"Performance Of A Lifetime":
Interactive Growth Theatre And The Development Of Performance In Everyday Life
Theatre Insight (2000)
by Dan Friedman
Dramaturg, Castillo Theatre
It’s 7:45 on a Saturday evening. A group of 15 people, ranging in age from their early 20s to their early 60s, are in the final rehearsal of an improvisational play they have created together over the previous four weeks. They are New Yorkers from many walks of life, and except for a few who appeared in high school plays years ago, none of them have ever performed in public before.
Some seventy chairs face the small stage at one end of an otherwise open loft in the Soho section of lower Manhattan. In a few minutes, all those chairs will be filled with relatives, friends and interested strangers, and 15 “non-performers” will have the all-too-rare experience of performing in public. What is happening is “interactive growth theatre” at Performance of a Lifetime.
“It’s very unfortunate that in our culture the only people who are allowed to perform, besides children, are professional performers,” says Fred Newman, the founder of Performance of a Lifetime. “At a certain point in life you’re supposed to sit in the audience and watch. We think that’s unfortunate because performance is something that’s too developmental and too useful, not to mention too much fun, to stop.”
In introducing the very first interactive growth theatre performance on June 1, 1996 Newman went on to say:
We understand performance very broadly. From our point of view performance might have nothing to do with being on the stage. We think you can perform at home, at work, in any social setting. It’s just that in plays if we don’t get it right the first time we can do it again and again and again. Why can’t we do it again and again in life situations? Maybe we can…At Performance of a Lifetime we provide non-performers 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 help them get into a performatory and theatrical mode, to have this new experience…With this kind of support, people discover that they can, 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 on stage 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 a developmental experience.
Performance of a Lifetime (POAL) embodies and straddles the borders among theatre, therapy and community organizing. Its directors work for the most part with non-performers (that is, people who have had no formal acting or performance training) to create a full-length, improvisational play which is then performed before a live audience. Performance of a Lifetime calls this performatory activity with non-performers “interactive growth theatre.” While all theatre is, of course, “interactive,” POAL uses “interactive” to refer to the activity of collectively creating the play together through improvisation. “Growth” refers to their belief that this performatory activity can engender emotional and social growth in those practicing it. Interactive growth theatre is theatre to the extent that it results in the public performance of something that loosely resembles a play. It is therapy to the extent that it creates an environment in which, through performance, participants can create new emotions and improvise new social relations. It is community organizing to the extent that it brings people from diverse backgrounds and with diverse views together and empowers them to try out new roles and possibilities. This mix, this border crossing, I will argue, has ramifications for understanding the potential role of performance in contemporary life.
Founded in April 1996, POAL has, as of August 1999, created 22 interactive growth theatre productions involving 376 participants performing before approximately 2,000 people. In addition, it has taken customized performance workshops and programs into nine corporations and 17 government agencies, hospitals and non-profit service organizations, established ongoing client relationships with a number of them, and developed a performance school that offers classes in, among other things, acting, improvisational comedy, voice and movement.
In all of these projects, POAL’s working assumption is that performance – the capacity to be who you are and who you are not at the same time – is inherently developmental. To the extent that POAL has a goal, it is to enable participants to take this performatory ability into their daily lives.
Performance of a Lifetime, a product of the late 1990s, has its roots in the radical therapy movements of the 1960s. More specifically, it has its origins in the work of Fred Newman. Newman is a Stanford-trained philosopher of science deeply steeped in the work of the analytical philosophers of the 20th century as well as in Marxism. He left academia in 1968 to dedicate himself to community organizing and developing a non-psychological approach to therapy. While other radical therapy movements in the’70s were building alternative psychologies, Newman and his colleagues were building an alternative to psychology. The difference between what Newman built, which has come to be called performance social therapy, and psychology in all its variations is its insistence that human emotionality and subjectivity (e.g., cognition, perception) are social activities, not inner psychic phenomenon. The unit of study in performance social therapy is the group, not the individual, and the curative (developmental) process is social, activistic, and performatory, not intrapsychic, diagnostic or analytic.
“Newman’s performative social therapy emulates neither explanatory nor interpretive science, as do other forms of psychotherapy,” writes Lois Holzman, a developmental psychologist and close collaborator with Newman in the development of performance social therapy. “Dealing with emotional problems and pain does not require insight, objectification or analysis. Rather, as we see it, it requires creating new emotions (developing emotionally). This is a creative activity people do with each other.”
Newman came to the radical therapy movement as an activist in the social and political upheavals of the 1960s, and for some 30 years he has practiced therapy as one component in a more general effort to change the world. Over the last three decades Newman and his colleagues have been involved in all sorts of efforts in addition to therapy – in the unions, in the welfare centers, in the schools, in independent electoral politics, and, starting in 1983, in theatre. What all these efforts have in common is a concern with creating environments in which people can engage in creative activity together, environments in which development of various sorts can occur. Newman uses “development” in both the popular sense of referring to the changes and transformations – intellectual, emotional, economic, moral, etc. – that individuals and societies go through, and, at the same time, in a very specific sense relative to psychology. In mainstream psychology, development is usually understood as a series of steps in the life cycle, something that happens to us. For Newman and Holzman, development is far more activistic; people create their own development through their social interaction. The concept of development that informs POAL and other projects initiated by Newman has little to do with biology or abstracted laws of history or economics; it is, rather, an open-ended social-cultural process. It is not what you are becoming, but that you are becoming that is of interest to Newman.
The work of Newman and his colleagues over the last three decades has resulted in the emergence of a development community, an international network of organizations and activities involving hundreds of thousands of people working on various aspects of human development. Within this expanding development community the engagement of the institution of psychology has remained central. Newman and his colleagues are convinced that it is not possible to qualitatively change the world if we human beings — the changers — don’t find a way to change, to grow, to develop morally in the process. Since the institution of psychology shapes and limits our subjectivity, it is, Newman maintains, an important area of engagement for those interested in human growth and social transformation.
“The connection [of therapy] to revolution, for me, is this,” said Newman in an unpublished talk in 1998. “In order to help somebody in therapy, you somehow have to find a way to speak to people as if they can change the world. Normally we don’t speak to each other as if we can change the world, or even the moment we’re in. We don’t talk with each other as if something can be created by the conversation we’re having, let alone that this very conversation/social interaction/activity could change the world. But what we as human beings are capable of changing is not each other but everything.”
It is in the context of this development community and, specifically, out of the search for a way to relate to the therapy patient as a revolutionary, a “changer of everything,” that Performance of a Lifetime and its approach to performance emerged.
Interactive growth theatre as practiced by POAL has a number of antecedents both in the theatre and in psychology. In the modern theatre, POAL’s roots can be traced back to Brecht’s lehrstücke, which were intended to be learning experiences for the performers as well as the audience. Augusto Boal, building on Brecht, has, since the 1960s, developed a number of forms of theatre, including “simultaneous dramaturgy,” “image theatre,” and “forum theatre,” designed to encourage audience participation, both from the auditorium and on the stage, in the shaping of the performance. The community-based theatre movement which has begun to emerge in the United States over the last decade shares with POAL, and Boal, a commitment to involving “non-performers” in performance. To the extent that this nascent movement can be characterized, it consists of theatre academics and/or professionals working with people from a community to create a play, often about some aspect of the history of that community. There are also a number of youth theatres, including the Albany Park Theater in Chicago, the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, and Hope is Vital based in Blacksburg, Virginia, which create plays with working-class youth based on incidents and issues from their lives.
The approach of most community-based theatre projects, following Brecht and Boal, is primarily pedagogical. The creation and/or performance of the play is viewed as way that the participants can learn something about themselves, their communities, their histories. The difference in POAL’s approach is perhaps subtle, but I would argue, significant. While learning of various sorts no doubt goes on in the process of creating interactive growth theatre, POAL’s directors approach their work as primarily methodological, not ideological or pedagogical; that is, the experience is designed primarily to support participants in the discovery of performance as a transforming force in their daily lives. Performance, instead of being a tool for a result (learning), is approached, dialectically, as both a tool and a result at the same time. It is the activity of performance itself that is considered potentially transformative.
The theatre theorist and practitioner who most clearly foreshadowed the work of Newman and POAL was Nicolas Evreinoff (1879-1953), a Russian actor, director, playwright, composer, musician and theorist. Evreinoff was a supporter of the Bolshevik revolution and directed many of the “Mass Spectacles” staged in the early years of the revolution, which involved thousands of ordinary people re-enacting recent (and not so recent) historical events. For Evreinoff performance was not a teaching tool, but a transformative activity that could be practiced in daily life as well as on stage. In his book, The Theatre in Life, published in 1927, Evreinoff identified performance (which he called “theatricality”) as a human instinct that allowed for transformation. Evreinoff wrote:
Man has one instinct about which, in spite of its inexhaustible vitality, neither history nor psychology nor aesthetics have so far said a single word. I have in mind the instinct of transformation, the instinct of opposing to images received from without images arbitrarily created from within, the instinct of transmuting appearances found in nature into something else, an instinct which clearly reveals its essential character in the conception of what I call theatricality…The instinct of theatricalization which I claim the honour to have discovered may be best described as the desire to be ‘different,’ to do something that is ‘different,’ to imagine oneself in surroundings that are ‘different’ from the commonplace surroundings of our everyday life. It is one of the mainsprings of our existence, of that which we call progress, of change, evolution and development in all departments of life. We are all born with this feeling in our soul, we are all essentially theatrical beings.
Evreinoff’s writings are anecdotal and romantic, and after Stalin’s rise to power he had little opportunity to apply his theories. While he implies a connection between performance and activistic social development, he doesn’t make a specific connection, as Newman does, between the theatricality of human life and the revolutionariness of human life.
Earlier uses of performance in therapeutic contexts share with the various pedagogical approaches to theatre an instrumentalist, tool-for-result methodology. The best known of these is the psychodrama of J.L. Moreno and his followers. In psychodrama, individuals and sometimes groups enact for their therapist aspects of their histories or personalities that seem to require therapeutic attention. For Moreno and others such as Fritz Perls who used variations on psychodrama in their therapeutic work, performance provides “the opportunity of recapitulation of unsolved problems within a freer, broader and more flexible social setting.” Performance, for Moreno, is a tool used in the service of analytic results, much as Brecht and Boal use it for pedagogical ends.
Similarly, while starting with very different assumptions than the psychotherapists about how the human mind works, behaviorist psychology’s use of performance is equally instrumental. The “behavior rehearsals” (also referred to as “behaviorodrama,” “behavioristic psychodrama” and “replication therapy”) developed by the behaviorist therapist Theodore Sarbin and others in the late 1960s, are a means for teaching the patient proper ways of behaving. It is a technique – closer to imitation than to performance as Newman uses the term -- to help the client adjust to society-as-it-is by gaining more acceptable social/psychological skills. For Newman, learning to behave is the opposite of learning to perform. Behavior is essentially learning pre-existing societal rules and roles, while performance is the process of transcending them and creating new roles and new social interactions.
To find discussion of performance as a transformative social activity, we must turn to anthropology. The anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, at the turn of the last century, and building on his work, Victor Turner, Brian Sutton-Smith, and Colin Turnbull, working at mid-century, identified performance as an activity which could result in individual and social change. They called it “liminal” activity (from limen, meaning “threshold” in Latin) that is, activity which passes through (or beyond) the threshold of traditional or conventional behavior.
Van Gennep first noticed this liminality in the performance rituals that usually accompany social changes in tribal societies (from peace to war, change of season, etc.), as well as socially recognized transformations in individual lives (from child to adult, single to married, etc.). For van Gennep performance remained an activity distinct from daily life (in fact, defined by its distinction from daily life), and one that, contained within established ritual, played the basically conservative function of keeping change within the boundaries of tradition. Turner made a distinction between the liminal and the liminoid. Liminal activity, which he saw as primarily relevant to tribal and early agrarian societies, was ritualized performatory activity which broke social norms in order to reintegrate the individual or group back into the social norm. Liminoid activity, which has evolved since the industrial revolution and the consequent distinction between work and play, is a less ritualized, more individualized and playful performatory activity from which innovation and social transformation can grow. Building on Turner’s work, Sutton-Smith, a developmental psychologist, emphasized the inherent subversiveness of performance, and argued that individuals and groups had much to learn from the “disorderliness” of performance, which he called “the source of new culture.” Also building on Turner’s work, Colin Turnbull has challenged the traditional methodological approach of anthropology (and by implication, other social sciences), by maintaining that performance cannot be studied objectively and can only be understood by participation in the performance. Turnbull’s activistic (as opposed to cognitive), dialectical (as opposed to dualist) methodology has much in common with Newman’s and is implicit in the approach of POAL, which is not, as is the traditional theatre, primarily about watching performance; it is about but doing performance.
It should be noted that neither the anthropological research on performance nor Evreinoff’s writings were a direct influence on the development of Newman’s thought or on the practice of POAL. The most direct intellectual precursor of Newman’s concept of performance is the research and writings of the early Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who worked in the 1920s and ’30s. Newman encountered Vygotsky’s work in the late 1970s and considers the Russian psychologist to be a major influence on the development of performance social therapy. Among his many important observations, Vygotsky noted that infants and young children develop by performing. They learn language and all the other social skills that constitute being human by creatively imitating the adults and older children around them; in Vygotsky’s words, by performing “a head taller than they are.” Newman and Holzman, building on Vygotsky, argue that adults can reinitiate development at any time by performing a head taller than they are, or more precisely, performing as other than they are. POAL is designed to make the option of development through performance available to the general public, by loosening the theatre’s exclusive claims on performance.
While Newman’s therapeutic approach has always been social and relational, the foregrounding of performance as a developmental activity can be traced, at least in part, to the emergence of the Castillo Theatre and Newman’s interaction with it.
Castillo is a 16-year-old off-off Broadway theatre in New York City noted for its experimental productions, populist political concerns and postmodern sensibility. By the middle of the ’80s, Newman had started working directly with Castillo as a director and playwright. His productions proved to be very popular (and provocative), and in 1989 he was named the theatre’s artistic director. He has since directed 25 of his own plays and musicals at Castillo along with work by Bertolt Brecht, Aimé Césaire, Laurence Holder, Heiner Müller, Yosef Mundy, Peter Weiss and others.
Enriching Newman’s work as a theatre director and playwright, Castillo’s grassroots fundraising approach provided him with important data on the nature of “not theatre” performance. In order to insure Castillo’s independence from government and corporate foundations, for years Castillo volunteers canvassed door-to-door and set up tables on street corners and subway platforms to raise money for its activities. In recent years, they have transitioned to a primarily telemarketing operation manned by a volunteer staff who are on the phones five nights a week and Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
This intensive, ongoing fundraising/audience building effort, which has made Castillo’s artistic and political risking taking possible, did not come easy. Many of the scores of people involved – with widely varying levels of experience and skills as fundraisers and community organizers – found it difficult to knock on doors and talk to strangers on the street about the Castillo Theatre and ask for money. The model ultimately succeeded because the Castillo volunteers found a way to take performance from the stage to the street and door. They began to approach canvassing and street work as performances. Some developed performance persona, “characters,” based on who they were, but emphasizing their more confident, friendly, outgoing, and humorous characteristics. It was “in character” that the fundraising was “performed.”
A third element of the Castillo project that would contribute to the emergence of Performance of a Lifetime was the Gayggles, an improvisational comedy troupe composed of some of Castillo’s regular actors. The troupe included Newman, David Nackman and Cathy Salit, each of whom would go on to play a vital role in the development of Performance of a Lifetime. (The comedy group had originally been called Emmy Gay and the Gayggles, after the comic Emmy Gay who later left the troupe.) The Gayggles performed regularly at Castillo, usually presenting late Saturday night shows after Castillo’s regular play, between 1990 and 1998. For about a year in the mid-90s, the troupe also had a regular Monday night gig at the Don Hill’s rock and roll club in Soho.
The personnel of the Gayggles remained remarkably consistent over the nine years of its existence, and the troupe became very skilled in the art of ensemble improvisation. While the Gayggles went through a number of transformations, what came to characterize their work was the creation of an entire musical comedy on the spot based on suggestions from the audience. The rapid improvisational creation of full-length “plays” would become a characteristic of interactive growth theatre. Beyond that, the Gayggles, for Newman, became a laboratory in the creative potential of improvisational performance.
Newman’s study of Vygotsky, along with his experiences as an improvisational comic actor, theatre director and playwright, and his observation of the development of the skills of canvassers and street fundraisers through their use of performance, led him and Holzman to begin to see (and write about) social therapy in performatory terms. Newman and his fellow therapists began to approach their work as directors and to encourage their patients to consciously perform their therapeutic conversations. In their theoretical writings Newman and Holzman began to explore the relationship between performance and development.
“If therapy is to be truly useful, in my opinion, it must be developmental,” Newman said in 1998. “I think there is some kind of development that takes place in the process of ensemble, collective performance of not just someone else’s play, but performance of our own discourse with each other.”
Nonetheless, as performatory as social therapy may be, it is restrained by the tradition and institution of therapy. Analogously, performance within the theatre is constrained by the convention and traditions of that institution. Newman and his colleagues became convinced that, loosened from the constraints of the therapy room (and the stage), self-conscious performance had the potential to play a transformative role in the lives of individuals and groups. Describing “revolutionary activity” (as distinct from “Revolution”) as “the continuous transformation of mundane, specific life activities into qualitatively new forms of life,” Newman writes, “Revolutionary activity…is an unnatural act. It is performatory, more theatrical and therapeutic than rational and epistemic. Human beings become who we ‘are’ by continuously ‘being who we are not.’”
By the early ’90s, the challenge for Newman and his colleagues became (and remains), how to facilitate bringing the developmental activity of performance off the stage and out of the therapy room into daily life situations for the “continuous transformation of mundane, specific life activities.”
The activity that would take the institutional form of Performance of a Lifetime emerged at a series of weekend retreats held between 1993 and 1995 by the East Side Institute for Short Term Psychotherapy, a research and training center for the social therapeutic approach, where Newman is the director of training. At one such event, “The Play is the Therapy: Emotional Growth Through Performance” held at the Edith Macy Conference Center in Briarcliff Manor, New York in July 1993, Newman led a diverse group of psychologists, psychiatrists, therapeutic social workers, and social therapy patients in a series of improvisational performance workshops designed to discover/demonstrate the power of performance in the therapeutic process. Over the course of two days, these 200 people, sometimes as a body and sometimes divided into four groups working on four different “acts,” together created a sprawling improvisational comedy.
The response of the participants was overwhelmingly positive. “I found it more therapeutic than any therapy I had ever done,” recalled Joan Fleischman, a physician from Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx. “Instead of talking about acting differently, I acted differently! The whole idea that I could ‘play’ in life has made it possible for me to do things that seemed insurmountable before.”
“I was amazed at what we were able to create collectively when we were not confined by rules and roles,” said another participant, Sara Bayer, a case manager for homeless families in Roxbury, Massachusetts. “It helped me perform in my life – not pretend – but to create something positive out of the deadness and pain that life is often made of.”
The success of the first “The Play is the Therapy” weekend led the East Side Institute to hold another one on the weekend of January 29 and 30, 1994. Newman, working with Nackman, asked people to do one-minute performances of their lives (the “performance of a lifetime”). After each of these performances, Newman and Nackman made a directorial suggestion and asked each participant to perform in response to that suggestion for 30 more seconds. Based on these “performances of a lifetime” and the characters (or, more accurately, performance personas) they projected, Newman and Nackman put various combinations of people together and proposed improvisational situations to work on. By the end of the weekend, a play had been created. The “performance of a lifetime” model that emerged that weekend was repeated, with similar success, the next year. It has, since then, remained basically intact.
“A whole new door was opened,” says Newman. “We saw some people say more about themselves, their emotionality and their issues in one minute of performance than they had in seven years of therapy.”
“After those first workshops, it was clear that we had hit on something,” recalls Salit, a member of the Castillo Theatre acting ensemble, business manager of the East Side Center for Social Therapy and the East Side Institute for Short Term Psychotherapy, and POAL’s president and co-director. “It was a theatrical activity totally focused on process which, at the same time, was very successful in helping people with their emotional problems and issues.”
Performance of a Lifetime opened its doors on April 1, 1996. In the beginning, Newman, working closely with POAL’s staff, directed the productions. Within a year, the co-directors – David Nackman, Cathy Salit, and Nancy Green – were trained, and Newman stopped directing the shows. However, he continues to meet with the co-directors as a consultant for both the interactive growth theatre productions and to help conceptualize customized programs to meet the needs of corporate and other clients.
In hope of giving a sense of the Performance of a Lifetime experience, I will here describe, step by step, the creation and performance of Birth of a Corporation, POAL’s 22nd interactive growth theatre piece, which was performed on July 30, 1999 and rehearsed for the four preceding weeks.
The ensemble for Birth of a Corporation consisted of 15 people. POAL casts have been as large as 41 and as small as six; most range between 12 and 18 people. These casts are self-selected, in the sense that they consist of those who have signed up to participate and paid the $299 fee. The cast of Birth of a Corporation was diverse, as are virtually all POAL casts. Participants ranged in age from the early 20s to the early 60s and came from most of the city’s major ethnic communities. The cast included an architect, a corporate lawyer, a teacher, a salesperson, an independent entrepreneur, and a marketing consultant who had just received her doctorate in developmental psychology, as well as people working in a wide variety of clerical and service related jobs. Three members of the cast had participated in interactive growth theatre before, the rest were newcomers.
Before the ensemble meets, each person has an individual interview with current directors David Nackman and Cathy Salit, to talk about previous performance experiences. Most participants start by saying that they have none, but, according to Nackman and Salit, in the course of the conversation, they remember the high school play they were in or the mime lessons they took during their junior year in college, and so on. After this initial conversation, the cast member gets on POAL’s small raised stage and reads a scene with Nackman from a contemporary play.
“I ask them to discard any preconceptions about what “acting out a scene” should be like, and simply to listen and respond using their character’s lines,” said Nackman. “They immediately find themselves involved in creating theatrical activity — without knowing how. It gives them experience on stage and lets them know that we’re serious about jumping into performance at a moment’s notice.”
The first rehearsal begins with Nackman and Salit giving the cast an orientation to the notion of performance as developmental and the importance of building an ensemble. Then movement coach Madelyn Chapman, a member of Castillo’s acting company, leads the group in a prolonged movement warm-up, which, in addition to helping the ensemble gain a conscious sense of their bodies in motion, works to slow them down and focus on the activity at hand. Then they work on making faces and speaking in gibberish, which “gives the ensemble permission to be something other than normal, or cool, or who they ‘really’ are,” said Nackman. Variations on these exercises are done at the start of each subsequent rehearsal. In fact, each POAL performance, including Birth of a Corporation, has begun with a slow motion exercise in the auditorium which the audience is invited to join – and some segment of the audience always does.
Then each cast member does a “performance of a lifetime,” a 60-second solo performance which attempts to give expression to something about her or his life. Nackman and Salit go first, to provide an example. The performances vary greatly, with most participants using the spoken word, but some dancing or singing. Many work to summarize their entire life in 60 seconds; others show a typical “slice” of their lives or a moment that they consider transitional; still others perform an apparently mundane moment, like what it was like to wake up that morning. Whatever they choose to do, immediately following their 60 seconds Salit or Nackman give them a directorial suggestion to perform a 30-second “sequel” which expands, extends, or sheds a different light on what they just performed. One or the other of the directors will often be cast in this followup performance, and improvise with the participant.
The performances of a lifetime for Birth of a Corporation, were, according to Nackman, not very theatrical, but were very revealing emotionally. One woman performed the high school tennis tournament she competed in after the team’s star player dropped out. Another woman re-enacted the birth of her twins on stage. One man performed the anxiety surrounding the start-up of his business. An older woman performed her anxiety about her upcoming retirement. Another participant, who happened to have had the most theatre training, totally froze and was unable to do anything for 60 seconds. Salit, remembering from her interview that she knew folk dancing, asked her to teach Nackman to folk dance, which she did with gusto, literally dancing him off the stage.
These performances are seminal in the evolution of the play. “We take copious notes, and in the days following that first rehearsal Cathy and I come up with improvisational scenes that have some relationship to the work, the characters, the issues of that first day,” reported Nackman. “In the case of Birth of a Corporation, the theme that seemed to emerge was navigating the stages of their lives – sports tests, marriage, childbirth, starting a business. So we tried to come up with situations that could, in some way, address that.”
The second rehearsal a week later begins with an improvisational scene involving the entire cast. In the case of Birth of a Corporation, the set-up was a waiting room for a time travel service that allows customers to go back and relive 90 minutes of their lives. The cast was told that they could perform as themselves or any character they wanted to invent and that they could choose any motivation they wanted for signing up for the time travel. It could be to relive the greatest 90 minutes of their lives. It could be to try and straighten out 90 minutes that had messed up everything since. It could be to make a different choice than they had made the first time. The casts’ job was to interact in the waiting room, in character and with the motivations they had chosen.
“These large group improvisations are invariably chaotic. They’re hard to make any sense out of. The participants have a hard time focusing on what’s going on. It’s learning by immersion; it’s like throwing a baby into the water to teach it to swim,” said Nackman. “The performers have to struggle to listen to a whole roomful of people. They have to listen to where the offers are coming from and decide what to respond to. The challenge is to respond to those actions, those offers, which build the scene as opposed to those things that will split the scene into infinite little pieces…By conventional theatre standards these scenes are never ‘successful,’ but the cast learns a tremendous amount from them.”
The large group scene always generates a lot of discussion, which the directors use to teach some basic techniques of improvisational performance, in particular the need to accept whatever happens and build on it instead of attempting to stick to a preconceived agenda or motivation.
The second half of the rehearsal consists of smaller scenes more closely tied to the ensemble’s 60-second performances, in which the directors encourage the participants to perform beyond the constraints of their social identities and their sense of propriety. “Again,” noted Nackman, “we’re working to give permission to the performers to make bigger moves. The emphasis is on the bizarre and on creating characters rather than just being themselves.”
Between the second and third rehearsals, Nackman and Salit meet with Fred Newman and perform for him what the ensemble has done up to that point. “It’s not that we impersonate everyone and or replicate every incident that’s been improvised. We call it ‘creative imitation’ of the ensemble. We take the more striking improvisational moves, the more memorable moments, and try to give him a performatory sense of what the process has been like,” said Nackman.
They also share their thoughts about the kinds of scenes the ensemble seems to do best with, and observations about the group’s dynamics. Based on this performance and conversation, Newman comes up with an idea for a play, a premise or situation which is based on the work already done and which becomes the central concept of the performance.
“With Birth of a Corporation, he came up with the idea almost immediately,” reported Nackman. “He said, ‘What if there’s a nursery full of newborns and they start a corporation? They’re babies who have the consciousness of adults and they’re very aggressive, corporate types who become very successful.’ All sorts of roles immediately suggested themselves. Not only were there the babies, there were their parents, the nurses in the hospital, and so on. It was inclusive of the stages-of-life thing, the giving-birth thing, the starting-a-business thing.”
After the meeting with Newman, Nackman and Salit work to theatrically implement the concept Newman has devised. Sometimes they come up with a thorough scenario. Sometimes they leave it very open, and often the ensemble, in the course of improvising, will come up with material and characters that change everything the directors bring into the next rehearsal.
For Birth of a Corporation the directors fleshed out the concept with the characters of the babies’ parents, and another set of characters, the newborns 99 years later, living in a beachfront retirement community (which harked back to the audition about the anxieties of retirement). The old folks would be sitting around reminiscing about when they were babies and had started their successful corporation. Essentially the story would be told twice, from two different stages of life -- infancy and old age. There would be two performance spaces (stages), one for each set of characters, and the performance was to be structured so that sometimes the old people would anticipate what would happen with the babies and sometimes the babies would anticipate what the old people were remembering. The plot would start with the young couple, broke and unable to conceive, responding to a newspaper ad from a doctor claiming to have a pill that would make them fertile and wealthy. They go to the doctor, take the potion, and give birth to quintuplets who are “severely developmentally advanced.” The babies then go on to found a corporation. That is what Nackman and Salit brought to the third rehearsal.
“We started off [the third rehearsal] by having four cast members who work in the corporate world get on stage and, as themselves, improvise a scene about setting up a corporation. This helped the rest of the cast get a sense of the terminology and concepts involved,” said Nackman.
Another group then improvised being infants – crying, gurgling, playing with each others’ toes and so on. When they had established their infantness, the directors instructed them to begin improvising the start-up of a corporation based on what they had just seen the corporate people do. A third group then got up and worked on being very, very old and filled with memories. In the course of these improvisations, the performers quickly developed characters and it became apparent who belonged in what group. The couple playing the parents improvised a scene in which they fought over their frustrations. The woman whose performance of a lifetime had been giving birth to twins became the doctor. One of the men in the cast, whose large size and abundant energy dominated any scene he appeared in, became “Jason,” the assistant to the evil doctor, a role that allowed his physicality to become an asset. Finally, a scene was improvised in which the young couple visits the doctor and her assistant to purchase the miracle pill.
By the end of the third rehearsal, the cast had a good sense of the characters and their group dynamics and no sense of a story line or ending. Such open-endedness is common at this point in the process. Nackman reports that some third week rehearsals have consisted of Salit and himself improvising interviews with each cast member in order to help them develop their characters – and nothing more.
The fourth rehearsal begins two hours before show time. The directors have put a number of new resources in place. POAL’s modest lighting equipment has been hung to light the two stages separately and Bruce Randall, a lighting designer from the Castillo Theatre, is on the dimmers, ready to “improvise” the lights along with the performance. Mike Klein, Castillo’s sound designer, who has years of experience playing with sound effects during the improvisational comedy shows of the Gayggles, has provided pieces of music and sound effects for the various scenes. The Beatles’ “When I’m 64” accompanies the start of the first old persons’ scene; and “Baby You’re a Rich Man” will indicate the success of the babies’ corporate venture. There are also baby sounds for the nursery, sea gull cries to indicate the nearness of the ocean in the old peoples’ scenes, and so on.
Madelyn Chapman, who has served as movement coach throughout the rehearsal process, now becomes the stage manager as well. It is a job that, during an interactive growth theatre performance at POAL, includes cueing the actors about getting on and off stage, making sure they have their costumes and props, and, on many more than one occasion, reminding the performers what happens next.
By the start of tonight’s rehearsal Nackman and Salit have put together a rough scenario. The play is to begin with the young couple in bed having a fight over their infertility and poverty, in the course of which the wife shows her husband the ad for the doctor. The scene ends with their decision to visit the doctor (who, in an improv during the rehearsal is given the name “Dr. Mona Stat”). In the second scene, the couple visits Dr. Stat and Jason to get the pill that will make them rich and fertile. The third scene finds the newborns in the hospital nursery where they suck their thumbs, play with their toes, and decide to start a corporation. The fourth scene cuts to the old people 99 years later, and thereafter cuts back and forth from the nursery to the retirement community. Nackman and Salit improvise a narrative commentary, walking back and forth between the two stages and setting up each scene.
In the course of the pre-performance rehearsal of Birth of a Corporation, the cast was able to run through a brief version of each scene. Often during the final rehearsal, the directors will stop scenes at a certain point saying, “Okay, that’s basically how it goes.” This looseness is, of course, deliberate. It is built into the process in order to emphasize the creative power of uncertainty, to reinforce the power of improvisation, and to demonstrate to the cast its ability to perform in any circumstance.
Fifteen minutes before the doors were set to open for the audience, the play still didn’t have an ending. Salit and Nackman then improvised a scene in which she was angry at him for failing to come up with an ending as he had promised to do. In the course of the improvised confrontation, they came up with an ending. In the last scene Dr. Mona Stat is to visit the 99-year-olds at their retirement home. She has not aged at all. It seems that she had also invented an immortality pill, which she kept for herself, planning to outlive the babies and get all their wealth when they die. The old people are so shocked when they see that Dr. Stat hasn’t aged, that they all have heart attacks and die. She gets the corporation and the play ends with her doing a victory dance with Jason, the young couple locked in another argument, and the babies crying their heads off.
While the specifics vary from show to show, a POAL play never comes together until the fourth rehearsal, literally minutes before an audience is invited in to view it. “Typically, right up until the moment that the show begins the participants can’t believe that they’re going to do anything worth watching,” says Nackman. “That they invite their families and co-workers [to the performance] is the result of good organizing on our part; it’s not based on any belief on their part that there is going to be a good show. Within ten minutes of the curtain going up, that changes completely. Afterward, and we hear this repeatedly, the cast members say they realize that they were well prepared for the performance, although they had no idea that they were.”
The audience for Birth of a Corporation, which paid $20 per ticket, numbered 75. It sat on folding chairs facing the 3-foot-high, 12-foot-wide, 8-foot-deep elevated curtainless stage and the floor-level performance area at the platform’s stage left side. The performance was videotaped and a monitor provided close-ups of the performers that could be viewed by the audience members furthest away, who had a hard time seeing the action in the floor level performance area.
As the audience settles in, the performers are back stage, in a combination dressing and green room behind the stage. The evening begins, as it always does at an interactive growth theatre public performance, with a ten-minute introduction by Nackman and Salit in which they share with the audience the process by which the show was created and say something about POAL’s approach to performance as a developmental activity. The audience is also told what their performance as an audience should be – extreme enthusiasm — which they will go on to perform very well.
The audience is then invited to take part in a slow motion warm-up with the cast. The performers come out to a broad aisle to the right of the audience’s chairs and do a ten minute movement exercise under Chapman’s leadership. Whether or not they physically participate, the exercise serves the function of slowing the audience down (along with the cast), breaking with the demands and expectations of the work-a-day world, and creating a performatory space and time.
The play itself lasts almost exactly an hour. By the aesthetic standards of the theatre, the show is crude. The plot, as we have seen, is very loose and not particularly consistent. The characterizations are broad and virtually all farcical. The performance skills of the cast vary tremendously, with some performers displaying emotional range, physical grace, and deft comic timing, while others need to be reminded by the stage manager (who stands near the edge of the stage throughout the performance) to speak up so they can be heard. What characterizes Birth of a Corporation, and all POAL performances, is passionate enthusiasm. Both cast and audience members seem delighted and somewhat awe-struck that the show is actually happening, that they are creating a funny, entertaining show without knowing how. The audience cheers on the young couple and their unusual children, boos the evil doctor, laughs at all the humor, and gives the cast a standing ovation. After the performance, as after all interactive growth theatre performances at POAL, the cast and audience hang out talking for over an hour.
In the weeks and months following a performance such as Birth of a Corporation, former cast members contact POAL to sign up for one its many performance classes. “They often want to keep this activity, performance, as a part of their lives and come back looking for ways to do that,” reports Nackman. Each new cast now usually has at least a few members who had been audience members in earlier POAL shows, and word-of-mouth remains the main way that participants get involved.
In addition to creating interactive growth theatre productions at its own space, such as Birth of a Corporation, POAL has begun to bring its environment of performatory risk-taking into corporations, government agencies, and not-for-profit organizations. In this regard, POAL has been hired primarily to work in four areas: diversity training, team building, managing change, and helping workers develop conversational and presentational skills.
For example, at Booz·Allen and Hamiliton, Inc., an international management consulting firm, POAL was hired to do diversity training in 1998. “We began with basic improvisation skill training,” writes Salit. “Then [we] led the participants in creating and improvising scenes in which a particular ‘type’ person seemed appropriate. For example, a baseball locker room where what was ‘called for’ was a group of men. The players, however, were made up of both men (performing as men), and women (performing as men). Similarly, we created a scene where what was ‘called for’ was a group of African American women playing cards at a friend’s house. Once again, the players were comprised of African American women (performing as African American women), along with white and Asian American men and women (performing as African American women). In these and half a dozen other scenes, we ‘mixed up’ identities, with people performing as themselves, as one another, etc.”
Salit says the participants experienced these performances as being allowed into neighborhoods and homes where they had never been before. “What was so fascinating about the Booz·Allen and Hamilton work is that it transcended identity politics,” said Salit. “We created an environment where identities could be played with and seen as social constructs. The participants perceived each other and themselves in different ways and realized that socially constructed identities can be reconstructed.”
At Long Island College Hospital, a teaching hospital in Brooklyn, Performance of a Lifetime teaches a series of courses for resident doctors in eight-week cycles. First-year residents are given training in improvisation. They work with Salit and Nackman on exercises in which their experiences in the hospital are developed into improvisational scenes. As the course proceeds, the scenes they create together shift between “real life” and fantasy situations. “This allows them to break out of their accustomed roles as ‘the doctor,’ and bring more of who they are as people into their conversations with patients and each other,” writes Salit.
Another part of the performance training at Long Island College Hospital consists of video taping second and third year residents doing patient interviews. In groups that consist of three or four residents and a POAL director, the tapes are reviewed and discussed as “scenes.” The doctors are encouraged to view their conversations directorially, that is, to focus on the activity, not simply the content, of the interview. In this context the residents can discuss the performance choices they have made, and dialogue on different ways that the “scene” could be played.
Interactive growth theatre has also been adapted to contexts outside the POAL framework. The East Side Institute for Short Term Psychotherapy, in collaboration with the All Stars Project, for example, has conducted performatory youth programs, under the name of “Performance of a Young Lifetime” and “Pregnant Productions” in Harlem and the Bronx.
The adaptability of the POAL model across geographic and cultural borders was demonstrated in December 1997 when Holzman, director of educational programs at the East Side Institute, led a team of performance social therapists to Yugoslavia. They were guests of Zdravo Da Ste (which roughly translates as “Hi Neighbor”), a non-government organization involving hundreds of progressive psychologists, teachers and social workers active in 56 refugee camps, schools and community centers in Serbia, Syrpska and parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Holzman, along with Joyce Dattner, director of the West Coast Center for Social Therapy, and Murray Dabby, director of the Atlanta Center for Short Term Therapy, led four days of performance workshops for Zdravo Da Ste members in the Republic of Syrpska. The four days included a Performance of a Lifetime production, more or less directly borrowed from POAL, as well as a variation, “performance of philosophy” -- a performatory conversation of abstractions such as truth, reality and time. On the third day, using material generated during the first two, the participants created a play, The Dance of Time. By their own account, as people who pride themselves on their performatory culture (singing, dancing, storytelling), Performance of a Lifetime gave the Yugoslavs a new, and very growthful, performance to play/work with. The participants have since introduced versions of interactive growth theatre into the refugee camps, schools and community centers where they work with some 35,000 children and adults directly impacted on by the ongoing Balkan wars.
Holzman and Newman have also used the POAL model at two academic psychology conferences – Newman at the Unscientific Psychology Conference in New York in 1997 and Holzman at the Fourth Congress of the International Society for Cultural Research and Activity Theory at the University of Aarhus in Denmark in 1998 – as a way of introducing performance to academic psychologists and challenging the cognitive model that dominates academic discourse.
What has remained constant in all the variations of interactive growth theatre is the attempt to create an environment supportive of ensemble improvisation, an environment in which the participants can experience the creative, developmental potential of performance. Informing the work of POAL (and its various offshoots) is the perspective that the performance experienced/learned through interactive growth theatre can then be utilized growthfully in other aspects of the participants’ lives.
“The notion that ‘real life’ is ‘natural’ and theatre is ‘artificial’ seems just plain silly to me,” writes Newman in his self-help book Let’s Develop! “After, all what’s called ‘natural’ is simply the acting out of predetermined roles in a play that was written long before any of us had anything to say about it. As I see it, the only way we can actually create who we are in this kind of societal environment is to perform. Imagine drawing a chalk circle and then saying to your child, your mother-in-law, or your co-worker: ‘I don’t think that last half hour of life was very good. Let’s step over onto that stage and perform it differently.’ Why should performance only take place in special places called ‘theatres’ where specially trained ‘actors’ do their thing?”
It is far too early to ascertain with any accuracy what impact POAL has had on the lives of those who have participated in its interactive growth theatre, much less what, if any, wider impact POAL’s approach to performance may have. While the transformative potential of performance outside the institutional framework of the theatre has been touched upon in the writings of some scholars in the fields of anthropology and performance studies, POAL’s work suggests venues as well as social (indeed, revolutionary) functions for performance in advanced industrial societies that have not been given in-depth consideration before. Whatever influence Performance of a Lifetime and similar projects may eventually have, its three years of activity make clear that the study of performance may very well need to expand to include not only the disciplines of theatre and anthropology, but psychology and sociology as well.