural center at 543 West 42nd Street.)

   The Greenwich Street space is designed to encourage freedom of movement. There is the rainbow-shaped and rainbow-hued bench connecting the East Side Institute and East Side Center with the Castillo Theatre and the performatory youth programs. And there is the grid of metal pipes attached to the ceiling from which walls can be hung in various places and at various angles, allowing for the reconfiguration of the space. (This has been done on a number of occasions over the years). The openness is what strikes you when you enter 500 Greenwich. In most spaces of comparable size you can see some things but not others. Here you can walk around and see everything (except the interiors of the dressing rooms and bathrooms) without opening a door.

   It’s not anarchy; there is a “set.” There is a front desk; there are walls; particular areas are usually used for particular activities. But there is also a sense, within the architectural constraints, of a free-form improvisation. This is obvious to anyone who spends even a few hours at 500 Greenwich. People are able to move as they want, to respond to each other’s movement improvisationally. You see people moving, tools in hand, to the shop. You see people seated on the “rainbow bench” waiting for therapy groups to begin. You see little groups of people seeking out spaces to meet, often sitting on furniture built for use in earlier Castillo productions. You see people moving, alone and in pairs, to start fundraising shifts at the round tables in the telemarketing space. If it’s near show time, you see a portable café and book kiosk being wheeled into place; you see people lining up at the box office while other audience members are taking guided tours of the space. You see various elements of the community sharing the space and interacting in all sorts of ways with each other. Within this continuous flow there may be various “scripts,” but the totality is an improvisation that’s based, as is the work onstage, on the interaction of the people involved. It is a dance in which the activists of Castillo’s community move in response to the movement of those around them. 

   The broad community of which Castillo is a part has developed through improvisational movement. It was not brought into being as the result of tactical decisions made by a central committee or a board of directors. Instead, a relative handful of people tried this or that activity, this or that organizing initiative. As they made moves, other, often larger, groups responded with movement of their own and that, in turn, changed the movement of the core group that began the activity (see Newman and Holzman 1997:105–57). This process occurred many, many times and “grew” a community comprised of thousands of people from diverse walks of life.

   For example, in order to build Castillo’s audience base and to maintain its financial independence, in the 1990s Castillo volunteers spent thousands of hours moving about the neighborhoods of the New York metropolitan area. We canvassed door-to-door, we set up tables on street corners and subway platforms, made telephone calls in the evenings and on weekends, everyday, week-in-and-week-out, talking to people about our work, asking for their financial support and inviting them to attend Castillo’s shows. (At first we raised money only for Castillo, later for both Castillo and the All Stars Talent Show Network, which rapidly outgrew Castillo both in terms of the number of people involved and monies raised.) This movement on the street was self-consciously both a fundraising activity and a community-building activity. 

   In doing these things, we gradually became aware of them as performatory activities themselves. Dozens and then scores of people were on the streets performing improvisationally. In response to that performance, many thousands of people supported Castillo and the All Stars financially, with hundreds eventually becoming Castillo subscribers and later, when we converted to a membership model, members. In the course of this street organizing, our volunteers learned through experience that performance was not an activity limited to the stage. Performances we gave on the street were brought onto our stage and things learned onstage were brought back to the street. As a result, Castillo was able to enrich its experimental theatre work and to do so independent of government or corporate funding—all the while extending our community.

   Castillo’s ongoing performance in the neighborhoods of New York is a particularly successful example of improvisational movement generating further movement and in the process transforming the movement into something new. On the other hand, some organizing moves tried by the community over the years evoked little or no response and so they were changed or abandoned. The creation of the community is, in that sense, an endless workshop; it is constantly experimenting with new performances and building with what it has created. As with Germania 3, the beauty of the community is not to be found in its precision or grace but in the wide variety of ways that people from diverse backgrounds have found to move together; the beauty is in the free-flowing social choreography we have created together:

   “The whole community is about movement. The message of our community can be conveyed in how we move. For some time now I have seen myself primarily as a choreographer, not only in the theatre work but in social therapy and politics as well.” (Newman 2000b)

   What then, is the point of a theatre in a community dedicated to performance? We see two major roles. 

   First, like all theatre at its best, Castillo serves as a social forum, in this case for a historically specific community. Unlike left movements of the past that published manifestos and issued position papers, our community explores its social, political, and philosophical questions onstage—as we did, for example, in Demonstration, From Gold to Platinum, and Germania 3. Unlike earlier left movements, we don’t cling to the certainties of ideology. We don’t presume that we have answers to teach; consequently—unlike most political theatres of the past—we don’t approach our theatre as either an agitational or pedagogical tool. Most of the plays we do—be they by Müller, Newman, or others—are exercises in asking questions, not in answering them.

   Castillo’s second function has nothing to do with content. It has to do with the simple fact of being a theatre in a community that approaches performance as developmental. Theatre, as a 2,500-year-old institution, gives social legitimacy to what is going on throughout the community: performance. Because of its societal legitimacy, the Castillo Theatre is the environment in which the community can experiment with its most radical ideas in the most outrageous ways—it is theatre, after all! 

   We don’t do this in order to bring more people into the institution of theatre, but as a way making performance more accessible in nontheatre environments. That, we believe, is what is most radically political about Castillo—its reorganization of people’s relationship to performance. 

   Just as with the year of workshopping, rehearsing, and performing Germania 3, Castillo functions not as a rarified aesthetic locale, but as one more place in which the community’s free-flow dance is taking place. When the whole community is performing, the theatre ceases to hold its traditionally exalted position as theatre. It becomes, instead, a laboratory for doing practical experiments in everyday living—a theatre that is not a theatre.



Brenner, Eva

1992 “Theatre of the Unorganized: The Radical Independence of the Castillo Cultural Center.” TDR 36, 3 (T135):28–60.

Friedman, Dan

2000 “Castillo: The Making of a Postmodern Political Theatre,” Theatre Symposium 8:130–40.

Kalb, Jonathan

2001 The Theatre of Heiner Müller. 2d rev. ed. New York: Limelight Editions.

Holzman, Lois

1999 Performing Psychology: A Postmodern Culture of the Mind. New York: Routledge.

Lotringer, Sylvère

1990 “Walls.” An interview with Heiner Müller. In Germania, edited by Sylvère Lotringer, 13–61. New York: Semiotext(e).

Newman, Fred

1996a Performance of a Lifetime: A Practical-Philosophical Guide to the Joyous Life. New York: Castillo International.

1996b Introductory remarks to performance of Trouble, an improvised play directed by Fred Newman at Performance of a Lifetime. New York, 1 June.

2002a Remarks at an All Stars Project program development meeting. New York City, 25 January.

2002b Interview with the author. New York, 10 July.

Newman, Fred, and Holzman, Lois

1997 The End of Knowing: A New Developmental Way of Learning. London and New York: Routledge.

Turner, Victor

1987 The Anthropology of Performance. New York: PAJ Publications.


Dan Friedman is a founder of the Castillo Theatre and its resident dramaturg. He is also a director, most recently presenting The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni at Baruch College, Confused Circuses by David Tianaga at the Nuyorican Poets Café, and Erotic Adventures in Venice by Mario Fratti at La MaMa E.T.C. He is the author of 14 plays, the coeditor with Bruce McConachie of Theatre for Working Class Audiences in the United States, 1830–1980 (Greenwood Press, 1985), editor of Still on the Corner and Other Postmodern Political Plays by Fred Newman (Castillo, 1998), and editor of the new journal Müller in America.