At Long Last…A Performance to Become Who We Are Not

Spirituality & Health The Soul/Body Connection (March/April 2004)

by Betsy Robinson

What if you aren’t good at relationships, a “group person,” a joiner, a team player? What if group activity connotes strain or anxiety that you’d rather avoid? Maybe you have even convinced yourself that you could realize God by sitting alone on a mountaintop, meditating. And it was a rude awakening to find that it is the friction of relationship that leads to God. So now you’re really stuck, unable to believe in the path of isolation and clueless about how to cope in life’s communities. Where do you go for help?

How about to a conference of social therapy experts? Held at the Montauk Yacht Club on the Long Island Sound one cold October weekend, the annual Performing the World Conference brought together more than 250 participants from nine countries — performers, educators, artists, scholars, helping professionals, activists, community organizers, and social therapists — to experience and discuss the myriad ways people heal through social therapy and its practice of performing.

We are welcomed by the founder of social therapy, Fred Newman, a Marxist with intense, friendly eyes, who looks like Santa Claus with a shaved head and a two-day stubble. Newman also founded the event’s sponsor, the East Side Institute for Short Term Psychotherapy, and is a playwright and doctor of philosophy who believes we can change through performance — social therapy-speak for behavior or expression done with passion and awareness that you are choosing what you are doing or saying.

The literature calls social therapy a postmodern way of approaching change based on the work of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who determined that children learn and grow by “performing a head taller” than they are. There’s no dwelling on old wounds, self-obsessing, or diagnosing problems. Here, we acknowledge what is right with us, and develop by “doing what we don’t know how to do.” By doing this with others, social therapists ardently believe we can “become who we are not”!

Who we are is a socially induced, mercurial activity, say social therapists. In fact, the “who you really are” referred to on some spiritual paths does not exist in the context of this therapy. Who you are is defined by your relationships, which exist even when you are alone in your room. You carry with you every relationship you have ever had, or not had — lack of a relationship is a form of relationship. To grow, you must begin by being who you appear to be, then move into “who you are not” in relationships. “When you do Hamlet,” explains Newman, “you stay who you are, but you grow by performing Hamlet. I think we have to create something new to grow.”

Social therapy usually begins with short-term individual work with a therapist. Then you move into a group. Since the group is considered an entity far greater than the sum of its members, a leader might ask, “How is the group doing today?” rather than address any individual. Solutions to problems evolve through considering what will most benefit the group. And as groups change, so do individuals, say social therapists — and so will the world.

The conference is all group activities. Over the course of the weekend, I am a bus driver in an improv where riders instantly take on the emotion of each new passenger. I am an independently wealthy adventurer at a pretend singles party where I try to pick up one man and two women — simultaneously! I am a wild rainmaker-player in music therapy. And somewhere in the course of all these roles, I suddenly notice that I am really happy and very connected to my fellow performers. I’m a group player — what a surprise! Perhaps this performing thing works.