June 11, 2014 | Category: Blog | Author:

Solidarity through stories: Theatre of the Oppressed NYC

Today on the blog, a guest post by Katy Rubin, the founding artistic director of Theatre of the Oppressed NYC (TONYC). Katy trained with Augusto Boal at the Center for Theatre of the Oppressed in Rio de Janeiro. TONYC’s work yields valuable insight for any organization trying to engage others more deeply in social-justice storytelling.

At Theatre of the Oppressed NYC (TONYC), we believe that the individuals and communities facing an “issue” or form of oppression are the only people entitled to tell the stories, and even more essentially, to even identify what those urgent issues are. We also assert that when the storytellers are the homeless, the immigrants, the people living with HIV/AIDS, the incarcerated youth—their performances are much more riveting, funny, sad, enraging than any other representation could be, because they know the reality of the situation and they experience it every day. The urgency—which “professional” artists train for years to access—is immediately accessible to the communities facing the problem.

We find that audiences are drawn in to these performances out of a kind of fearful curiosity: they are intrigued by and suspicious of the idea that a homeless New Yorker can create something aesthetically beautiful, and moreover, that he or she will tell a story that’s relevant to their own lives, which is really what draws anyone into an artistic or social-change event.

But we don’t just want to draw them in. We also want to make it impossible for the audiences to leave: that is, to leave the storytelling venue without taking on the problem as one of their own. Therefore, the event isn’t over until the audience has connected in solidarity with the storytellers on stage, and become so activated by this empathetic and personal connection that they become part of the story. We invite the audience members onstage to become “spect-actors,” trying out new alternatives to address the situation of oppression, in the role of the protagonist facing the problem. The solutions they propose are secondary, but the experience of solidarity is primary, because that audience member can never un-do that experience; they will now always carry the problem with them as their own. They see how it relates to their lives, and how all New Yorkers’ experiences are tied together inextricably.