A Brief History of The International Class
By Melissa Meyer, Programs Coordinator
We’ve all experienced the impact of the advent of the internet: how seemingly overnight people living oceans apart came to learn about one another’s work and reached out to connect. One such network that grew in the mid-1990s was a grouping of people working in theatre and the performing arts. They were therapists, clinicians, youth workers, educators, academics and researchers who were experimenting with the use of theatre, performance and the arts to address the challenges of poverty, mental illness, healthcare, illiteracy, the refugee crises and more. Many had been working in relative isolation, with minimal resources and limited access to others doing similar work.
The East Side Institute – an independent grassroots think-tank working to develop practical-critical, humanizing alternatives approaches in psychology and education – looked to engage those intrigued by a performative / cultural approach to what ailed their communities. Founded in the 1985, by public philosopher and iconoclast, Fred Newman, and developmental psychologist and Vygotskian, Lois Holzman, the Institute developed a practice of method called social therapeutics, a postmodern, performatory-developmental approach that relates to people of all ages and life circumstances as social performers and creators of their lives.
Their discoveries were rooted in community organizing and influenced by Karl Marx and pioneering 20th century thinkers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Lev Vygotsky. Their work had produced a number of self-sustaining, innovative practices/organizations including an award winning, independently funded youth development non-profit, the All Stars Project working with thousands of inner city youth across the US; a radically humanistic and non-diagnostic group therapy, social therapy, working with some 300 patients weekly from all walks of life; and a training firm, Performance of a Lifetime, using performance and improv to help people in business to be more collaborative and innovative.
As more people internationally began to learn of the Institute’s work, we in turn were learning about these small pockets of community and performance activists and set out to build connections. In 2001, Newman and Holzman, along with Taos Institute colleagues Ken and Mary Gergen, put out a call for proposals to create the inaugural gathering of Performing the World. Could Performing the World help advance a global conversation on the “performance turn” in the social sciences and a new way forward for social activism? In its first year, it gave birth to a performatory learning and development community that connected people doing performance work in community-based programs, hospitals, therapy offices, in universities, classrooms, organizations, and corporate settings. After nine gatherings in the course of 16 years, the Performing the World continues to grow and has become a creative home/hub for a new form of social activism — “performance activism.”
Who Did The International Class Attract?
In the early years of the Performing the World community, people began to reach out to Lois Holzman and ask to be trained in the Institute’s social therapeutic approach. They wanted help to advance their work. It was out of these requests that The International Class was created in 2003. In 14 years, over 100 social activists and scholars from 28 countries have completed the 10-month residency program. We’ve accepted applicants from all over the world without prerequisites or requirements — nonprofessionals and professionals alike.
Some of our graduates have gone on to create or further develop organizations that provide positive, performatory environments for people to grow. A few of these include: Play is Hope, founded by Elena Boukouvala which brings opportunities for refugees living in the camps of Europe to play, develop and lead; Hope for Youth Uganda, founded by former accountant, Peter Nsubuga, a boarding school in Kampala, Uganda, serving hundreds of children orphaned by parents who died of HIV; Turning Point, a mental rehabilitation center in Kolkata, India founded by Ishita Sanyal, that helps people with severe emotional problems to live productive lives; EPOS Efterskolen, a boarding school co-founded by Esben Wilstrup in a village far away from the bustle of Copenhagen, a school that centers its curriculum on play and development; Pandies Theatre, founded by university theater professor, Sanjay Kumar, a theatre located in New Delhi, India, which serves impoverished and marginalized men, women, girls and boys through onstage plays and performance.
The students of the IC are educators and therapists, professors and community workers, youth workers, healthcare professionals and business people. Many are frustrated by how they have been trained to relate to people. Some had already been using forms of play, the creative arts and performance in their work. Some are pioneers and innovators; many are radicals in spirit and impassioned about bringing about profound social change Some have established positions at NGOs or in universities; others are grassroots community workers or activists.
All are looking for an out-of-the-box approach to dealing with the material and conceptual poverty, violence and alienation of their communities. Most all are intrigued by the Institute’s body of intellectual work and on-the-ground practices instantiating the power of play and performance for reinitiating human development and learning.
Since 2004, over 100 people have graduated from the International Class from 28 countries:
Argentina, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Botswana, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, El Salvador, England, Greece, India, Kenya, Macedonia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, the Philippines, Serbia, South Africa, Sweden, Taiwan, Uganda, the United States and Wales.
What’s the Structure of Study?
Students enter The International Class as a grouping of 10-20. Beginning in September, and over a 10-month course of study, they come together in the course of several residencies and via online conversation, to build their learning environment — their group. With Holzman and her faculty as their guide, students come to New York City three times — in the fall, winter and spring – each week-long residency providing them with new opportunities to experience social therapeutics in action. As part of their itinerary in New York, they visit the All Stars Project youth and volunteer programs; attend a show at the Off-off Broadway Castillo Theatre; meet with social therapy clients and observe some actual therapy groups; participate in improv skills training with coaches from Performance of a Lifetime; observe college classrooms influenced by the social therapeutic approach, and more. Coursework includes readings by Holzman and Newman, including watching recordings of the philosophical plays Newman created for the American Psychological Association. Students also get a taste of social therapy, and perform their own social therapy group.
For many, graduation from the International Class students is just the beginning of ongoing friendship and collaboration. Many students build lasting connections and find steady support and inspiration from the network of their fellow graduates and from the Institute and the Performing the World community.
Is The International Class for You?
In a world of increasing uncertainty and destabilization, people are stepping up to be active agents of social change. Many who want to make a difference find that they need more. They search for new tools, methods, conceptions and approaches to move forward. Maybe you’re among them?
The International Class is a school/practice/activity for creating a new kind of social activism. It’s an activism that supports people from all walks of life to perform, create and develop revolutionary practices that both challenge the current paradigms/institutions that are hurting so many, while creating/discovering new possibilities for how to live, fight, grow and perform our world.