Twenty-Two Weeks of Pointless Conversation
Performing Psychology: A Postmodern Culture of the Mind,
ed. Lois Holzman, Routledge, 1999
by Dan Friedman
Between October, 1996 and May, 1997 Fred Newman and I conducted a series of classes on developmental theatre. These hour and a half gatherings of some thirty people met once a week for twenty-three weeks over three trimesters under the auspices of the Center for Developmental Learning, a project of the East Side Institute for Short Term Psychotherapy. While there were some shifts in enrollment between trimesters, a core of about twenty remained constant. Most of those who took part in what evolved into an ongoing performatory dialogue, work with Newman and me in various capacities at the Castillo Theatre in New York City, where Newman is the artistic director and I am the dramaturg. Others were (or had been) patients of Newman’s at the East Side Center for Social Therapy and/or have been involved with him in one of the numerous community-empowerment projects he has led over the years.
Thus the classes were, to a large extent, conversations among colleagues, people who had worked together for years in the creation of what they have come to call “developmental theatre.” They met in this relatively formal setting to reflect upon, explore and deepen their understanding of what they had created. What Newman, I and the 30-some others involved constructed over 23 weeks turned out to be not as much about developmental theatre as it was developmental theatre. By examining in detail that happened over these 23 weeks, we will, at the same time, be looking at the activity of developmental theatre itself.
First, by way of introduction: Fred Newman is a philosopher of science and language by training who has for 30 years worked as a political organizer and innovative psychotherapist. He is perhaps best known as the founder of social therapy, a non-psychological, cultural-performatory approach to emotional development. He came to theatre through his political organizing, having helped to found the Castillo Culture Center in New York City in 1983 as a means of culturally empowering ordinary non-artists. Newman became actively involved with Castillo as a director and playwright in the late ’80s. He has since written some 20 full-length plays, directed scores of productions of his own work and that of other experimental and progressive playwrights, and has functioned as the artistic director of the Castillo Theatre since 1989.
My background in the theatre is more formal. I hold a doctorate in theatre history and dramatic theory from the University of Wisconsin and have performed in and directed community, trade union, and political theatres since 1969. I began writing plays in high school and long considered myself an artistic disciple of Bertolt Brecht. I share with Newman intensely humanistic/political concerns and was among those who helped establish the Castillo Center and its theatre company.
Newman has written of himself as a playwright: “My attitude is revolutionary, not theatrical. My world view is philosophical, not dramaturgical. My craftsmanship is that of the organizer, not the director.” His lack of formal theatrical training has, in my estimation, been his greatest strength as a theatre innovator. Unlike me and other progressive (and not-so-progressive) theatre people he is not of any theatrical tradition (be it Brecht’s Epic Theatre, street theatre’s agit-prop, or “socialist realism” and its liberal cousins) and so he has not been restrained or confined by any tradition. Not aware of the right way of doing things on stage, he was able to see new ways of doing things.
The ongoing dialogue between trained theatre artists such as myself and Newman has been a central feature of Castillo’s evolution and the emergence of developmental theatre. This 15-year-long (and counting) conversation might be characterized as an encounter between philosophy and theatre. Although Newman is far more sophisticated as a philosopher than most of his Castillo colleagues have been as theatre artists, their joint activity of building the Castillo Theatre has resulted in the creation of an environment from which has emerged a performatory activity that is artistically innovative, politically progressive, philosophically subversive, and, those of us involved in its creation believe, useful to continued human development.
The 23 weeks of class are most usefully viewed in the context of this ongoing dialogue; they were self-consciously set up as a means of continuing and deepening that conversation.
The first trimester was constructed as a conversation between Newman and me on the key concepts of development theatre. This was the most pedagogically conventional of the three trimesters. I would start each class with a brief talk (somewhere between 20 and 40 minutes) on a particular aspect of developmental theatre as I, at that point in the process, understood it. This introductory lecture attempted to place developmental theatre in the larger contest of theatre history, and was, of course, influenced by my background as both a trained (orthodox) theater scholar and an orthodox (trained) Marxist. Newman (unorthodox on both counts) would then respectfully contest (in most cases) and build (in all cases) on what I had said to deepen our understanding of the subject under discussion. These two presentations would then invariably open up into a discussion involving the whole class, most often taking the form of a question and answer session, with Newman (and to a lesser extent myself) responding to questions from the class. During the first trimester we achieved a collective articulation of what developmental theatre is/is becoming relative to the institution of the theatre and its 2,500 year history. It provided those involved with a common vocabulary and a springboard for the more activistic and explicitly performatory work that was to follow in the second and third trimesters.
The second semester, which was also 8 weeks long, consisted of what, in conventional terms, might be called a practicum. A play that I had been writing, Tales of the Baal Shem Tov -- a conventional Brechtian parable -- was read by the class and, over the course of eight weeks, deconstructed and transformed into a developmental script (if such a term can be used). This transformation consisted primarily of pulling the rug of referentially out from under the play and of working collectively to make the script a dynamic element in a performatory process instead of a polished, self-contained, artful commodity. This transformation involved the members of the class writing and improvising scenes, as well as directing, performing and discussing them. In the course of this work the script changed, but more to the point, members of the class grappled in practice with many of the concepts dialogued about in the first trimester.
The third trimester (six weeks long) began with me interviewing Newman about directing developmental theatre and evolved into a series of interview/performances by members of the class of each other on all sorts of subjects. The creation of these interviews brought with it an exploration of conversation as a developmental activity and an examination of its centrality in the creation of developmental theatre. It also brought to the fore many of the resistances to and fears of performance to be found among this group of people who have committed a good deal of their creative lives to the activity. Among the issues raised and dialogued on in the course of the trimester were a number that go to the heart of a new postmodern culture of the mind, including the inability to accept contradiction, the need to know, the fear of humiliation, the nature of the “self,” and the difficulty of remaining fully aware (in the show) at all times.
From an essentially two-way dialogue on the nature of developmental theatre the course, through its own internal logic, transformed into an ongoing and constantly evolving performance of developmental theatre. The deconstruction of that arch from aboutness to non-referential performatory activity is the subject of this paper.
To understand the unfolding of the first trimester it is necessary to understand the shared experience and language that both “teachers” and “students” brought to the dialogue. Newman and most of the other builders of the Castillo Theatre came to the theatre as political organizers. Our approach to culture is anthropological in the sense that for us culture is a whole way of life rather than a set of privileged aesthetic objects. In particular, culture, for Castillo, refers to the perceptual frames, symbolic structures, and narrative conventions that human beings have constructed in the course of their social/historical activity. To that extent, this approach is solidly within the current mainstream of anthropology and cultural studies, particularly as they have been impacted upon over the last two decades by social constructivism.
Within this general orientation, those involved in Castillo have come to view the theatre as a social/historical construct, and, more specifically, as an institution of social control in the sense that it has played a major role (as its prodigy, film and television, continue to do) in constructing and propagating the grand narratives by which a society understands itself and the world. This concept of theatre has it roots in Marx’s analysis of the dynamic between the “superstructure” and “base” of a society. The superstructure, according to Marx, consists of the cultural, religious, legal, pedagogical and political institutions which evolve in relation to the needs of the economic base, that is, in relation to the basic economic relations (including power relations) by which a society produces and reproduces itself.
Castillo’s understanding of the theatre is indebted in particular to George Thompson, an obscure British Marxist classicist who in 193__ published Aeschylus and Athens, a book which traces in detail the relationship between the emergence of classes in ancient Greece, the rise of the Athenian state, and the coming into being of the theatre as an institution of social control. This is not to say that Newman and the others building Castillo do what they do because they had read Thompson’s book; most, in fact, haven’t. Rather, Newman and Castillo do what they do, engage the institution of the theatre by creating theatre, informed by Marx’s methodology. Thompson made his analysis of the institution of the theatre using his reading of Marx’s methodology and, it turns out, this analysis has proven helpful to Castillo’s activists in understanding of what it is we are doing.
Another concept necessary for understanding the Castillo’s work and for following the dialogue/activity that unfolded over the 23 weeks under examination here, is “alienation.” Alienation, like the notions of superstructure and economic base, has its roots in Marx. The term “alienation” popularized by Marx and his followers, has become part of mainstream sociological, cultural and psychological discourse, although it is often used today with a primarily psychological denotation/connotation (that is, as a description of a subjective emotional state) which Marx might have trouble recognizing.
For Marx alienation is not a state of mind or an emotion; it is an actuality of social life under capitalism. It is the result of the fact that under capitalist economic relations the bulk of humanity (the working class), is not directly connected to the product of their labor. Instead of creating for use (or for immediate exchange) workers create products which belong to others. Work is no longer, for the most part, connected to the product it creates or to the life of the producer. In Marx’s words, work under capitalism, “...is not the satisfaction of a need, but only a means for satisfying other needs.” People work to “make a living,” that is, they sell their labor power as a commodity (an item of exchange). Their labor power creates other commodities to which they have no connection, except, perhaps, as consumers, in which case they must buy back what they have (collectively) build, as in the case, for example, of the auto worker who buys a car.
As Newman, writing as a psychotherapist, put it in a 1983 essay, “...as Marxists, we don’t take the notion of alienation to be psychological. We take it to be sociological. What we mean by that is that alienation is not simply a state of mind; it’s not how people feel. Rather, it’s how people are. And people get to be that way by virtue of how the entire system and activity of production (which influences more than simply the narrow acts of industry, but rather influences the total process of human production and human life in our society) creates a fundamentally alienated society.”
Of course, the actuality of alienation has profound effects on the psychology of the alienated individual (not to mention the on emotionality of the alienated society as a whole). Newman, in his work as a social therapist, is quite familiar with the painful emotional by products of alienated culture. But for people concerned with transforming our “fundamentally alienated society,” the question is: given that alienation is part and parcel of a particular organization of activity, what other activity is needed to make it possible to breakthrough/transform alienation’s deadening effects? If no such activity/tool is available to us then qualitative change (development) would indeed, as the general consensus now holds, be impossible. Any serious cultural transformation, Newman has long argued, must include finding a way to breakthrough (breakup, transform, destroy) alienation. The late 20th century alienated individual has become a passive object (as distinct from an active subject) in our social narrative. S/he behaves (and feels) within the context of a ready-made discursive setting, a setting that by its very nature is in the service of those in power.
Newman and his colleagues found the means for challenging alienation in the work of Lev Vygotsky, a developmental psychologist who in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and early ’30s brought Marxist methodology to the study of early childhood development. Among his many important discoveries, 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 they perform “a head taller than they are.”
The built-in irony of socialization is that as we perform our way into cultural and societal adaptation we perform our way out of performance. As soon as we learn how to perform as men and women in ways appropriate to our class and ethnicity we are pressured (by the very caretakers who at first encouraged performance, indeed who performed with us) to stop playing/performing. We are told to “act our age,” to “grow up,” to “act like a young lady,” etc. Except for the tiny handful who become professional actors, most of us stop performing, and hence stop developing, by early adolescence. (Actors are supposed to only perform on stage; off-stage their behavior is as prescribed as anyone else’s.)
“A lot of what we have learned (through performance) becomes routinized and rigidified into behavior,” writes Lois Holzman, a developmental psychologist and a close colleague of Newman’s. “We become so skilled at acting out roles that we no longer keep creating new performances of ourselves. We develop an identity as ‘this kind of person’ -- someone who does certain things and feels certain ways.” The kind of people we become are, among other things, alienated individuals within a social framework upon which we apparently have no significant impact -- most of us never even question that the world we function in might, indeed, be changable.
Noting that both small children and grown actors have the ability to perform -- that is, to be both who they are and someone else at the same time -- and watching people in the development community that he helped to found consistently growing (performing) into tasks and roles that initially seemed far beyond them, Newman became convinced that performance was a human developmental capacity which could be reignited at any point in life. Thus for Newman and many others working with the Castillo Theatre, performance is not to be understood primarily as an artistic activity (though surely it can be artful); it is a basic human capacity without which we could neither become socialized nor transform and transcend the limitations of our socialization. Indeed, at the present point in history performance throughout life and in every aspect of (everyday) life has become an absolute necessity if we are to move beyond the developmental dead end of late capitalism. Performance, Newman has come to argue, is the activity by which we can breakthrough alienation and create something new.
“For in a world so totally alienated as ours doing anything even approaching living requires that we perform,” Newman wrote in 1989. “To be natural in bourgeois society is to be dead-in-life. Unnaturalness is required if we are to live at all.”
Newman’s non-aesthetic understanding of performance has something in common with anthropologist Victor Turner’s view of performance as a “liminal” activity, that is, activity on the threshold, activity which allows for innovation and change. Newman also shares with Nicolas Evreinoff, the early Soviet director, the conviction that performance need not be confined to the theatre or other ritualized moments, and that as an everyday activity performance, “…is one of the mainsprings of our existence, of that which we call progress, of change, evolution and development in all departments of life.” Yet Newman’s understanding of performance is more activistic that either Turner’s or Evreinoff’s. It should be noted that neither of them were a direct influence on Castillo’ work.
These, then, are the shared concepts of culture, theatre, alienation and performance which the participants in the developmental theatre class brought to their dialogues. Taken together, they can be considered the conceptual starting point of the 22 weeks of conversation and performance which followed.
My opening remarks in the first class of the first trimester outlined the historical origins of theatre in ancient Greece, India, China and Japan, and argued (following Thompson) that the theatre came into being in cultures transitioning from tribal to class society as a means of providing ritualized/performatory resolutions to new social contradictions which were irreconcilable in the actuality of class-divided society. In tribal society the theatricalized/performed aspects of life made no distinction between actor and audience. The performance (dance, chanting, ritualized role playing, etc.) was done collectively by the tribe as a whole or by a tribal subdivision for the good of the tribe as whole, i.e., to influence the hunt or the fertility of the crop or to assure victory in war or to make possible a transition in the life cycle of an individual.
Once societies divided into slave and master, serf and landlord, and so on, this collective performance became impossible (not to mention dangerous to those in power) and in its place the institution of the theatre was constructed. The theatre separated actor from the audience and divided performance from daily life. Instead of collective activity for the common good, performance was transformed into an art done by specialists who enacted social conflicts and presented fictional resolutions (for the most part on terms favorable to the status quo) to actual social conflicts.
In short, I concluded, theatre as an institution was not about development. How then, could we speak of “developmental theatre”? Indeed, why would people, such as ourselves, who are concerned with human development, have anything to do with theatre?
The discussion which followed focused on what it is that makes theatre an institution, and how an activity, such as performance, gets institutionalized. Newman argued that the institutionalness (and conservatism) of the theatre could best be located not in its presentation of resolutions on stage, but in the fact that it presented “plays” at all. Resolution is not only in the content of the theatre, it is in the very separation of “a play” from play. The play conservatizes because it separates performance/play/liminal activity from the general community. The development, progress, survival of the theatre will not come from the imposition of a new set of ideas, or resolutions (or anti-resolutions), or new performance techniques, or new whatevers on the theatre. Such impositions are what progressives and revolutionaries attempted in relation to theatre throughout most of the 20th century. What they missed completely is that the theatre as a conservatizing and stabilizing institution is replicated and re-enforced in the very presentation of a play, no matter how “progressive” its content.
The way to engage the institution of theatre, therefore is not to present plays, but to use theatre as an arena for adult play. Newman uses “play” in the Vygotskyian sense of early childhood play, play without predetermined rules, play as liminal, experimental activity, play as doing what you don’t know how to do, play as a performance activity.
This is not to say that Castillo doesn’t present plays, it does. In engaging the institution of theatre we can’t do away with plays all at once, Newman points out, any more than he can, in his engagement of the institution of psychology, immediately do away with therapy, or at least patients’ expectations of therapy. People come to the theatre to see plays – there are 2,500 years of expectation, habit, and cultural practice in that expectation. But the experience of attending a play at Castillo is calculated to, at the very least, begin the process of making performance and play accessible to the audience member. Unlike a director whose primary concerns are aesthetic, and who presumably would like an audience member to leave the theatre thinking, “That was beautiful and amazing; I could never do that,” Newman has often said that his ideal audience member leaves the theatre thinking, “That looks easy; I could do that, I could perform.”
Just how that impact is achieved was, in effect, the topic of the conversation for the next 22 weeks. During the first class, Newman concentrated on the key role of pointlessness in both subverting the play and for introducing the activity of play. Plays are traditionally about resolutions, and resolutions obviously contain a “point.” However, even where no explicit resolution is offered, aboutness is itself a resolution. Pointedness is a frame of reference for Western civilization; pointedness itself re-enforces the status quo. However, play in the creative “child-like” sense, has no point. Its very pointlessness is part of what allows it to be creative and transformative.
At Castillo, Newman said, we try not to make a point, but to play.
In the second week we continued the discussion of the relationship between the institution of the theatre and the activity of performance. My introductory talk traced the history of performance within the theatre, from ancient times through contemporary realism, and returned to the question of how performance could be “liberated” from the theatre.
Newman pointed out that this task could not be seriously approached as long as the fiction, the myth, the social construct, called “theatre” (or for that matter the one called “real life’) were accepted. Postmodern thinkers have shown that the entire theatre/real life dichotomy is bogus. Postmodernism’s insight is not that the theatre is artificial (we all knew that all along) but that so-called “natural” or “real” life is neither natural nor real. Reality itself, according to the social constructivists and postmodernists, is a social/historical construct consisting of (among other things) perceptions, emotions, attitudes, ways of interacting, etc.
Very much a part that ongoing construction are conventions of social behavior. Daily life is filled with ritual, filled with prescribed ways of talking, walking, moving our faces, holding our hands, etc. Our everyday lives are vastly more codified than anything we have seen on stage. In fact, this codification is how we can understand each other at all. Both theatre and “natural life” are social/historical constructs; the wall between them (fourth or otherwise) is an illusion created out of the needs of a society divided into antagonistic classes. Creative performance and play are reserved for the stage and screen where they can be controlled and manipulated, while conventional behavior is demanded/needed for coming to terms with “reality.”
It’s not simply that theatre (film, television) is used to propagate certain values and concepts (though it surely is), but that theatre itself is core propaganda. That is, it’s very existence as an institution propagates and perpetuates the separation of performance from life. It’s monopolization of performance (as a skill attainable only by the “talented” and permissible only in strictly prescribed circumstances) works to disempower the mass of population, by denying them access to the developmental species activity of performance.
One of the results of this is the passivity of the audience. The audience comes to the theatre to be acted upon, not to act. It is as alienated from the enactment of social conflict on stage or screen as it is from any other commodity. The theatre assumes an audience that is increasingly alienated from performance, in Newman’s words, “increasingly dead.”
“It is with rage at that presumption of deadness that I come to work in the theatre,” Newman told the class. “Developmental theatre is theatre which doesn’t encourage or accept that deadness. It engages the assumption of deadness both on the part of theatre artists and by the audience itself. Developmental theatre is not a new type of theatre, but theatre which recognizes the performatory dimension of human life.”
Castillo’s discovery, Newman maintained, is not about the theatre. (There isn’t much left to discover about the theatre qua theatre). Our discovery is about the relationship between theatre and everyday life. Developmental theatre is therefore primarily an organizing, not an aesthetic activity; it is the activity of engaging the relationship between the complex social construction known as “theatre” and the even more complex social construction known as “everyday life.”
Over the next three weeks we looked at the plays of Fred Newman as produced at the Castillo Theatre to explore the ways in which they attempted to negotiate this engagement. We did so by examining Newman’s scripts in relation to the traditional craft elements of dramaturgy: dramatic structure, character development, and language. Many in the class were familiar with the body of Newman’s work as a playwright – indeed many had performed in and/or designed them – and the discussion ranged freely over some 20 play scripts and productions. Here I will attempt to summarize these three weeks of discussion in such a way that knowledge of the scripts is not necessary.
Dramatic structure is the way in which conflict unfolds on stage. In Western (and most Eastern) theatre the conflict is organized into a story, a plot, a narrative. One of the most striking characteristics of Newman’s plays is their apparent indifference to plot. Some have them, most do not. It’s not that they are phantasmagorical or absurd; they are conversations among recognizably (at least initially) “real” characters. It’s just that these conversations usually don’t go anywhere, narratively speaking. Sometimes, as in Billie & Malcolm: A Demonstration (1993) and Risky Revolutionary (1996), characters just sit around and talk about things that have happened to them. At other times, as in Stealin’ Home, (1996) and Satchel (A Requiem for Racism) (1998) scenes in which very little happens are strung together, unified primarily by the fact that the same set of characters, talking about/around the same set of subjects, appear in them. In other cases, such as in What Is To Be Dead? (1997) two philosophical conversations, one in Russia in the late 19th century, the other in the United States in the late 20th century, interweave, but no story ever evolves. Even in the few plays which appear to have conventional plots, such as Left of the Moon (1994) and Coming of Age in Korea (1996) the story is told more than once, in so doing undermining the authority of its own narrative.
The dramatic tension in Newman’s plays (to the extent that there is any) therefore comes not from the plot per se (since there often is none) but from the conflict between the various versions or fragments of the narrative. It this sense it may be helpful to approach Newman’s dramatic structure as a theatrical equivalent of cubism. Like cubism, his plays give up single-point perspective (and the moralism implied in the “correct” way of seeing things) to show the same thing/story/character/concept from a variety of perspectives at the same time. However, the analogy to cubism is limited (and perhaps misleading) to the extent that it implies that the point of Newman’s plays is to make many perspectives available to the audience. There is no point to Newman’s plays, and their pointlessness is connected to their plotnessless.
“A big breakthrough of postmodernism is the recognition that these are all stories,” Newman said to the class with a wave of his hand, “as opposed to the insistence that there is one special story called ‘reality.’ I think that’s an advance, but I don’t think it’s going far enough. I’m trying to get beyond stories altogether.”
Why? Because in Western culture since at least the Greeks we have looked at ourselves, individually and collectively, as stories, and stories have predetermined shapes and outcomes, resolutions and implicit meanings. Those resolutions and meanings, historically constructed within a particular social-cultural continuum almost always support the world-as-it-is. However, Newman argues, even a plot in which the protagonists rebel against the world-as-it-is supports the conservatizing narrative framework. Plots/stories/narratives, no matter what their content, limit our possibilities for development. The propagandistic element of the theatre, in the formal, not just substantive sense, is that it re-enforces this sense of our lives as stories.
“Narrative is what keeps us from performing creatively,” says Newman. “It keeps us as characters in somebody else’s story.”
Instead of offering the audience new narratives (that is, new role possibilities), developmental theatre offers the possibility of life without narrative, a possibility that demands constructing our lives in a more active, creative, that is, performatory, way.
If there is no narrative, no story, what exactly is performed? Conversation.
Conversation, for Newman, is a creative social activity. “It is that existential moment when human beings, who have been on their individual paths, touch one another…It can create new meanings – meanings rooted in the performatory, relational activity of collectively creating more and more differing and new forms of life.” Forms of life, a phrase adapted from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, implies for Newman the creation of new (non-narrative) ways of organizing experience.
Unlike a plot, a conversation need have no point. It is an open-ended social activity with the potential to go somewhere or to dissipate or fracture or spin or transform in any number of ways. Newman describes his plays, as well as the process of creating them, as attempts at holding interesting conversations without trying to identify in advance what to do with the conversations.
“There is no story in developmental theatre,” Newman told the class. “What there is instead is conversation, which in my scripts is often a playing around with time and identity. That’s the corresponding structural element to narrative, that’s what gives them interest on stage.”
Developmental theatre, at its most effective, is performed conversation and therefore makes no qualitative distinction between scripted and improvised conversations. The classes at which all this was being discussed were, in this sense, as much developmental theatre (that is, performed conversations) as is a Newman play produced on Castillo’s stage – perhaps more so in that the classes, as off-stage performances, were more explicit engagements of the relationship between so-called theatre and so-called real life.
Newman’s dramatic language is, not surprisingly, highly conversational. It is perhaps this relaxed “everyday” quality of the language that has made his rather weird plays accessible to a public acculturated to realism. The major influences on Newman in regard to language come from Vygotsky, who understood language as a social activity, and Wittgenstein, who viewed language as a meaning making activity. The key concept for both is activity. For Newman, it is not so much the what of speaking which is significant, but that we speak to each other. It is through the activity of language that we collectively and continuously create and re-create all sorts of things, including relationships, identities, narratives, decisions, and our selves.
Among the things created by Newman’s scripted conversations are characters. Yet many of the characters in Newman’s plays so fundamentally violate what it means to be a “character” that they might well be called something else – just what is not clear.
The fifth week of the trimester began with me briefly tracing the development of character in the theatre from Aeschyus, the first playwright whose scripts have survived, through contemporary realism. While approaches to character have varied tremendously in terms of psychological complexity and realistic verisimilitude over the milleniums, the theatre has always assumed that a character is an individuated, stable, clearly defined unit. Many cultural historians, in fact, identify the beginning of theatre with the moment when Thespis (the first actor) stepped out of the chorus and, as an individual, addressed the chorus from which he had just emerged. The collective mimetic ritual of tribal unity was thus shattered and in its place came theatre, that is, the ritualized performance of individuated characters enacting social conflict. This assumption of character has become fundamental to the theatre, which has approached character in various ways but has never, until the very recent emergence of postmodernism, questioned that the basic unit of dramatic action is the individual, the character.
In Newman’s plays the boundaries of character are rarely clear. In Carmen’s Community (1987) Carmen is one personality in two different bodies. In Outing Wittgenstein (1994) we find one character (Wittgenstein) in two bodies with two different personalities. In Mr. Hirsch Died Yesterday (1986) we meet two different people – one white, male, Jewish and straight, and the other Black, female, and lesbian – with the same history. In Stealin’ Home (1997), we have one character who lives two different lives. In What Is To Be Dead? (1996) two sets of characters with different histories wind up being the same people, even though they are separated by culture and a hundred years.
Character, for Newman, is rarely a stable, clearly defined entity. The perimeters between you and him and her and me are fluid, porous, and constantly shifting. While the audience comes to the theatre wanting to identify with the characters, identification is extremely difficult because the characters are not ontologically stable; they disappear and re-emerge and transform. Instead of role models, Newman’s developmental theatre suggests that there are no permanent roles. Stated in more philosophical, less theatrical, language -- there are no particulars. His character as other-than-a-specific-one challenges not only a fundamental assumption of the theatre, but a core (dualistic) belief of Western culture, particularly pronounced over the last 500 years – that the individual is distinct from society, that the particular is distinct from the totality. For Newman and many other postmodernists, the individual (not to mention the dramatic character) is, like everything else human, a social construct.
If Newman’s characters are not self-contained individuals, not particulars, what are they? One useful way to approach them is as emerging elements in the unfolding social activity of the group. It is the group/the totality that Newman is interested in exploring on stage, as elsewhere.
After my overview, Newman began his discussion of character by talking about Sigmund Freud. Newman proposed that although Freud’s psychoanalytic theory is marginal today, his worldview has come to dominate 20th century culture, including the theatre. One of Freud’s basic political/cultural assumptions (which, of course, didn’t originate with him) is that in the (assumed) group/individual dichotomy it is the group which is irrational, unintelligent, reactionary, bestial. Lacking ego, the group is, on the one hand, easily manipulated and, on the other, always on the verge of getting out of control. It is the individual, according to Freud, that is progressive, creative, rational.
“I think exactly the opposite,” said Newman. “The conservatizing structure on human social behavior is the imposition of the individual on our culture. The individual is fundamentally conservative; it holds onto itself. The social construction of the ‘individual’ is all about establishing legal justification for ownership by few of much social wealth. What’s progressive, creative, and developmental about humanity grows from the group. We are, after all a social species. Everything we’ve created and built we’ve done socially. The group can give birth to the individual, but the individual can’t stop the ongoing creative process of the group.”
Developmental theatre is not based on the assumption of particulars (including particular individuals) and therefore the plays don’t contain characters in the usual sense. Instead Newman’s plays focuses on the social/creative process of the group.
This disavowal of character, some in the class said, contradicted their perception of strong characters in numerous Newman plays – Thomas Jefferson in Sally and Tom (The American Way) (1995), V.I. Lenin in Lenin’s Breakdown (1994), Malcolm X in Billy and Malcolm: A Demonstration (1993), were three of those mentioned.
Noting that he liked to “evoke the weight and heaviness of individuality” in challenging it, Newman said that he often chose to write about the “big shots,” those who, in our culture, are usually considered the makers of history, in order in order to expose them as, instead, the products of history. Jefferson, the individual, is every much a product of the social activity called the American Revolution as is the Constitution of the United States.
“Sally and Tom is not about Thomas Jefferson,” said Newman. “It is about the process of the creation of Thomas Jefferson…The individual is an alienated product of social process. Development comes through social process; the alienated product holds it back…The interaction, not the product of that interaction, is the core of my plays. I focus on the conversation, not who’s doing the talking. I work to make emergence the hero, not the individual.”
This focus on social process instead of on the individuated, alienated product of that process, puts a demand on an audience used to seeing/relating to/identifying with the product. Developmental theatre, Newman argued, has to generate another way of seeing, because, “it can’t be seen in the usual way, it’s just not visible that way.”
It also puts a demand on actors for another way of performing. Given that many in the class had performed in Newman’s plays at the Castillo theatre, it’s not surprising that the topic how to act in developmental theatre became the overarching topic of conversation over the next two weeks.
Acting in the theatre has consisted, since that first actor stepped from the chorus, of the performance of an individuated, stable character. In the West since Konstantain Stanislavsky and Freud, acting has become psychologized, that is, approaching the performance of a character has come to mean understanding/creating the “inner life” and “emotional memory” of the imaginary character. These tools, so useful to the actor in contemporary psychological realism, are not particularly helpful in the performance of developmental theatre.
Newman approached the discussion of acting in developmental theatre by comparing the two most influential thinkers on 20th century society – Freud and Marx.
“Freud thinks the social world is how it is because of how the mind works. If you look at the world, says Freud, you see the human mind. Marx thinks that the workings of the mind are a result of how society is structured. As a materialist, Marx understands everything, including the human mind, as product of social interaction and organization,” said Newman.
“At first glance, they may appear to be opposites, but their methodology is actually the same. In the 1960s and ‘70s there were attempts to synthesize Marx and Freud, but they can’t be synthesized because their method is already the same. Both work to ‘get deeper,’ to ‘get to the bottom of things.’ For Freud this means getting to the bottom of the mind, where he finds the id, the ego, and the superego. For Marx it means getting to the bottom of society, where he finds classes and the means of production. Their common mode of understanding is reductionistic -- to get to the root causes, to take the whole apart and find out what it’s made of, to discover the basic building blocks.”
Modernist theatre shares this basic methodological commitment to getting to the bottom of things, to finding the inner workings. With regard to performing, that means finding the inner workings of the character, his/her emotional underpinnings and motivations. Developmental theater, essentially a postmodernist development, has no concern with getting to the bottom of anything – whether it be the story or the character – because it doesn’t accept that there is a bottom to get to. To the postmodernist, understanding has to do with discovering the interconnectedness of things, the various ways in which phenomena interact and connect, not with what is going on under the surface, since it is not at all clear that anything is going on under the surface (or, for that matter, what the surface is as distinct from what is “over” or “under” it).
Given Marx’s obvious influence on Newman and the work he has led in psychology, politics and theatre, it is worth noting that this postmodernist understanding of understanding is not inconsistent with dialectics, the interactive method developed (in modern times) by Hegel and the early Marx. That Marx himself did not consistently apply this method (in which tool and result are unified) in his own theoretical and practical work, doesn’t alter the influence of his activity theory on Newman and other postmodernist thinkers. For example, the distinction between economic base and superstructure discussed earlier was turned by the later Marx and his orthodox followers into an instrumentalist relationship in which the economic base determines/causes the shape/nature of the superstructure. For Newman and other postmodernists who are building on, or, perhaps more accurately, completing the early Marx, the base and superstructure, to the extent that they are useful categories at all, are parts of the same totality. There is no surface and no core, no cause and effect. Base and superstructure are a complex of interconnections which interpenetrate and shape each other. The theatre, for example, is not a reflection of reality, as is usually maintained, it is, instead, an active shaper of that complex of social constructs called reality.
“Developmental theatre embodies a rejection of modernist methodology,” Newman maintained. “It rejects psychology and it rejects a materialism that assumes a distinction between surface and core, superstructure and base, activity and motivation.”
It is not the task of the actor in developmental theatre to find the “inner truth” of a character, but to create the outer connections between characters. The acting activity in developmental theatre is not an inner journey into a closed entity (either the character’s or the actor’s psyche) it is, instead a social (interactive) journey into transformation. When asked what kind of actor he liked to work with, Newman replied, “An actor who has no need for the character as a crutch.”
One of the relationships explored (and exposed, and performed) in developmental is the relationship between the actor and the character. In all theatre there is a dialectic between the actor as actor and the actor as character. One of the things that distinguishes developmental from traditional theatre is that in developmental theatre that dialogue is not covered over. Instead, it is actively brought to the fore and performed along with the other relationships being created on stage. The class talked about the special excitement of the rehearsal process, the period in a production when the dialogue between actor and character tends to be most obvious and creative. In traditional theatre, the goal of the rehearsal process is, among other things, to cover over that dialogue by opening night so that the actor has, as far as the audience can tell, “become” the character. In developmental theatre, the director and actors work to keep the dialogue open and obvious to the audience throughout the run of the play.
This concentration on developing and exposing the relationship between the actor and the character is also one of the ways in which developmental theatre works to blur (eventually obliterate?) the distinction between the theatre and everyday life. It is to be hoped, said Newman, that the audience member, through this dialogue, this creative tension between actor and character, can come to identify performance not with a set of acting conventions and skills, but with the activity of showing people who you are and who you are not at the same time, an activity which anyone (regardless of talent) can do anywhere.
All of this discussion brought the group, in its final class of the trimester, back to the question of the relationship between community and theatre. The historic emergence of theatre out of the needs of a community in ancient Greece was re-examined in relation to the emergence of theatre within the political movement and developmental community which Newman has led for a quarter of a century.
Newman pointed out that the distinction between theatre and the rest of the development community’s activity is not at all clearly defined. In this respect, the community’s relationship with performance is closer to “pre-history,” that is, to tribal society, than to later societies in which the theatre has become a distinct institution. This porousness between theatre and daily life is, at this point, part of a deliberate effort to bring performance into everyday life. However, as many in the class recalled, the development community had not started out with a clear notion of performance as a developmental activity. In fact, it didn’t even start out with a clear notion of community.
Its earliest plays weren’t very distinct from its other organizing activities. Performed May Day celebrations in the mid-1980s involved groups of people dressing in costumes of progressive movements from around the world and throughout history – for example, the Black Panthers, the Sandanistas, the Industrial Workers of the World, and so on. After a rally in full costume at New York City’s Union Square, historically a gathering spot for the Left, the performers/demonstrators would march to Castillo where activists dressed as historical figures such as Albert Parsons, Rosa Luxemburg, and Ho Chi Minh, would give speeches and everyone would party. A Demonstration: Common Women, the Uncommon Lives of Ordinary Women (1986), the first “play” ever directed by Newman, was, as its title indicates, as much a demonstration as play, featuring a confrontation between two groups of protestors -- radical lesbians (mostly white) and welfare activists (mostly Black) -- in the middle of a large public space, surrounded by skits, films clips, and songs. The audience, which stood and milled around during the event, took part, to various degrees, in most of these performatory activities. Radical lesbians and welfare organizers had been among the earliest builders of what would become the development community and their ritualized encounter in the middle of Castillo’s black-box theatre was less than a razor’s edge away from “real life.” From Gold to Platinum (1986) was a full-length play which emerged from a series of discussions held by a number of organizations about what a second American revolution might look like. While it was performed on a stage (Symphony Space on Manhattan’s Upper West Side) before hundreds of people, its cast of 40-some was made up entirely of political activists, most of whom had never been on a stage before.
Unlike earlier attempts at progressive theatre, Newman pointed out, “We were never theatre people trying to bring art to the people; we were, and are, community builders and our theatre-like activity has emerged from that organizing process.”
Thus, theatre within the development community has never become a distinct, closed institution. As a performatory extension of other organizing activities, it remains non-reconciliatory and open to all. This situation has led to many of the perspectives and activities discussed in these pages. Most importantly, it led to the (re)discovery that performance can be a developmental activity in everyday life. Using non-actors in these early performance pieces and continuing to do so in the later plays has made it clear that performance is something anyone could do, and, further, that it should not be confused with the specific set of conventions and skills called acting. When the activity of performing began to be consciously employed in other organizing environments (most especially social therapy), we found that performance – being who you are and who you are becoming – could, when liberated from the conventions and confines of the theatre, be a developmental activity.
As Castillo’s and Newman’s work has grown more theatrically sophisticated, there has been an conscious effort to make sure that the connection, the open border, between community building/organizing and theatre is maintained. This has been done in a many ways, perhaps most significantly in Castillo’s insistence on using both professional and amateur performers in its shows. This mix, which has been vital to emergence of developmental theatre from the beginning, allows for the activity of liberating performance from the theatre to be embodied in each production. The audience member is confronted through this mix with the actuality that she or he could do what the people on stage are doing – perform
“When you try to understand developmental theatre, you can’t just look at its appearance,” Newman concluded. “It may look like other theatre, or it may look like weird theatre or bad theatre or whatnot. But what something is is inseparable from its history. Our history is that of community building. Whatever we can, and have, said about it as theatre is primarily metaphor. The actuality is that it’s an organizing process.”
For the second trimester, Newman and I agreed that a more profound understanding of developmental theatre could best be achieved by intensifying the performatoryness of the class. Newman suggested that we could ask the class to perform as developmental playwrights, taking a play that I had been writing for over a year called Tales of the Baal Shem Tov, which was essentially a Brechtian-type fable, and reworking it into a script more appropriate to a developmental production. Continuing the class as a practicum which brought experienced playwrights together with people who had never written a scene in their lives was fully consistent with developmental theatre’s method of mixing amateurs and professionals in an environment in which they both are encouraged to perform beyond themselves. Since I was (and am continuing to) struggle with the limitations I had placed on my dramaturgy by my early (and stubbornly dogmatic) commitment to Brecht, I was particularly eager to see what could come out of this engagement of my latest script.
The first class of the second trimester began with my giving the participants some background on the script and how I had come to write it. The play, I explained, is based on Jewish folktales of Israel ben Eliezer, called the Baal Shem Tov, Master of the Many Names of God, the founder of the Hassidic movement. While the remnants of the Hassidic movement today, concentrated in parts of Brooklyn and Jerusalem, are known primarily for clinging to their semi-medieval ways, the origins of the Hassidic movement are progressive. Arising in Eastern Europe at the end of the 17th century when the Jewish world had been devastated by a wave of pogroms (half the Jews of the Ukraine, for example, were whipped out within a few years) and two false messianic movements, the Hassidic movement was, in my estimation, a progressive reinvention of Judaism through the development of a new form of community.
In the script, I projected parallels between the early Hassidic movement and the contemporary developmental community led by Newman. To this end, I made use of the parable in the Brechtian tradition, with each scene, idea, and character meant to stand for a contemporary idea, event, and person. The play, not incidentally, is meant to be performed primarily by puppets, a Brechtian “distancing” effect, designed to discourage the audience from identifying with the characters, and thus allowing them to think critically about the events depicted in the play.
The script had first been read during Castillo’s 1995 New Plays for New Days Festival, at which new plays are showcased each summer. At that point, Newman had asked why I had written a play about a conservative figure. Instead of seeing the Baal Shem Tov as a proto-revolutionary, as I did, Newman saw him as someone who had found a way to preserve a backward-looking tradition. In an attempt to answer (or at least grapple with) his question, I inserted into the play three “interludes” in which a character called “The Author,” drinking coffee at a donut shop in contemporary New York City, talks with three old men with white beards -- Walt Whitman, Karl Marx, and eventually Israel ben Eliezer himself -- about why he is searching for the Baal Shem Tov.
After this introduction, the class of about 30 people read aloud Act I and Interlude I of Tales of the Baal Shem Tov. We then began a discussion of the script, which consisted mostly of a critique of what people in the class perceived as the conservative content of the play. Newman quickly shifted the focus of the discussion by saying that he thought the conservatism of the play was more to be found in its form than in its content. First of all, the language, which was highly poetic, forced us to look at it as a thing-in-itself, as an artistic element, and therefore took us away from the conversation.
Language is a tool or an artifact, while conversation is an activity. Conversation creates meaning, while language per se, encapsulates (petrifies) meaning. When the tool (language) dominates over the activity (conversation), the result can’t be developmental.
In addition, Newman continued, the parable form is inherently conservative because it demands as formula, a predetermined structure which works toward a predetermined end. If you know where going, there’s nothing developmental in getting there. Relative to the characters, Newman argued that if the characters all represent something else, then what you’ve created characters who define (and predetermine) the conversation, instead of letting the conversation create the characters. Finally the “aboutness” of parable, not to mention most of other theatre, is inherently supportive of the status quo because what can it be about other than what we already know? Referentially, which is the underpinning of Tales of the Baal Shem Tov, ties us to “reality,” the conservative social construct of late capitalist society. What else could referentially be referring to?
Based on the conversation in the first class, Newman suggested that the task the class take on be to “pull the rug of referentially out from under Tales of the Baal Shem Tov.” The liberating/developmental thing about the theatre, he said, is that it doesn’t have to be about anything. Newman then gave the class the assignment of writing scenes inspired by, or growing out of, the Baal Shem Tov script – scenes which were about nothing.
The second week some people, a small minority of the class, came in with scenes, which were then turned over to volunteer actors (fellow classmates) who performed them. These first scenes were interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, everyone who wrote a scene, without exception, took off from the Interlude sections of the play, which were set in the 20th century coffee shop, rather than from the body of the script, which was set in Eastern Europe the 17th century. What clearly interested the class was what the Baal Shem Tov had to say to the late 20th century and/or why I, an atheist and radical political activist, was interested in such a character. The Baal Shem Tov, Dan, and the Waitress (who, in the original, is only implied, she never speaks, or even appears) were present in most of the first scenes – and remained the main characters in the scenes that were written and performed through the trimester.
At the same time, what we discovered was that the pull to be about something was very strong. Different scenes had different takes on the play’s meaning – for some it was about the Baal Shem Tov’s misleadership, for some it was about challenging the concept of heroism, for others it was about the sociability of coffee shops (a theme, I might add, that is very close to my heart), for still others it was about creating the environments in which these odd meetings could occur. Yet, they all remained about something. In fact, a good deal of time in all the scenes was taken up in explaining who the Baal Shem Tov was/is. There was a felt need by each of the playwright/participants to explain to the audience who they were watching and why. This, the class concluded, was because most of us, at that point, remained committed to the play being about the Baal Shem Tov.
So while the restraints of the Brechtian parable had been loosen somewhat, and the showiness of the language toned down, the play’s referentially, its aboutness, remained intact. These first scenes were, as Newman put it, “…still being overdetermined by the product or the desire to produce a product, a play about the Baal Shem Tov.” We talked about the creative tension that always exists between building on what we have and not getting locked into, and conservatized by, what we already have. The class was still stuck in the aboutness of the original script. The task before us, we decided, was to discipline ourselves to not too quickly discipline ourselves.
To help accomplish that goal, Newman gave a second assignment – to write a scene which started with the Baal Shem Tov, the answer-giver of the original script, declaring, “I want some answers!” These new scenes could build on the ones written this week or be completely new. This assignment was meant to accomplish two things. First, by casting the answer-giver of the original script as someone seeking answers, it gave the writers license to ask questions rather than feel obliged to provide explanations and answers. Secondly, it set up the new scenes with a desire to discover something. The drive to explain is likely to lead to lectures; the desire to discover is more likely to produce conversations.
In the third week we made a great deal of progress in overcoming aboutness. The scenes that were written (and with each passing week more and more of the participants took on the task of playwriting) for the most part did not refer explicitly back to the original script. Unlike the first round of scenes, they didn’t attempt to explain who the Baal Shem Tov was/is and what his religious and philosophical view were/are. For the most part they stopped trying to connect him conceptually to the late 20th century. In some cases the Baal Shem Tov wasn’t even a character in the scene. Not surprisingly, given the line, “I want some answers!’ with which each of the new scenes began, the theme or the activity of searching for answers, for meanings, came to the fore.
What remained in almost all the scenes was a particularly stubborn kind of referentially known in theatre as exposition (background information), that is, the scenes attempted to explain themselves. They were concerned to let the audience in on what (supposedly) had happened before the performance began. They assumed that a conversation could not be understood or appreciated without explanation or referentially. While the scenes were no longer referring explicitly to the original script, they remained referential to “reality,” to causality, to the activity of explaining, and, through all of these, to traditional theatrical convention. The scenes remained about something -- in this case they were about themselves.
We discussed about how this aboutness continued to get in the way of development. If the activity of a scene is explaining itself, then the conversation can’t really go anywhere except backwards, if you will, to the imagined origin of the imagined conversation. Exposition assumes that the world proceeds linearly from the past to the present and hence gives the past power to determine the future. The internal aboutness of the scenes (and their implicit cause-and-effect linearity) also impacted on character development. Instead of letting the characters emerge from what they said and did, what they were saying and doing was being determined by a preconceived notion of who they were and what they had done. In that sense, these new scenes were not so very different from the original script in which what the characters said and did was predetermined by the point I wanted to make through them.
To break free of the pull of this deep-rooted referentially, Newman set up a series of improvisations in which three people at a time went to the center of the room and attempted to have a conversation that started in the middle and that made no reference to what came before. As you might imagine, this was not easy. We did about five such improvs, stopping and starting again if the conversation began to include exposition. In the discussions after the improvisations, Newman said that a good rule-of-thumb for writing conversations developmentally is to never let the audience or reader know what’s going on until it’s absolutely necessary. With this piece of advise in mind, Newman gave the class the assignment of writing scenes (either building on ones already written or improvised or completely new ones) that began in the middle and contained no exposition, no internal or causal referentially.
In the fourth week something truly remarkable happened. Nine people brought in scenes that did exactly what we had asked them to. There were nine non-referential, non-expository scenes, each of which was an interesting conversation, contained intriguing characters, and was well written. Reading through the scenes once, we then cast the characters (the same characters appeared in many of the scenes), hastily put them together in an arbitrary order, and performed them back to back. A theatrical piece had been created which reflected upon, and at the same time extended/liberated, the original Tales of the Baal Shem Tov.
We were quite impressed with ourselves. In the space of four weeks (12, if you include the previous trimester) we had succeeded in creating a developmental environment in which people could perform beyond themselves. Nine people who had never written anything for the theatre before had written exciting theatrical scenes.
Beyond patting ourselves on the back, we discovered, through the performance of these new scenes, some interesting things about Tales of the Baal Shem Tov. First of all, we discovered that the Baal Shem Tov is a “doofus.” Taken together, the Baal Shem Tov (the class had begun to refer to him as Mr. Tov) who emerged in these scenes was likeable and good-natured, as well a distracted, and ineffectual. We also discovered that the play contains a searching, a quest. The Baal Shem Tov is searching for answers, Dan is searching for the Baal Shem Tov, and various other characters are searching for ways of cooping with loss, for connections to other people, and so on. We learned that the play was gentle; the characters, all ordinary people (including “Mr. Tov,” now an odd old man walking into coffee shops and bodegas asking for answers), had been bruised and buffeted by he world but were basically supportive of each other. There were no villains and little anger in this play. Finally, the experience of seeing the scenes performed in a quickly chosen order, demonstrated that the play needed neither plot or sequentially to hold together as a theatrical experience.
These discoveries were possible, Newman claimed, not because we had known what the play was about. In fact it was by freeing the play, and ourselves as authors and directors, from aboutness that we were able to learn anything useful about the play. This was a clear case, we agreed, of how it is not knowing that provides the possibility of creativity and development. As Newman put it, “To the extent that we know what a play is about, we don’t know what it is.”
The fifth week was used to reflect on what had happened and dialogue on where to go from here. I gave a summary of the first four weeks, and proposed that what we had done was to deconstruct the play. I recalled that years earlier when I had asked Newman for his definition of creativity, he had called it the reorganization of what is. Nothing comes from nothing; we all start with something – the cultural heritage we find ourselves a part of, our personal experiences, a script, whatever – and reorganize it into something qualitatively new. That new totality is then material for further reorganization. Since Newman and I had first had that conversation, the constructivists and postmodernists had given that reorganizing process a name – deconstruction – and provided some insight into how it is done. Deconstruction has come to refer to the process of creatively taking apart what exists. Our development community and others had added what most postmodernists only imply, the concept of “reconstruction,” that is, the process of putting back together something qualitatively new.
The process of deconstruction/reconstruction, I proposed, is at the heart of developmental theatre. As a developmental director you take what is – which includes the script, the actors, the ideas of the designers – pull it apart and put it back together again. Obviously this “taking apart” is not necessarily physical (although in the plastic arts it might be); it is first and foremost taking apart the philosophical, ideological and aesthetic assumptions of the script. If you are a playwright, the deconstruction process involves questioning your own assumptions, experiences, concepts of the beautiful and/or interesting; taking them apart and putting them together in the process of writing the script. It is a process not of teaching (as Brecht and Friedman are inclined to do) but of discovery. That is precisely what we, as collective playwrights, had been doing with Tales of the Baal Shem Tov; in this case the main target of our deconstruction being referentially.
Another way of looking at the preceding four weeks, I suggested, was as a play that we had been improvising under Newman’s direction. After all, if we agreed that performance is key to development, then collective social activity that is developmental is best viewed as play. Our play could have a number of names – Not Waiting for Answers, The Death of Referentially, Deconstruction on a Hot Tin Roof, No Beginnings/No Ends. We had, in a sense, reached the end of the first act. The fourth week had been something of a climax, a breakthrough, an explosion, a leap, and it raised the question of where to go from here. While deconstruction/reconstruction interpenetrate each other and can’t be temporary (or otherwise) separated, were we now at a point where we could begin reconstructing Tales of the Baal Shem Tov? If so what did we need to do to build on what we had created without being conservatized by it?
Newman responded by disagreeing that there was a reconstructive counterpart to deconstruction. Deconstruction, at least in a culture as referential as ours, creates the very aboutness it has taken apart. It’s a new aboutness, to be sure, but an aboutness nonetheless and calls out for continued deconstruction. While Newman was quite complimentary about the summary I had presented of the first four weeks of the trimester, he warned that my description of the deconstruction contained, at the same time, a new aboutness. What the class needed to do, he suggested, was to write new scenes which responded to my talk. The scenes shouldn’t, he felt, be discussions or commentaries on my summary, but performance pieces that, in Wittgenstein words, “moved about around” my summary as a way of continuing the deconstructive process.
The bulk of the sixth week was taken up by the performance of scenes. Some of these scenes were written individually and some by small groups. Some had Dan as a character, Mr. Tov continued to appear in many of them, some made oblique references to my summary of the week before, most did not. Overall, it was hard to find a common thread or theme or focus in the 12 performances presented that week. In the short time left for discussion after all the performances, Newman appeared to be tickled pink at the utter pointlessness of the scenes. “Creativity is not instrumental; it is not a tool for anything else,” he declared. “Developmental theatre’s big advance over Brecht is its pointlessness. Part of what makes developmental theatre, including tonight’s performances, so wonderful, is that it goes nowhere.” No new assignment was given.
The seventh week consisted of a free-wheeling discussion of the creative potential of deconstruction, including discussion of the fact that one of the important things going on in class was deconstruction of my domination (as playwright) of the theatre activity. We dialogued on why the “creator” of a script staying in control is fundamentally reactionary. Human creation, after all, is a continuous collective process; the playwright putting certain words on paper is but one moment in that ongoing process.
The eighth week consisted of performances of the deconstructive process, many of them hilarious. One performance that stands out in my memory, and which embodies for me if not the “lesson” then the attitude, we had learned over the two months together, was that of Sandy Friedman (no relation), a building contractor and an early recruit to Newman’s development community. His scene consisted of him performing the tearing down of wall after wall in a unending and constantly changing process of renovation. He ended his performance by facing the audience and declaring, “I’ve been doing this for 25 years and I’m still not sure what we’re building.”
In the first trimester we had looked at developmental theatre in relation to the institution of theatre, its history and social functions. In the second trimester we had approached developmental theatre from the perspective of how you write it. We participated in a hands-on deconstruction of a script. The third semester, which was only six weeks long, evolved into the most performatory of the three.
It started out with me interviewing Newman about the relationship between his political background and views and his theatre work. While the content of that interview is very interesting and someday may make for an interesting article in its own right, what was significant about that interview from the perspective of developmental theatre was that it spawned other interviews. The second week consisted of the class collectively interviewing Newman. By then it had became clear to us all that the interview was a form of performatory conversation. During an interview, we noted, both the interviewer and the interview perform. Newman suggested that for the third week the class interview each other. The interviews needn’t, and probably shouldn’t, be about developmental theatre. The task was to interview each other as a way of performing together.
In the third week the class began to interview itself. Most of the interviews that week and the next involved small groups, who had prepared over the week, interviewing an individual within the group about her or his work, her or his job. The people being interviewed tended to close the conversation down with careful, closed, factual, responses. Some of the interviews were more fanciful, with an individual playing a “fictional” character, usually an exaggeration of her or himself. These tended to be more performatory and more fun – and actually more exposing of who the performer was than those who did the interviews as their “real” selves. For the most part, however, it became obvious that without the support of a script, such as the scenes written in response to Tales of the Baal Shem Tov last trimester, people were having a great deal of trouble performing – being who they are and who they are not – in front of the class. This was particularly true for the people being interviewed. About half way through the allotted time of the third class, Newman decided to interview the class about why it was having such a hard time performing. Although, there were more interviews among classmates the following week, Newman’s interview of the class about performance became the defining activity of the rest of the course.
On one level, at least, what was at issue was the developmental theatre (and postmodern) notion of the character/individual as a constantly unfolding activity, as opposed to a stable, closed entity. Many people spoke of the investment they had in presenting (and being) who they were. Newman challenged them to be who they were not, pointing out that successful interviews, like successful conversations of any kind, including plays, were processes of discovery. If you only presented who you were, there was no place to go, no way to develop. The task of the performer in developmental theatre is to participate in the process of continually creating who s/he is.
In the course of those two weeks of interviews and discussion the class decided that it needed to engage its own resistances to performance as continuous, everyday activity. I summarize the extended discussion we had about barriers to performance within the class, in hope that it may shed light on the challenges Newman’s advocacy of performance as revolutionary activity may face in other contexts as well.
First, there was strong resistance to contradiction. Deeply ingrained in Western culture since at least the Greeks, and formally articulated in Aristotlean logic, is the notion that A can only be A; it can’t also be B. As Popeye is fond of saying, “I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam.” However, performance is contradictory. It requires that you be who-you-are and who-you-are-not at the same time. The way some people in the class dealt with their resistance to contradiction was to divide themselves in two – the Good Person (who is politically engaged, nice, unreactive, progressive) and the Bad Person (who is not politically engaged, who is reactive and nasty, sexist, racist, classist, etc.). The assumption is that if you are being one, you can’t be the other. Of course, as the actually of any play demonstrates, we are both (and much more than that) all the time. We talked at length about this refusal to embrace contradiction and concluded that it was, for many, an attempt to impose traditional dualistic moralism on performance. It equated performance with “being good” and not performing with “being bad.” It was pointed out that this was hardly developmental. It resulted in continuing to behave as a good girl or boy on our good days, and behaving as a bad girl or boy on our bad days. Performance and development have nothing to do with the moral categories of good and bad, Newman maintained. Being able to perform off-stage involved letting in that you can be anything and everything all at once.
Another common attitude that got in the way of performance was clinging to the need to know. This resistance was particularly evident among the people being interviewed, whose answers, as I’ve pointed out, tended to be so self-conscious and constrained. They were very concerned with the image of they were projecting. They felt the need to know what they were going to do and say. However, if you know what you’re going to do before you do it, then you are most certainly going to behave as the status quo has taught/conditioned you to behave. For who/what has taught us what to know? Indeed, who has taught us what “knowing” itself is? Performance is not for cowards. It involves doing what you don’t know how to do. It involves risk. It involves embracing mystery. It means living in a perpetual state of uncertainty.
Closely related to letting go of knowing is letting go of dignity. Knowing and respectability are closely related in our culture. Someone “in the know” is cool. Yet performance involves doing what you don’t know how to do – that’s precisely what can make it developmental. A number of people in class talked about how humiliating it felt to perform. Yet each time one performs, one risks losing one’s dignity.
I told the class about the first acting and theatre teacher I ever had, Zenobia Alverez, who used to say, “You should fall on your face at least once a day.” I never forgot that advise, although I didn’t always live up to it, and I certainly didn’t appreciate how profound it was. At the time I took it to mean, “Don’t take yourself so seriously.” Of course it did mean that, but Alverez was also saying a lot about dignity as undevelopmental. If you’re always concerned with dignity, with how you look to others, about how you measure up to society’s standards, you will always strive to conform to society’s standards and neither you nor society will develop.
The emotion that we learn to feel when we don’t conform to society’s standards is humiliation. We all know this feeling. It’s not pleasant. To be a woman, when society holds up masculinity as the ideal is humiliating. To be Black in a society that maintains that white is normal is humiliating. To be a Jew when society’s norms are Christian is to be humiliated. To be politically progressive in a cynical and conservative age is humiliating. So virtually everyone who was in our class lived with some form of humiliation daily. It was therefore very understandable that we didn’t want to feel anymore humiliation. Yet performance is by its very nature humiliating. When you perform, you are doing something other than behaving correctly -- and that’s humiliating. Whenever we do something new -- no matter how beautiful or exciting or developmental that new thing is --- we’re going to feel humiliated. In fact,the more radical that new thing is the more humiliated we’ll feel. However, without humiliation there is no development.
A fourth type of resistance to performance discovered through the work in the third trimester was clinging to the illusion of self. This is what was going on when interviewees were more concerned with their answers to questions than with the joint activity of performing an interview. In reflecting back on Zenobia Alverez’s advice, I told the class, I now realized that I might not have been so off in understanding it to mean not taking myself so seriously. A more radical (and accurate) way to put it might be -- not to take myself at all. “Self” is one of those descriptions which, like all descriptions captures a process at a particular time and place. For the last 500 years of Western civilization this description of something called “self” has had a certain developmental value. However, to take it as other than a description, to make it into an ontological category, is to confuse the product (self) with the process (human history). Clinging to self, might also be described as resisting process. The process of human development is fundamentally social, collective, species-wide. Holding on to self means holding on to what you have, clinging to your baggage, so to speak. It means behaving as opposed to performing; it means maintaining your dignity; it means, ironically, allowing the conservative institutions of society to define and shape your so-called self.
Performance, as we experienced time and again in the class, is a social, not an individual, activity. For Newman and those of us who have been working with him for years at the Castillo Theatre and other projects, performance implies being primarily concerned with and connected to the development of the group. In theatre it’s called building the ensemble, in politics its called organizing, in psychology and pedagogy Newman, following Vygotsky, calls it creating the zone of proximal development.
Finally, many people spoke of how much energy it takes to perform all the time, to be “in the show” all the time. We came to call this the “resistance to awareness” because performance is a conscious activity that one must chose to do. You can’t perform without being aware of performing, and part of that awareness is being conscious of the fact that what one does impacts on others, on the social activity of which we are a part.
In the fifth week, I summed up the resisteances we had identified over the previous two classes. In the sixth, and final, class Newman returned to two points, which he drove home with particular intensity – what he called the “perniciousness of aboutness,” and the riskyness of performance. Aboutness, he emphasized, assumes there is something out there (first principal, God, call it what you will) other than what we human beings have created. Accepting pointlessness means accepting responsibility for our actions. That, after all, is what developmental theatre, and all attempts at development, come down to.
Referencing our weeks of dialogue on the resistances to performance, Newman acknowledged that the fears of performance were quite understandable. It is serious stuff. “Performance as we speak of it would be dangerously psychotic it weren’t anchored in what we’re building,” Newman explained. “It challenges fundamental assumptions of our culture, assumptions with intense emotions attached to them. It would be irresponsible to advocate performance without there being a growing community to support it, a community involved in an ongoing effort to ignite development and change the world.” Assuring that performance liberated from the theatre functions as revolutionary activity instead of a psychotic break depends on the ever-deepening and extensive involvement of the development community in all aspects of contemporary life, or more accurately, it demands the transformation of contemporary life into a vast development community.
Newman ended by reminding his colleagues of the scope of the effort they were undertaking: “Collectively we are engaged in an effort to converse, to perform, to create without commitment to the biases of those who control this culture – that’s what it means to be a revolutionary at the turn of the 21st century.”
So ended our 22 weeks of pointless conversation. They were nether the beginning nor the end of the conversation. In reporting them here I have, no doubt, given them a form and continuity that they surely lacked in performance. In my attempt to make these discussions and performances accessible to those not directly involved in them, I fear that I may have over-explained and interpreted, and allowed aboutness to slip in through the back door. Hopefully such impositions have not overdetermined the experience of reading this account of the developmental theatre classes. I invite the reader to consider these pages as simply another scene in an ongoing performatory conversation.