“Breathe,” Bianca Guerrero (she/her) advised some 60 theatre people in a Zoom session on a Friday in late January. This wasn’t an acting class, though Guerrero, the Employment Justice Campaign Coordinator at the grassroots organizers Make the Road New York, was preparing the group to perform an important role. “Breathe into the confidence that your elected officials and their staff are paid to take our calls!” she coached, as the attendees got ready to phone their state representatives. “We don’t need to be policy experts. We are citizens!”
Playing the part of citizen has been relegated to Election Day for the vast majority of Americans—among the 66 percent who vote (in a record turnout year), that is. According to a 2018 survey, fewer than 20 percent of Americans contacted an elected official within the previous year and even fewer volunteered for a cause (14 percent), attended a community meeting (12 percent), or participated in a demonstration (8 percent). The people joining that Zoom call on Jan. 22—a version of which takes place 1-2 p.m. ET every Friday—are striving to swell those numbers, at least in the theatre community.
While some have been engaged in such efforts for years, others, as Guerrero addressed them during the session, are “newbies.” Both cohorts—and everyone i between—are acting together to support progressive movements, thanks to Amplifying Activists Together (AAT), a weekly phone-banking party organized by the librettist/lyricist/playwright EllaRose Chary (she/her); dramaturg /producer and associate artistic director of Playwrights Horizons, Natasha Sinha (she/her); and director/playwright Jay Stull (he/him). It has been drawing dozens of participants every Friday for the last eight months.
The trio chose the name deliberately. “We are not activists,” emphasized Sinha. Rather, she, Chary, and Stull created AAT as a way for them and their colleagues “to comfortably and easily plug in weekly to activists’ campaigns, in a sustainable way.” That’s one aspect of the project that appeals to one regular participant, playwright Lisa Kron (Fun Home, Well, 2.5 Minute Ride). Noted Kron, “The thing that makes this initiative work for me is AAT’s deference to the leadership of experienced frontline organizers.”
An “Action Kickoff” on the first Friday of each month—sometimes on additional dates if there’s upcoming legislation or another urgent development to support—features a presenter like Guerrero, who briefly introduces a campaign and the steps needed to support it. In Guerrero’s case, it was Invest In Our New York Act, a package of six state bills that would end tax breaks for the wealthiest New Yorkers and raise $50 billion for, among other things, housing, healthcare, and education, as well as unemployment aid for workers excluded from federal benefits, often because of their immigration status.
Meanwhile, a Google doc guide prepared by Chary, Sinha and Stull—“with direct guidance from movement organizers!” it declares at the top—offers background info and step-by-step instructions for what to sign, whom to email, what to Tweet, and most important, whom to call and what to say (with plenty of leeway for participants’ own language). The heart of the sessions, including the three “Action Hours” per month that don’t feature a guest, involves picking up the phone and dialing elected officials. Sometimes Chary demonstrates first, turning on her phone’s speaker function and Zoom’s share screen to show the guide she’s using. “It has a feeling of live theatre,” Chary enthused. “We don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Sometimes she has to leave a voicemail, but sometimes live people answer and Chary engages them for all to see. Those people might welcome the communication of a constituent but, Chary said, they can also be mean and she might “mess up or get flustered.” That is part of the point. It shows, she said, that “we’re just people from theatre like you,” that anyone can “make your voice heard and try to move us toward justice.”
Indeed, an enjoyable let’s-put-on-a-show energy suffuses the phone-banking process, despite its being remote. Once everyone has muted themselves on Zoom, they make a call, all the while seeing others in their Zoom boxes with phones pressed to their ears. “I do not consider myself to be a shy person, but I do find it intimidating to start cold calling elected officials,” said Jack O’Brien, a sound mixer who has been without theatre work since last spring, when his gigs for New York’s Shakespeare in the Park and for a Florida out-of-town tryout evaporated. “Having a community of people who are on Zoom also calling helps to calm my nerves, and it is a good resource if I have any questions.”
The chat becomes active as participants report on the outcome of their efforts: “My Assemblywoman Emily Gallagher pledges her support on these bills.“ “I just got through to Sen Persaud’s legislative director who is going to put the bills in front of her.” “Pete Harkham’s staffer, a bit of rhetorical two-stepping: ‘haven’t taken a formal position, still too early since some bills haven’t been circulated, but generally believes in reassessing the tax structure to make it more equitable.’” Toward the end of the hour, participants are randomly distributed into breakout rooms where they can meet and compare notes with three or four colleagues.
AAT’s sessions invigorate the guest activists too. “Seeing so many bright and determined faces on the call made me so happy,” Guerrero told me. “COVID-19 has put the livelihoods of so many New Yorkers at risk. The only way we’re going to get through this is solidarity.”
The project began early last June, amid the surging protest movements responding to the murder of George Floyd. Chary joined a Zoom meeting of a grassroots activist group she belongs to, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, where an organizer discussed how longstanding calls to shift some current policing duties and resources to other agencies were gaining traction under the slogan “Defund the Police.” The organizer asked attendees to commit to two actions: First, to connect with any institutions they were part of to see if they’d sign onto a Change the NYPD statement or issue one of their own about budget justice, and second, to get 10 friends to call their City Council representatives to urge them to divert some of the $6 billion slated for the police in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposed budget to the community services, programs, and infrastructure he was planning to cut. Chary reached out to her friends, Sinha and Stull.
Sinha was already working with a group of local theatre folks, among them a number of artistic directors, involved in an effort initiated by Melanie Joseph (artistic producer of the late Foundry Theatre), encouraging them not only to post statements for a just budget on their website, but also to send them to their audiences.
For his part, Stull was feeling that “theatre artists needed to come together outside of institutions in some ways to lobby and model and perform for each other the work of citizen activism.” He was frustrated seeing theatres post “identical statements about race and racism as if it were a copy-and-paste job,” even as they were laying off their staffs and continuing to ask the public for donations. “I kind of lost faith in institutions being the mechanisms by which justice could come about,” he said.
In hopes of engaging members of the vast freelance theatre community who aren’t affiliated with institutions—and of getting 10 friends to call the City Council—the trio decided to invite their email lists to a “Zoom NYC Budget Justice Phone Banking Party.” They compiled their first guide (with help from Communities United for Police Reform) and arranged for a few activists to introduce the topic to anyone who came to their June 12 meeting.
More than 200 people showed up. The trio kept going, and on July 24, held their first event under the name Amplifying Activists Together, in order, explained Sinha, “to sustain the momentum of the budget justice gatherings.” The calls expanded to address related matters like excluded workers and healthcare.
Chary, Sinha, and Stull stressed that they haven’t been convening theatre people to help others. “The idea that theatre people are not at risk of police brutality is an assumption that theatre people are white and rich,” Chary said. ”This isn’t some other community that we’re giving charity to. We’re doing this because these are our causes, because these are our communities, because we live in New York.”
All have seen colleagues leave the city in the past year—and in turn give up on theatre—because they can’t afford to stay, particularly when work has dried up. That’s a fair housing issue. When actors lose health insurance because they can’t work and rack up the weeks that keep them eligible through Actors Equity, that’s yet another reminder that healthcare should be decoupled from employment.
The trio solidly supports the lobbying that has been heating up in Washington: appeals for a new version of the Federal Theater Project, the Be An #ArtsHero campaign demanding that Congress to provide relief to the arts and culture sector proportionate to its contributions to the economy. But they see themselves occupying a different lane.
“The tactics and rhetoric are different, because the audiences are different,” Stull explained. If you’re trying, for example, to convince Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) to support artists, “she is not going to be interested in the conversation that we’re having right now, about undermining the pillars of capitalism in order to make equity.” In New York state, on the other hand, Democrats control both legislative bodies and can be pressed from the left toward a broad, inclusive vision.
“The best thing that can happen for American theatre when we come back is for all artists to have universal healthcare, housing, income, the defunding of police, and a safe city where people are safe from the virus and from police violence,” said Chary. “This is an arts issue because artists are people.”
Alisa Solomon (she/her) teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she directs the Arts & Culture concentration in the MA program. A theatre critic and general reporter for the Village Voice from 1983 to 2004, she has also contributed to The New York Times, The Nation, NewYorker.com, Tablet, The Forward, Howlround.com, killingthebuddha.com, TDR – The Drama Review, and other publications. alisasolomon.com
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