NEW YORK CITY: Politics and theatre have been likely bedfellows since the beginning of the art form. Whether depicting the intrigue of kings and queens or the liberation of the proletariat, the stage has often been a ready vehicle for the news and political ideologies of its time.
Among the giants of 20th-century political theatre was Augusto Boal, a Brazilian artist and activist who created and advocated a theatrical technique called “Theatre of the Oppressed.” Designed to allow a community to produce and perform original pieces that address social ills, Boal’s protest theatre has been influential around the world, and now it’s active in the heart of Gotham. Theatre of the Oppressed NYC (TONYC) was founded in 2010 by Boal protégé Katy Rubin, and its various troupes and leaders have since been steadily working to provide aid via theatre to populations facing challenges ranging from homelessness to mental illness, addiction to unemployment, hunger to bullying to racism.
The focus of this year’s Legislative Theatre Festival, TONYC’s annual high-octane incubator of community-building, will be “racism and profiling in the criminal justice system.” (Last year’s focus was LGBTQ homeless youth.) Over three days, May 29-31, Rubin and her Jokers—the affectionate name given to TONYC’s team of facilitators and teaching artists—will involve interested NYC residents in a series of games and improvisations to get them comfortable with each other. By the end of the exercise, an expected three to five fledging troupes will have formed—they’ll select a collective narrative they recognize and share, and from which a performance will be derived. “They are the leaders in terms of casting, staging, acting and directing,” Rubin says. “They create all the language surrounding the show. Our only rules are talk louder and face front.”
The collectively created work will be shown to an audience that will include local, state and federal legislators involved in the criminal justice system. Performers and audience will then discuss and vote on several proposals dealing with issues raised by the work, including racial profiling, the high number of minorities in the prison system, and the controversial stop-and-frisk policy of the New York Police Department. “The purpose of the festival is to have those voices directly involved in the policy-making participate,” Rubin said. “Legislators will commit to considering at least three new proposals put forward by the audience and voted onstage. It will hold the legislators and policy-makers accountable.”