From the Street to the Stage and Back Again: Fred Newman, Citizen Artist

Presented at the International Federation for Theatre Research convention, University of Maryland, June 27, 2005
By Dan Friedman

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   Good morning. I am a theatre historian, a dramaturg and the artistic director of a youth theatre in New York City.  I could have spoken about many topics of relevance to our conference.  I have chosen to share something about my friend and colleague, Fred Newman, the artistic director of the Castillo Theatre, where I have worked as his dramaturg since 1989.

   Fred is one of those people who should have been famous.  He could have been a world-renowned academic, a chaired professor of philosophy at Harvard.  He might have been an influential innovative therapist, sparking a movement away from conventional psychology. He could have become a powerful political strategist, the campaign manager of senatorial and presidential candidates.  He might have provided artistic vision to a cutting edge postmodern political theatre that would earn an important niche in the New York Theatre scene.

   In fact, he has done all of this, and I doubt that any of you have heard of him before. Why. I think will become clear as I tell his story.

*

   Just a month ago on May 28th the front page of the New York Times contained an article with the headline, “In New York, Fringe Politics in the Mainstream.”  The piece was about Dr. Fred Newman, whom the Times warned, had long “embraced Marxist ideology,” and the large and influential network of youth, cultural, therapeutic and political organizations that he had helped to build and shape over last thirty years.

   “Dr. Newman and his colleagues have built a multimillion-dollar enterprise that involves counseling centers around the country and, among other things, a theatre that produces his plays in Times Square,” wrote the reporter, Michael Slackman. He went on to note that the All Stars Talent Show Network, which Newman founded with Dr. Lenora Fulani, a developmental psychologist, some twenty years ago and which involves approximately 13,000 young people a year, mostly from New York City’s poorest communities, in putting on talent shows and, more recently, cabarets and dance concerts as well, had become quite, “visible in the city...Many elected officials and high-profile artists, academics and businesspeople have lent their names and credibility to the organization because of its work with poor minority children.”

   The article came out just as the race for New York City mayor was getting under way and the most immediate concern of the Times appeared not to be Newman’s work with youth or theatre, but his increasing clout in Big Apple politics.  The New York State Independence Party, of which Newman and his protégé Fulani are major leaders, had won some 60,000 votes for Mayor Michael Bloomberg on its line in the last election, providing the billionaire mayor with his margin of victory.

   “The party has emerged as a powerful vote-getter in many state and local races, knocking the Conservative Party off the third line on the ballot,” wrote Slackman.  The Independence Party’s influence had gotten, “to the point where Republicans like Gov. George E. Pataki to Democrats like Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and United States Senator Charles E. Schumer have courted the party’s support.”  The article quoted Mayor Bloomberg as saying, “What is fair is that the Independence Party is growing strong, and I think there is a reason for that. Independents are the fastest-growing group of voters in America.”

   What the Marxist Newman and the Republican Bloomberg have in common is the Independence Party’s commitment to opening up the electoral process to new views and new voters. In particular, Bloomberg and the IP, which has a quarter of million registrants statewide, agree on nonpartisan elections, which the Times concludes “would ultimately weaken the Democrat’s dominance of New York City—and empower a party that identified as independent.”

*

   It may seem odd that I have begun this talk at a theatre conference with the details of a news article on New York City politics.  However, as I made clear at the start, the subject of the Times article, Fred Newman, is also the subject of this paper.

   Over the quarter of a century that I have known Newman, what has impressed me the most is his overarching concern with the state of the nation and the world and his willingness to become involved in whatever arena of civic life that he thought he could benefit by his participation.  One of those areas is the theatre. Since 1986, Newman has written and directed plays, his own and those of others, at the Castillo Theatre in New York City.  I have watched, and to a small extent, participated, in his development as a theatre artist. What is most striking to me is the integration of his various civic activities and how—the narrow political concerns of The New York Times aside—art and culture has been the defining core of Newman’s life work. Allow me to begin by providing some sense of the range of those activities.

   Since I have started with Newman’s involvement in independent politics, let’s unpack that a little. The power of the Independence Party that the Times describes did not develop over night. It is the fruit of 30 years of working to challenge this country’s two-party monopoly. These efforts began with the founding of the long defunct pro-socialist New Alliance Party in the Bronx. It is an effort that has led Newman to work with everyone from the Reverend Al Sharpton to Ross Perot, from Pat Buchanan to Ralph Nader. To Newman, all this electoral work has been an extended cultural experiment.

   “Large numbers of people in our country think that you can’t vote on two different party lines—a candidate of one party for president, for example, and another person on another party line for mayor or councilperson,” Newman said in a recent interview. “The culture of how you vote, which has nothing to do with the Constitution or even state election laws, is that you vote straight down a party line. That’s considered ‘the right way to vote’ by most people. The Independence Party is a huge challenge to the culture of politics in this country, that’s what’s most significant about it, not how it impacts on this or that specific election.”

   Another area in which Newman has made a distinct—and controversial—impact is on the cultural assumptions of psychology.  He has earned his living as a therapist since the early 1970s and done so while developing a therapy that rejects the underlying philosophical assumptions (and scientific pretences) of conventional psychology. Newman’s social therapy, now practiced at centers in seven U.S. cities, locates human emotional development primarily in social relations, not intrapsychic analysis. His influence in psychology and the related fields of education extends far beyond those directly involved in social therapeutic practice, in part because of seven books and dozens of articles he has had published on social therapy, the culture and politics of psychology and practical philosophy. 

   Kenneth Gergen, one of the country’s leading postmodern psychologists, has written of Newman’s work in the field: “It is sometimes said that the truly creative work in any discipline takes place at the borders—by those who understand the conventions governing the interior but who also understand something else.  It is at the borders that we also find individuals who are sufficiently free from the tyranny of the normal—the pattern of expectations, obligations and swift sanctions within the core of most disciplines—that they can risk innovation.  Fred Newman is just such a border dweller. Newman is deeply conversant with traditional paradigms of psychological inquiry, but with other things as well…For Newman it makes little sense to pursue psychology without situating it within the political and social order…Newman’s immersion in philosophical and social deliberations is finally complemented by a deep dwelling in the realm of aesthetics, and particularly the dramatic arts…Newman and his colleagues have surprised, unsettled and antagonized. At the same time they have placed into orbit a galaxy of new stars—images, institutions and practices against which we can fruitfully compare our traditions and ask for more.”

   One of the “galaxy of new stars” that Newman has helped to “place in orbit” is The All Stars Talent Show Network, referenced earlier by the Times. The All Stars, with its emphasis on building non-competitive, supportive environments for young artists, is a challenge to the prevailing ethos of hip-hop culture. It is now active not only in New York, but also Newark, New Jersey, Atlanta, Georgia, Oakland, California and Amsterdam, Holland. It has spawned two other two other youth programs. The Development School for Youth, in which business executives volunteer to work with inner city high school students and teach them the performance of the business world, a 14-week course that results in a paid summer internship, and Youth Onstage!, which produces politically-engaged plays with young actors, 14 to 21, and offers a free after-school performance training program taught by volunteering theatre professionals.  All of these programs have been built on social therapy’s method—emphasizing the building of the group as a developmental environment for all involved.

   In 2003 the Institute for Urban and Minority Education at Teachers College, Columbia University under the direction of Professor Emeritus Edmund W. Gordon (one of the architects of Head Start in the 1960s) published a study of the All Stars Network and the Development School for Youth and judged them to be “exemplary” and “models for others to emulate.”  Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University has said that the programs of the All Stars Project have the “best demonstrable results—bar none” and profiled the Development School for Youth in his recent book America Beyond the Color Line.

   Newman, as I have noted, considers all of these accomplishments to be cultural in that they are designed as ongoing engagements of prevailing cultural attitudes.  His most explicit cultural challenge, however, comes in the area in which he is probably least known—the theatre.  Newman has written 31 plays and musicals and has been the artistic director of the Castillo Theatre since 1989.  In that capacity, he has directed nearly 60 plays including 13 productions of Heiner Muller, far more than any other American director. He has also collaborated on dance theatre pieces with Bill T. Jones (Requiem for Communism at the Dance Theatre Workshop, 1993) and David Parsons (License to Dream, Castillo Theatre, 2005).

   In addition to being staged at Castillo, Newman’s plays have been produced at both the Philadelphia and San Francisco Fringe Festivals and at six conventions of the American Psychological Association.  Newman’s first feature film, Nothing Really Happens, which he both wrote and directed, stars Living Theatre founder Judith Malina. It was released in 2003 and has so far garnered four film festival awards. 

   The topics of his plays range from the consequences of the collapse of communism to the consequences of the collapse of the Twin Towers, from Black-Jewish relations in New York City to the legacy of slavery on American culture, from Jackie Robinson and Mickey Mantle to Thomas Jefferson, V.I. Lenin, Jesus and Brecht.  He often writes about historical figures and about stubborn, and seemly unchangeable, emotions such as love and racism.  He says that the underlying theme of most of his plays is monumentalism.

   “I think challenging monumentalism on stage is a fundamental way of challenging how people think within our culture,” he has said. “Part of what monuments are about is establishing a conformity of thinking for a whole society. So to challenge that is to challenge a way of thinking that’s a critical component of a whole way of acting and a whole way of doing and a whole way of creating in our culture.”

   One of the most profound challenges of Newman’s theatre is its challenge to the monumentalizing of the theatre itself.  He has encouraged people who are non-professionals to work side by side with professionals in all aspects of Castillo’s work. “Professionalism is another fundamental monument of our culture,” Newman says. “By challenging it, I am not advocating the glorification of amateurism or incompetence.  On the contrary, we are striving to bring everyone’s skills up to the so-called ‘professional level.’ It’s motivated by a desire to move us forward to that moment in history, where, to paraphrase Marx, everyone can be a professional at everything.”  Thus Newman’s theatre work is seamlessly interwoven with his community building work and at one with his cver-present concern to build growthful environments.

   The form and style of Newman’s performance pieces has varied a great deal over the years.  For the most part, his plays have come to approximate conventional realist plays—at least in their beginnings. They then tend to evolve—or devolve, depending on your perspective—into philosophical conversations that leave virtually none of the conflicts raised by the play resolved.

   As Richard Schechner put it in an interview in the early 1990s, “I would call Fred Newman’s theatre a New York ‘90s working class style of performing.  It’s not the style of Stanislavski to Strasberg to Adler to you.  Newman’s work is the display of contradictions. There is no attempt to resolve and therefore the question becomes: What future do you want to construct?”

   For Newman, that question is key to everything he has done as a citizen and as an artist. “I don’t think anyone ever resolves anything—personally or socially or intellectually or whatever,” he has said.  “I think people create the illusion that they’ve resolved something for the purposes of getting a grant or getting published or getting a production or getting a good night’s sleep. My reason for not resolving things on stage is that I think it requires a falsification of what the world is like. That’s precisely what the theatre has been doing of 2,500 years and that’s why theatre has it currently exists is a profoundly conservative institution.  I want nothing to do with resolution.” 

*

   Fred Newman was born in the south Bronx, a few blocks from Yankee Stadium, in 1935. Both of his parents were of Eastern European Jewish decent and had been born in New York City.  His family was poor and he was the youngest of four siblings. When he was 12, Newman’s father died suddenly of a heart attack; his mother supported Fred and herself (the rest of her children had moved out) by subletting rooms in their apartment to boarders and organizing illegal floating poker games.  He attended Stuyvesant, New York City’s most elite public high school. Upon graduation, he apprenticed briefly as a machinist with his older brother, served two years in Korea, and returned to attend from New York City College. From there, he was accepted as a graduate student in the philosophy department of Stanford University, where he specialized in the foundations of mathematics and the philosophy of science, becoming Donald Davidson’s protégée.

   The first teaching job Newman took after he received his PhD in 1962 was at Knox College, a small Methodist school in Galesberg, in central Illinois.  When one of his students, a coed taking his ethics course, came to him for help after she had been expelled for curfew violation—male students had no curfew, but women had to be in their dorm by 11:00 pm—Newman took up her cause. Needless to say, his contract at Knox was not renewed.

   He spent much of the rest of the decade teaching philosophy at various schools around the country becoming increasingly radicalized by the upheavals of the time.  On the grounds that he didn’t want to contribute to any student flunking out of school and thus become vulnerable to the draft, Newman made a principal of giving all his students “A”s. (Since he didn’t want to discriminate, he gave “A”s to the women as well.) This was not appreciated by college administrators and Newman never lasted more than two semesters in any one school.  In 1968 he found himself teaching at his old alma mater of City College in Harlem. It was there that he decided that if he was serious about contributing to social change he would need to leave the institutional security and conservativism of the academy.  With a small following of students, he founded a community-based collective called If/Then in the Norwood section of the Bronx.

   Thus began Newman’s long and controversial odyssey as a political and cultural organizer, an odyssey that has resulted not only in his emergence as a “citizen artist,” but, more significantly, the emergence, of a whole movement of citizen artists or, perhaps more accurately, artistically or culturally engaged citizens—from Independence Party campaign volunteers who speak of “performing an election” to actors who consider human development, not aesthetics, to be their bottom line concern.

   Of all the radical tendencies and movements born in the late sixties, Newman’s is one of the very few still active and certainly has become the largest, best organized and most influential. From the beginning Newman was controversial among his fellow leftists and this controversy has in roots in two characteristics that remain in play to this day.

   First, as Newman’s move off campus indicated, he has always maintained that going to the people was essential; mass organizing, not theory, has always characterized the work he has led. While much of the Left in the 1970s imploded, debating—and sometimes physically attacking each other—over the Marxist equivalent of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, Newman and his followers were going into New York’s poorest communities meeting people and building groups such as the New York Unemployed and Welfare Council, the Coalition of Grassroots Women, and the New Alliance Party, organizations now long gone but which account for the deep roots Newman’s movement maintains to this day in the city’s African American and Latino communities.

   Closely connected to this grassroots organizing approach, Newman has maintained from the beginning that organizations and activities capable of empowering the poor and the disenfranchised would have to be built independently, that is, outside of the Democratic Party and the established unions and certainly free of government, corporate and foundation funding.  As the seventies turned into the eighties much of what was left of the Left found itself dependent on just such money and/or working as part of the Democratic Party or the unions (which were pretty much the same thing). Hence, Newman, to them, was quickly becoming an anathema.

   The second fundamental that distinguished Newman and his followers from much of the rest of the Left, was his insistence that social change and human development was not essentially a matter of politics or economics but of culture.  This is what led him to engage what Marxists call the “subjective factor”—psychology, the arts, personal relations—with a depth no other U.S. Leftist has ever come close to.

   “As a Marxist, I think the fundamental causes of oppression, exploitation and so on are economic,” Newman has said. “At the same time, I think that the form that underlying economic issues take in day-to-day life is cultural. I still hold to the view that in the ‘final analysis’ there has to be a fundamental change in the nature of the economy.  However, I think, number one, that we’re a long way from the ‘final analysis,’ and number two, you have to deal with the cultural form of that exploitation if you’re going to help people to do something about it. People aren’t going to go directly from how they’re currently organized culturally to radically reorganizing economic realities. So culture is a critical day-to-day, week-to-week, year-to-year issue. In some respects it’s more important than politics, which, in my opinion, is another form of culture in any event.”

   Obviously in there were in the 60s, and are today, others who are able and willing to provide a critique of conventional psychology, of established political structures and of prevailing cultural assumptions.  What has distinguished Newman and his colleagues in this regard was they were not simply providing a critique (although critique was obviously a part of the process); they were, more importantly, engaged in the activity of building something else—theatres, talent shows, therapy clinics, new political parties—environments that allowed ordinary people to give expression to their creative impulses.

*

   Newman dismisses questions about the connections between the various aspects of his work with a methodological point. ”I don’t so much see connections, as I’ve never seen separations,” he said. “Human beings engage in a wide variety of activities and they’re all very much interconnected. ... I think the fundamental questions are all moral, that’s what drives me a citizen and as an artist. Every Sunday morning I watch the political talk shows; I’ve watched them for years.  But all of them—right, left and center—are talking about the wrong subject. The proper subject is not politics. The proper subject is morality. The crisis in America today is a moral crisis.  Does it have political implications? Of course it does; moral crises have implications in everything, but it’s fundamentally a moral crisis.  All that I do is an effort to engage the moral issues.”

   Finally, Newman is not completely comfortable with the label of “citizen artist.” He feels that “citizen” implies a stable society in which people have fixed social roles, including citizen. While citizen is certainly a positive role, he argues that it implies a certain social stasis, an established social framework one is not supposed to go beyond.

   “If I had to chose some term other than ‘citizen artist,’ I would choose ‘organizer artist’ because that’s what I am,” he said in a recent interview. “My effort is to create art in such a way that it helps people to develop and fundamentally transform. … Our society, as I see it, is simultaneously stable and unstable. I think there are two options: you can help people to adapt to the status quo or you can help people to transform the status quo, and I line up on the side of helping to transform it.”

 

i This and subsequent quotes from the New York Times: Slackman, Michael, “In New York, Fringe Politics in Mainstream,” New York Times, May 28, 2005, A-1.

ii Newman, Fred from an unpublished interview conducted by Dan Friedman, December 29, 2004.

iii Newman, F. and Holzman, L. (1997). The end of knowing: A new developmental way of learning. London: Routledge: Newman, F. and Holzman, L. (1996). Unscientific psychology: A cultural-performatory approach to understanding human life. Westport, CT: Praeger; Newman, F. (1996). Performance of a lifetime: A practical-philosophical guide to the joyous life. New York: Castillo International; Newman, F. (1994). Let’s develop! A guide to continuous personal growth. New York: Castillo International; Newman, F. and Holzman, L. (1993). Lev Vygotsky: Revolutionary scientist. London: Routledge; Newman, F. (1991). The myth of psychology. New York: Castillo International; Hood, L. and Newman, F. (1979). The practice of method. An introduction to the foundations of social therapy.  [monograph]. New York: NY Institute for Social Therapy and Research; Newman, F. (1977). Practical-critical activities. [monograph]. New York: Institute for Social Therapy and Research; Newman, F. (1968). Explanation by description: An essay on historical methodology. The Hague: Mouton.

iiii Gergen, Kenneth, “Forward,” in Holzman, Lois (ed,), Performing Psychology: A Postmodern Culture of the Mind. New York/London: Routledge, 1999.

iv Gordon, Edmund, Bowman, Carol Bonilla, Mejia, Brenda, “Changing the Script for Youth Development: An Evaluation of the All Stars Talent Show Network and the Joseph A. Forgione Development School for Youth.” (June 2003)

 vi Gates, Henry Louis, America Behind the Color Line. New York: Warner Books. 2004. 104-121.

 vii Name the Awards

 viii Newman, Fred, from an unpublished interview by Dan Friedman, December 29, 2004.

 ix Ibid.

x Schechner, Richard, “…New York ’90s Working Class Style of Performing. It’s Castillo’ Own Style,” interview conducted by Dan Friedman. The National Alliance, Vol. 12, No. 15 (April 8, 1991), 1.

xi Newman, 2004.

xii Newman, Fred, an interview by Dan Friedman, February 20, 2001.

xiii Newman, Fred, “Newman on Newman,” a public dialogue held with Dan Friedman, June 12, 2005.

xiv Newman, 2004.