Dreaming of Community: The Fourth Wall

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I do not think that our group is either a model of how people should live nor an object lesson what to avoid at all costs. A few years ago I was looking for a school for my son and met the head of a school who was utterly self-effacing. I immediately sensed that he was an intensely controlling person who made certain that everything worked to his satisfaction, regardless of how miserable it might be for those under his control. I’ve had bosses whose personalities remind me of the group’s leaders and I instantly know how to deal with them and how to avoid coming under their spell. That’s the least of what I got out of it.

But I also got a chance to try to live a very different life style. I don’t just mean the sex. I also mean waking up each day (well, at least on those days when I hadn’t been up all night!) and knowing what I had to do and feeling that it was important that I do it to the best of my ability. I understood that the world was a mess and that those running the world were doing so for their own good and not ours. And I knew that it was possible to fight against those forces, and by struggling, to know one is doing what one can, not just passively accepting the world that’s foisted upon us.

And though it wasn’t “just the sex,” there was certainly something exciting about trying this road to intimacy. Prior to the group my relationships had had a very consistent pattern: “Serial monogamy” was a fair description with long intervening periods of nothing. Though they had their ups and downs, I enjoyed my relationships in the group most of the time. I got to know some wonderfully creative people: painters, sculptors, musicians, actors, directors, and writers. The group’s overt values of self-expression, sexual openness and devotion to each other’s pleasure, letting go and having fun, caring about one’s kids and giving them as much love as possible, weren’t always overshadowed by the group’s dark side. I still cherish the innumerable friendships, sexual and non-sexual, that were facilitated by being open to dating many people simultaneously.

The life of the group was also rich in terms of developing of creative talents. “Validation” was perhaps the groups’ favorite word. Each of us saw our role as trying our best to learn while also trying to encourage our friends. There was a conviction that we could all accomplish whatever we were after with the support of our friends. I learned to play the saxophone, to act, and to organize. We’d put together shows with up to seventy-five people taking part: doing comedy skits and doing rock-n-roll songs we’d written ourselves, running all aspects of theatre on a Broadway-scale stage (Rent began its life at the Truck and Warehouse Theatre, developed by the group we sold the theatre to when The Fourth Wall ended.) Sometimes we far outnumbered the audience, but often the audience, large or small, was enthusiastic and appreciative.

At the height of the group in the late eighties, some ninety members of the group joined together to buy, gut, and rebuild to our specifications a seven story building on Broadway on the Upper West Side. It was quite an amazing place to live. I remember the look of a young woman who’d answered my ad looking for a babysitter for my five year old as she surveyed the place. As she came in there was this giant open space that comprised a broad kitchen with two industrial-sized refrigerators and an enormous living room that was mostly an over-long couch and some chairs spread around. The rest of the “apartment” was small, even truly tiny in my own case, bedrooms — dozens of them. I had to ask her to wait for a moment while I got something. By the time I turned around she was gone. I can recall how the reflection in her eyes revealed what a strange place she had wandered into. But this was our world, our design to fit the way we were living.

A main reason for the living room being enormous was that a great deal of our lives consisted of meetings. I mentioned coming back from teaching at 11:00 for a rehearsal, but it could as likely be for a meeting. We were constantly meeting. There were weekly “house meetings,” where virtually anything could be brought up. If you were behind a ways behind in your rent for a while or had annoyed someone who had some status within the group at that time, you could pretty much count on having your life dissected. Issues, from how to deal to someone being allergic to a cat to how to deal with the AIDS epidemic to whether an apartment should be co-ed or single-sex and everything else on the planet, would be discussed into the wee hours of the night.

We also read books on political theory. These forced me to read and discuss important works on political change in far greater depth than I’d ever done previously. Though many found these meetings boring, I’ve found them very useful in understanding the world, including what’s happening currently.
I also learned a lot about community by being in the group. While I learned more about how cults operate than I ever wished to know, I also learned that a community of skillful teachers and cooperative peers can stimulate tremendous creative development. The power of a community, the ability to accomplish far-reaching goals, is far more than the sum of its individual parts. Leadership is crucial, but the fact that it can be warped does not negate its positive potential to achieve the group’s goals.

The danger of abuse does not invalidate the need for community, for relationships deeper than casual acquaintance, for commitment to the needs of the group. The parallel with sexual needs is obvious: Just because our libido often gets us into trouble doesn’t mean that we should become monks or nuns.

So, though I certainly have my regrets, I still believe that there’s value in challenging the status quo, in questioning traditional wisdom, in attempting new solutions to ancient problems. Perhaps we will develop ways of helping each other beyond popping Prozac and Xanax’s every few hours. Perhaps a day will come when interpersonal intimacy, including sexual intimacy, will be able to be sustained more widely than a single monogamous relationship. Perhaps we will be able to function more as cooperative communities than as antagonistic individuals and competing “interest groups.” So, here’s to today’s adventurers: Good luck — and keep close tabs on whoever’s trying to run the show!

Meanwhile, I don’t imaginge I’ll stop dreaming.

Essays on creativity, community, social change, and the search for meaning