Performance and development Esther Farmer (New York - USA) Comunicação apresentada no Simpósio Internacional Brasil | EUA | Canadá Teatro e Transformação Social: Possibilidades do uso da performance como estratégia de intervenção na comunidade, na Universidade Estadual de Maringá, em 9 de março de 2012. Good morning everyone! We are so thrilled and honored to be here in thisincredibly beautiful country creating this conversation with you. There are manydifferent disciplines in this room, psychologists, community developers, social workers,urban planners, theater artists, performing artists, community organizers, educators andIʼm sure others. That is so exciting because what binds us together is a concern for, apassion for social change and human development. And sometimes we need to bereminded that the world as we live in it is not divided by subject and category. We inventthese categories to make it easier to study the world, or so we think, but the world itselfis not divided in this way. We all belong together and itʼs wonderful to have so manydiverse folks with us today. What I love about Performance is that it is a gift that never stops giving.There is an infinity of ways to use it developmentally. From the Boal inspired ForumTheater to community engaged theater, to dance, art and music therapy, to Occupy WallStreet peopleʼs microphone, to performance in every day life, performance is just anamazing gift to the human capacity and desire to transform everything! I want to talk a little about development and performance and theirrelationship. First this word development. Development is such a tricky word. All the newhotels put up at the beautiful beaches of Rio; that is now called “development”. Somepeople donʼt think that kind of development is very developmental. In many places theword development has become a dirty word, and in some of our work with communityand theater, we have created theater to stop this kind of “development.” Dale will talkmore about this. So what do I mean by development? Well for us development is ourhuman capacity to grow, to change, to create. In every way: intellectually, emotionally,physically, psychologically, as community organizers, as artists, as scientists. Whatbinds us together is that all of us in this room want to see people move forward to wherethey want to go (and maybe to places they donʼt even think are possible to go).The workwe do starts from the premise that human beings are essentially creators and as suchwe can create new thoughts, new kinds of community, new intellectual capacities, newphysical capacities, new theatre, new performances, new relationships, new emotions. I was trained at the East Side Institute in social therapeutics, a therapeuticapproach that uses performance as a way to help people create their lives including
their mental health. The question for social therapists is, if we want to change the world,or a family or a neighborhood or a relationship, people need to develop. So how do wecreate environments in which it is possible for people to develop? Now we come to performance. What does development have to do withtheater and performance? What is developmental about performance? The famous Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky said that children learn byperforming a head taller than themselves. A fascinating statement and one that changeshow we understand learning. Vygotsky said that children learn to speak for example bybabbling, (they perform as speakers) before they know what speaking is. And theirparents and care-givers create the environment with babies where they can babble;toddlers act like speakers until they learn to actually speak! A wonderful example ofcreating an environment in which children can develop. Now Vygotsky did not really talkabout performance other than this statement. Newman and Holzman addedperformance. They built on Vygotskyʼs “head taller” statement and they said that allhuman beings develop throughout life, by performing what we donʼt know how to do untilwe learn how to do it! But we can not do this in any old environment, we have to createenvironments in which it is possible to do this. One of the reasons that Performance is awonderful tool to create these environments is because performance is playful, it is notso tied to the tyranny of knowledge. One of the beautiful aspects of performance is thatwhen we perform together we are not only ourselves, we are ourselves performingsomeone or something else. Performance does not require the cognitive bias soprevalent in Western culture. We donʼt have to know everything. The best “knowers” arenot necessarily the best performers. The “knowers” who are usually the ones to shine,are not the ones that shine in performance. Performance is a great social equalizer.When you create a theater ensemble, or a play, or a collective poem that kind ofcreativity requires some babbling, you have to take risks when you want to be creative,you canʼt be so afraid to make a mistake that you wonʼt try something new. How can youdiscover anything without risk? An environment that allows people to take the risk toperform differently than they normally do, that has wonderful potential for development. And the wonderful thing is, we perform all the time. We think aboutperformance as if it only happens on the stage, but in fact, none of us “acts” the sameway in every situation. We perform differently with our family than with our friends, wedonʼt say the same things to our teacher that we say to our children, we talk to ourneighbors differently than we talk to strangers. We perform constantly but we donʼtrealize it. And we can choose to perform. Imagine the possibilities if we think aboutperformance as a choice. Here is an example: Two young people are ready to fight overa perceived insult. It happens in poor communities all the time in NY. In a mental healthprogram that practices this method the social worker asks the group what are otherperformances the two young people can do? They try them out, they think itʼs weird andthey learn that they donʼt have to go with their first instinct, they can perform something
else. Another example: All the kids want to perform on the stage. And so at anotherproject in New York called the Allstars Project that practices this method we say toyoung people if you can perform on the stage, you can perform in your life. I can saysomething mean to my partner or my friend and then two seconds later I can say, let medo that over. No matter what our problem is as people, whether it be disease, orpathology or terrible conditions, we can perform something different. Dale and I do a combination of community engaged theater and performancein every day life. Let me give you an example of how conceptualizing communitydevelopment as performance can transform the environment. I managed severalhousing projects in NY in poor neighborhoods. These communities had populations ofabout 5000 people. In one project, there was a lot of violence due to competition of rivalgangs over drugs. I saw my job as kind of a theater director asking the question, what isthe environment we need to create so that the community can do something new? Thatis the work of community development. Putting people together in new ways to havenew kinds of conversations. Cypress Hills (the name of the housing project) needed anew script, a new performance. Looking at it this way, allowed me to see things I couldnot see as a manager. As a manager Iʼm thinking of collecting the rent. If Iʼm thinkingabout creating new community performances, Iʼm thinking of bringing people togetherwho would not normally be together, to see what we could create. This is a verycomplex story that took about 2 years so please forgive me, that in the interest of timeIʼm going to obviously oversimplify it. There were many deaths in this community due to the drug trade. There wereyoung people going in and out of prison all the time. I encouraged the tenant leaderwhose son was one of those killed, to talk to the kids coming out of prison. What didthey think of all the deaths? Turns out they hated it. This was not a conversation everhad before in this community. These were the “bad guys”. The tenant leader asked themwhat they wanted to do about it. They said they would talk to some people and get backto her. This was a very new performance for the community. Including people that werenever included before. Ultimately this resulted in a truce between the gangs that theadult tenant leaders brokered with the youth gangs that lasted several years andreduced crime very significantly. The newspapers reported a 100% drop in the murderrate as well as a 56% reduction in all other crimes. We were able to build on the end ofthe violence to create all kinds of new programs including a volunteer program of policefixing kids bikes for races against drugs. The first bike race we organized, the policestayed till midnight to fix every kids bike, parts donated from a bike company weorganized. The line of kids waiting was 10 blocks long. Some kids had two wheels andthe cops made them a bike. This was the first time there was any positive interactionbetween the police and young people. Everyone was moved. It was a new script. Itchanged the environment in significant ways. The community developed. In this example we did not create a play. But the creation of art, of theaterrequires a new way of seeing and in this case, the seeing community development as
performance changed everything. It was significant because this was a very traditionalsemi-government institution and as you all know, when you work for a governmentbureaucracy it is not easy to be creative. I was lucky enough to retire early from thisagency so now I get to do what I love without all the constraints. Another example: I work for a group called Plays for Living. We perform playson hot topics, such as bullying, diversity, homophobia, growing older, domestic violenceand so on and then we have conversations about the performances. Last year weworked with 25 senior centers and they created and put on plays about their community.In one center, which was mostly Asian and African American, the two groups went to thesame center every day but they did not interact. In the process of creating a play abouttraffic safety in their neighborhood which included the history of jazz in the community,the relationship between the two groups transformed. The Asian seniors could barelyspeak English but they struggled to learn the lines in the play and sing the songs to payhomage to the African American jazz artists who lived in that neighborhood. This wassurprising to the African American seniors. And so their relationship grew. They did nottalk about their issues with each other, they had no encounter about the tensionsbetween them, they created something together that changed their relationship. In thiswork with seniors we had several issues with seniors remembering their lines. Some ofthem had Alzeimers. It was interesting that when we dropped the line and allowed themto do a gesture they did not forget that. Again the non reliance on cognition. Thank you so much. There are so many examples of performance anddevelopment and we are so lucky to be here to learn from each other. If time and there are many psychologists: If we look at mental health from the perspective of human development, weare less concerned with the fixing of disease and more concerned with helping peoplegrow emotionally. That is certainly in line with the new welcome positive psychologyapproaches however, most people in the US particularly poor people, have only hadexposure to the deficit and/or medical model of mental health, which emphasizes thediagnosis and treatment of pathology. In this model, people with mental health issuesare dependent, sick and in need of “fixing.” For many years social work in the US hasbeen undergoing a paradigm shift from deficit/ pathology to positive, asset-basedprinciples, but it is a long, slow process, and most practitioners in the US still operateout of the deficit model. In my opinion Psychology in the US has been fixated on the diagnosis ofpathology. One extreme example has been the overuse of the diagnosis ADHD. It isonly a little exaggeration to say that almost every child who canʼt sit still has been giventhis diagnosis accompanied by the drug Ritalin (which is “speed”). The overuse of thisdrug has become so outrageous that even the person who came up with the diagnosishas complained about itʼs overuse. This is one extreme example but it contributes to thelack of trust that many people have with psychology. Psychology in the US has acredibility problem. The issue is not medication or not, sometimes medication is
necessary and can be helpful. The issue is whatʼs developmental for the patient? Thereare millions of people on psychotropic drugs including millions on Ritalin and there is noconversation about getting them off. Are drugs used to maintain the person or is there aplace to go thatʼs growthful? The DSM (diagnostic manual) that is used in the US laysout a finite number of emotions, all the emotions that supposedly exist. There are thegood ones and the bad ones, and the “sick ones” that are used to get insurancereimbursement but there is nothing that is becoming, that is emerging. Is it possible tohave different emotions or to create emotions that are not listed in the DSM? I think so.