Theatre of the Oppressed NYC uses theatre to address social justice issues

This is the second in a series of artist profiles featuring the work of artists around social justice, policing, and activism. The first, on Detroit’s Allied Media Conference, can be read here.

Katy Rubin grew up in what she describes as an “arts and social justice” family where she was exposed to the idea of using art for social justice practice at a very early age. Growing up in that environment, she formed her own ideas of what social justice in the arts could and should look like.
“I was really attracted to things that make social action fun and not miserable,” she says, “things that are open and tolerant and not intolerant and angry.”
Her father taught circus and street theatre so she was familiar with Theatre of the Oppressed, a socially engaged method of theatre practice that originated in Brazil in 1971 with the focus of the universal human right for all people to exist in dignity.
“I was really interested in figuring out how social theater could engage people for change,” says Rubin. She went to acting school to think about how to activate audience members through stories and elicit emotional responses, but when she graduated she knew she “needed to find something to do with it other than auditioning.”
Theatre of the Oppressed did a workshop in New York that Rubin attended, and after that she got a grant so she could study under TO founder Augusto Boal in Brazil for three months in 2008. In Brazil, TO works at an institutional level, partnered with the federal and local governments, working within the prison system and school system, with health practitioners and social service agencies and many other areas not decidedly arts- or academics-driven.
She returned to New York excited to start implementing the ideas she learned in Brazil. “This is a tool not being used in this [social practice] space enough [in America], even though it’s being used all over the world in these ways,” she says. “Here it’s primarily used academically in workshops.” And she wanted to change that.
Rubin started working with a homeless outreach program in 2010 at a time when she was teaching theatre. She wanted to make a play about what it means to be homeless, addressing how people become homeless and the discrimination they face. The play they made through the program attracted a sizable audience when it was performed in the fall of 2010, and Rubin was asked to tour the troupe to other centers. From there, housing works agencies and homeless LGBTQ youth centers asked her about starting their own troupes.
And so Rubin officially started Theatre of the Oppressed NYC in 2011.
She now oversees 10 troupes all over the city, each working with their own social service agency including Covenant House New York, CASES: The Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services, the Ali Forney Center, and other social justice organizations. The troupes are autonomous and ongoing, built together with the agencies’ advocacy departments. Actors are participants in the agencies’ programs, and after their production some of the actors will go through training with TO to become facilitators in their troupe.
Theatre of the Oppressed NYC does not identify and target agencies of interest; when they start a partnership it is because they have been invited by that agency. “That’s really important to us,” Rubin says. “It really needs to come from the community. [It’s important that they come to us and say], ‘We’re experiencing a problem and need to do something creative that really engages our creativity and talent, where we’re not being spoken for by other people.'”
The community dictates every aspect of the show, from the content to what day of the week is best for the performance. The actors decide on the script, design, title, and language. TONYC starts by doing some open workshops where they bring a troupe in from another site and start playing dialogue games that get people thinking “upside down” and asking, “What are the things we want to change?”

Through games and improvisation they start to identify their stories. From those first sessions program participants will join the troupe and spend the next several months working on the play. There are usually about 10-15 people per troupe; some homeless, some young, some old, some Spanish-speaking. “Every group is facing all different kinds of [challenges] at different points in time,” Rubin says.
The group owns the play. There is no particular role played by a particular person. People tell their stories of the human rights issues they experience but normally can’t express. Facilitators help them do that, some who come from the theatre world and some from the activism world. The free shows are then held at the agency site as well as more “traditional” theatre venues.
The audience is actively engaged with every show, invited throughout the performance to identify the problems the characters are experiencing and asked what they would do if they were experiencing the same problems. They go up onstage with the actors and there is a dialogue analysis between the audience and the actors on what would need to be done to address those issues, whether that means policy changes or something else. “We’re trying to think about what our possibilities are and what we need to do to make those things happen.”
Once a year TONYC hosts the Legislative Theatre festival where council members and policy makers are invited and commit to addressing the top current policy issues identified by the actors and audience.

Representation by Improvisation from Theatre of the Oppressed NYC on Vimeo.

Last year one of the scenes was about a transsexual woman who was a victim of domestic violence, but was arrested herself after the police found syringes in her home and assumed she was drug addict. This was further complicated by the fact that the gender assignment on her state-issued ID didn’t match her represented gender. Another trans woman of color was assumed to be a prostitute because she was carrying condoms. In both cases, a municipal idea was already on the docket – a bill written to allow open gender on IDs was already in the works, as was the “No Condoms as Evidence” bill, which was passed last June – but the festival arguably helps further influence the elected officials.  
Now in its third year, the 2015 Legislative Theatre festival will be held June 4-6 at The New School with performances Thursday and Friday and workshops on Saturday. 
The success of TONYC’s work is marked by the ongoing partnerships between the artists and agencies, by creating a platform for more voices to be heard, and by positive end results such as the policy influence of the Legislative Theatre festival.
“We look at the impact on the communities building the plays. The folks at risk of homelessness or arrest as just generally underserved,” Rubin says of how TONYC measures its impact. “We also look at the impact on the audiences, which is always a really diverse theatre-going audience but also families and peers of the actors’ families. [We look] at the impact on those audience members and the way they take action in their community after the play, whether that’s political or social action. We’ve seen people become donors. We’ve seen individual acts like someone donating their time to be a hair dresser for a shelter.” 
Oftentimes it is the actors themselves who experience the greatest impact, specifically in terms of community-building and self-confidence. “We see the way people feel more ready to fight for the problems they see and speak up for themselves [when there is a] power imbalance,” Rubin says. Many actors are now on staff with TONYC, and others go to college, get housing, or go to job interviews directly as a result of the sense of self-empowerment they built during their experience of producing and performing the plays. But, Rubin cautions, that is not a specifically intended or expected outcome of their work they do.
“Those might be wonderful collateral consequences of the advocacy work, but we’re not saying ‘This is the way your life should look like.’ There’s no end goal here. This is about collective social change, and not about blaming the individual.”