Performance as revolutionary activity: liminality and social change

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Friedman, D., 2000. Performance as revolutionary activity: liminality and social change. Body, Space & Technology, 1(1). DOI:


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I am the dramaturg at the Castillo Theatre, an off-off Broadway theatre in New York City noted for its experimental productions, its populist political concerns and its postmodern sensibility.

What is probably most unusual about Castillo is its overriding concern with making performance accessible to non-performers in their daily lives. This concern grows from Castillo’s understanding, articulated most clearly by its artistic director Fred Newman, that performance is the dialectical activity of being both who you are and who you are not, that is, who you are and who you are becoming, at the same time. Castillo’s artists share with German playwright Heiner Muller the conviction that it is in the ‘space between I and I’ (1990:48) and in what Victor Turner has termed the ‘liminoid,’ (1987: 29) that new cultural and social discoveries are made and innovations become possible.

This paper will examine Castillo's attempt to approach performance as liminal, what Newman and Castillo refer to as "revolutionary activity.' The two major thinkers who inform this inquiry are Turner and Newman.

Turner’s concept of the liminal has its roots in the work of the early 20th century anthropologist Arnold van Gennep. Van Gennep used the term "liminal" (from the Latin limen, meaning "threshold") to describe the changes people go through in performing the rituals that accompany social changes in tribal societies. In rituals marking transformations in individual lives (from child to adult, single to married, etc.) or in the life of the group (from peace to war, change of season, etc.) van Gennep noted that those involved pass through (or beyond) the threshold of traditional or conventional behavior and emerged changed. For van Gennep ritualized 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. (van Gennep, 1960)

Turner, building on van Gennep’s work 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. (Turner, 1982) Following Turner, Brian 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." (Sutton-Smith qtd. in Turner, 1982:28) Also based 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, 1990) Turnbull’s activistic (as opposed to cognitive), dialectical (as opposed to dualist) methodology has much in common with Newman’s concept of performance, which is not primarily about watching performance; it is about but doing performance.

The major influences on Newman, originally trained as an analytical philosopher at Stanford University, are Karl Marx (as methodologist, not as ideologue) and Lev Vygotsky, an early Soviet psychologist who utilized the dialectical method to study how children learn and develop. Vygotsky approached human development as a social and historical process, not, as traditional developmental psychology does, as an internal maturation. 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 they perform ‘a head taller than they are.’(1978: 102) Vygotsky’s message to Newman and the others at Castillo has been profound: performing is how we learn and develop. It is through performing—doing what is beyond us—that, when we are very young, we learn to do the varied things we don't "know" how to do. For example, as babies we babble and learn to speak long before we know the rules of grammar.

Newman, building on Vygotsky, argues that adults can reinitiate development at any time by performing a head taller than they are, or more precisely, performing as who they are and who they are becoming. Performance, for Newman, is dialectics in social practice. Newman’s approach to performance does not grow from a study of anthropology or performance studies or even from the insights of Vygotsky as much as from 30 year of community organizing.

In 1968 Newman, then a philosophy professor at the City University of New York, left the academy to devote himself full-time to grassroots community organizing. Over the next three decades, he has been involved in welfare organizing, trade union organizing, independent, left-of-center electoral politics, developed a non-psychological, performatory approach to therapy (along with a network of performatory social therapy centers around the United States), became the artistic director of the Castillo Theatre and the author of some 30 plays and musicals. In the course of this activity, he has emerged as the leader of progressive political movement, perhaps more accurately termed a "development community," (Newman and Holzman, 1996: 151-161) which involves tens of thousands of people in political, therapeutic and cultural activities. What all these activities have in common is the goal of building environments in which people can perform as a way of developing. (Holzman, 1996)

The Castillo Theatre has played a significant role in the creation of this community and its approach to performance. In 1981, when I first met Newman, his movement already placed psychology and culture at the center of its efforts to radically transform society. It had a performatory practice even though it did not yet have a clearly articulated understanding of the transformative, creative power of performance. That is the context in which Newman, myself, and six others founded the Castillo Theatre in 1983.

Since its founding, Castillo has produced 93 plays by 20 playwrights. The playwrights have been women and men, gay and straight, African American, Chicano, Puerto Rican and white, from the United States, Germany Austria, Switzerland, Israel, India and Martinique. Among these, we have also produced nearly 30 new plays and musicals by Newman who, since 1989, has served as the theatre’s artistic director and playwright-in-residence.

Castillo quickly became a performance lab, both on and off the stage, in ways we had not anticipated. From the beginning it was clear to those involved that unlike other nonprofit theatres in the United States, Castillo could not and should not survive on grants from government agencies or corporate foundations. If it were to survive as the theatre of a political movement that was working to radically transform mainstream society, it could not go to the powers-that-be, it would have to go to ordinary people for support.

Castillo, therefore, initiated a new kind of fundraising/audience building that has insured its independence from government and corporate foundations and made the theatre’s artistic and political risk-taking possible. For years Castillo volunteers canvassed door-to-door, set up tables on street corners and subway platforms, and made telephone calls everyday, week-in-and-week-out, telling people about their work and asking for their financial support. (Brenner, 1992) However, it did not come easy. Many of the scores of people involved -- with widely varying levels of experience and skills as fund raisers 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.

Newman’s participation in the development of this unique ‘street performance’ was a catalyst. Combined with his study of Vygotsky, his decades of work as an innovative psychotherapist and his experience as a theatre director, playwright and actor at Castillo, it led him to conclude, much as Turner did earlier and in a much different context, that performance was a transformative social activity. ‘We understand performance very broadly,’ Newman has said. ‘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…With the proper kind of support, people discover that they can, that we can, do things through performance that we never thought we could do…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.’ (1996a)

The develop community’s interest in broadening people’s notion of what they’re allowed to do has generated a number of performance-based organizations and activities, in addition to Castillo. The largest of these environments is the All Stars Talent Show, an anti-violence youth program, which was founded the same year as Castillo, and, which like Castillo, is made possible by grassroots fundraising. It involves tens of thousands of children and teenagers each year. The young people, primarily from working class and poor Black and Latino communities in New York City, produce talent shows in their neighborhoods. Working with adults from the All Stars and from their own communities, the kids find locations for the shows (usually high school and junior high school auditoriums), sell the tickets, stage manage, usher, m.c., run the light and sound boards, and maintain security. They also build the audience and mentor younger kids in the program. In the process, the young people not only learn all sorts of technical skills. They also learn experientially to relate to kids from other neighborhoods, to work with adults, and to interact with their community’s institutions – schools, churches, block associations, and so on. In short, an environment is created in which they can perform as leaders, and most of them, in fact, do. The scope of the program is made clear when you realize that the All Stars produces up to 65 shows, auditions, and workshops in a single year.

The Development School for Youth is a smaller, more focused program that each semester takes a group of working class youth through a performance-for-life training. With visits to major corporations, congressional offices and other institutions of authority and power the young people are helped to develop performances that allow them to function within and impact on these institutions. At the same time, the adults involved, many of them quite privileged, learn to perform respectfully with the working class youth, and a new relationship is created.

Newman has been a practicing therapist for three decades and is the author or co-author of five books that challenge the ideological underpinnings of the institution of psychology. (Newman, 1991; Newman and Holzman, 1993; Newman, 1994; Newman and Holzman, 1996; Newman, 1996b; Newman and Holzman, 1997) Just as his therapeutic work has influenced his work in the theatre, so his theatre work has had a major impact on the evolution of his radical therapy movement. Lois Holzman, a developmental psychologist and close collaborator with Newman in the development of performance social therapy, describes it this way, ‘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.’ (1999: 55) That creative activity that people do together is performance.

Of all the performance-related activities within the development community, "Performance of a Lifetime" is the most directly concerned with working to liberate performance from the confines of the theatre, film and television and bring it into conscious creative use in everyday life. Founded in April of 1996 by Newman and three colleagues from Castillo, its central activity is working with non-performers (that is, people who have had no formal acting or performance training) to create full-length, improvisational plays which are then performed before a live audience. In addition, it has taken customized performance workshops and programs into corporations and government agencies, hospitals and non-profit service organizations and developed a performance school that offers classes in, among other things, acting, improvisational comedy, voice and movement. In all of its projects, Performance of a Lifetime works to enable participants to take the performatory skills they learn back into their daily lives. (Friedman, 2000)

Beyond the specific activities of these organizations, the development community has generated performance as a way of life. There are today tens of thousands of people, who, in various ways and to various extents, are attempting to perform their lives. The impact of these performances extends, of course, far beyond those directly involved through an ever-expanding network of relationships. ‘What I am calling performance – the conscious activity of producing how we are in the world – is unique to our species,’ writes Newman in his self-help book, Let’s Develop! Speaking to a man who is physically and emotionally abusing his family, Newman continues, ‘You can do another thing right now! You can be something other than a prefabricated, mass-produced product of the male role! These societal roles are not all that’s available to us. Let’s turn your life into a play that you direct! Don’t just change this behavior – this line, or this scene – create a whole new life! …This small moment, which can lead you to change everything, has to happen many times throughout the day, everyday. It has to be your moment to moment life experience, your life performance.’ (1994: 15)

How can the claim be made that this sort of performance in everyday life is revolutionary? To answer this, we must first make a distinction between ‘revolutionary activity’ and the ‘the activity of making the Revolution.’ While making the Revolution is certainly a revolutionary activity, it is not the only one, nor even the most radically transformative. In fact, it seems to Newman and his colleagues that it is precisely because 20th century revolutionaries confused making the Revolution with revolutionary activity that they failed to qualitatively transform anything.

Marx, in his ‘Thesis on Feuerbach’ refers to revolutionary activity as ‘practical-critical activity,’ a human practice not necessarily confined to periods of political upheaval. (Marx, 1974: 121) Building on this, Newman has come to understand revolutionary activity as, ‘the continuous transformation of mundane, specific life activities into qualitatively new forms of life.’ (Newman and Holzman, 1997: 109-110) It is self-conscious and, at the same time, practical in that it impacts upon those involved with it. It is, in Marx’s words, ‘practical-critical.’

Given the highly developed alienation of contemporary society and the weight of tradition and convention, revolutionary activity has increasingly become performatory. As early as 1989, just as he was taking on the responsibilities of artistic director at Castillo, Newman wrote, ‘In a world so totally alienated as ours doing anything even approaching living requires that we perform. To be natural in bourgeois society is to be dead-in-life. Unnaturalness is required if we are to live at all.’(1989: 6)

It is only through performance, those active in the development community have come to believe, that alienation can be challenged and non-conventional moves be made. To borrow Turner’s language, it is from performance, ‘that all genuine novelty [and] creativeness [is] able to emerge.’ (1987: 77) ‘Revolutionary activity…is an unnatural act,’ write Newman and Holzman. ‘It is performatory, more theatrical and therapeutic than rational and epistemic. Human beings become who we "are" by continuously "being who we are not."’ (Newman and Holzman, 1997: 110)

As conversations and disputes current among performance artists and scholars make obvious, there is no clear consensus on the meaning of performance. It is safe to say, however, that not all definitions of performance would be inclusive of revolutionary activity. In this regard Turner and Newman make a similar, and I think, vital distinction. Turner, in seeking to clarify the difference between his concept of liminoid performance from the sociologist Erving Goffman’s notion of all of social life as a performance of roles, writes, ‘…the truly "spontaneous" unit of human social performance is not a role-playing sequence in an institutionalized or "corporate group" context, it is the social drama which results precisely from the suspension of normative role playing, and in its passionate activity abolishes the usual distinction between flow and reflection.’ (1988: 90)

Newman, in this regard, makes a distinction between performance and behavior. Behavior is unreflexive. It is pragmatic, not practical-critical. Behavior is how we live our lives when we uncritically act out our social conditioning. Newman’s concept of behavior is close to Goffman’s notion of the performance of social roles. Behavior can include performatory elements, particularly ritualized elements, but it is not performance as Newman means it; nor, it seems to me, in the way Turner uses it when discussing the liminoid. Behavior is not dialectical. She or he who behaves is who she or he is and nothing more; there is no engagement of who she or he is becoming. Behavior is constrained by structure. Through performance, structure is violated in favor or process, of development. As Turner puts it, ‘Structure is always ancillary to, dependent on, secreted from process. And performances…are the manifestations par excellence of human social process.’ (1987: 84)

Yet there is a relationship between performance and behavior. While, as Vygotsky pointed out, we learn how to be human beings by performing, by creatively imitating the adults around us, as we perform our way into cultural and societal adaptation, we also perform our way out of continuous development. A lot of what we have learned (through performing) becomes routinized and rigidified into behavior. 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. Anything other than that, most of us think—as we forget that we are also who we are becoming—would not be ‘true’ to ‘who we are.’ It takes the conscious reintroduction of performance into everyday life to break out of these imposed and deadening roles, to allow us to create our own plays, our own social dramas, instead of simply acting in a play written long before we were born. It takes performance as revolutionary activity to make possible the creation of new human beings capable of transforming their world even as they transform themselves. (Holzman, 1997: 64-75)

I believe this is where Newman and Turner may part ways. There is, to be sure, extensive discussion in Turner’s writings of the liminoid, transformative and anti-structural nature of performance. At the same time, Turner’s view of what he calls ‘social drama,’ that is, of performance that breaks with conventional social structures and has the potential to bring about social change, is structural, even formularistic. There are, Turner maintains, four ‘steps’ in a social drama: (1) the breach of regular norm-governed social relations; (2) the crisis in which people take sides relative to the breach; (3) the application of redressive or remedial procedures to deal with the crisis; and (4) the reintegration of the disturbed social group or the recognition and legitimization of irreparable schism and a subsequent reorganization of society. (Turner, 1957)

No doubt, such a pattern is often discernible. It bears a striking resemblance to Hegel’s notion of the dialectic as thesis/anti-thesis/synthesis and to Marx’s view of history as the unfolding of class struggle through a series of revolutions, each of which results in a more developed society. From the revolutionary view, the problematic with these formulas is just that – they are formulas. As such, they imply a predictive (and prescriptive) nature to human life. Like the formulas of orthodox Marxist ideology, Turner’s stages of social drama also imply inevitability. If the creative chaos of performance always plays itself out in the same pattern, then human possibility is clearly limited. Then cultural revolution in any qualitative sense is impossible.

For Newman, performance is revolutionary activity precisely because its outcome can not be known in advance. It is an open-ended, improvisational social/historical activity. It has the potential not simply to modify social relations and attitudes in predictable ways, but to change totalities in unanticipated directions. It creates alternatives in a world where there are none.

Turner’s great contribution not only to anthropology and performance studies, but to the grand cause of human development, was to take the concept of liminal performance first noted in tribal societies by the early 20th century anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, and apply it to modern societies. (Gennep, 1960; Turner, 1982) In so doing, he found that liminal (liminoid, in modern large-scale societies) performance extends far beyond the rites of passage where van Gennep first noticed it. Turner also explored the transformative, if you will, revolutionary, qualities of performance. Yet, he pulled back from the full implications of his discoveries. Turner, after all, remains a western social scientist and as such is trained to sees patterns and to remain separate from that which he studies. Newman, a dialectician and active revolutionary, participates in performance and finds the transformation of totalities.

The rich implications of Turner’s discoveries are just beginning to be mined. The end of the 20th century brought with it the collapse of the modern era’s model of revolution. Among the many doors opened by the discovery of liminoid performance is the possibility of a new way of revolutionizing human society. I have attempted here to provide a glimpse of the work of one such revolutionizing attempt, the development community of which I am a part, a community in which performance is a way of life, a way of life that is continually striving for, the liminoid, the transformative, the revolutionary.


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Dan Friedman





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