Features NYC Features Published 11 June 2014

Can’t Get Right

Rafi Mittlefehldt on Theatre of the Oppressed NYC and their Festival of Forum and Legislative Theatre.
Rafi Mittlefehldt

A black transgender woman comes home to find her boyfriend drunk and angry. He stumbles toward her, screaming obscenities, and beats her on his way out. The police come knocking; there’s been a noise complaint. The woman explains what happened. Dubious, they ask for identification and to search the apartment. She lets them, hoping they can help. Instead, they find her hormone drugs and a gender discrepancy on her ID, and arrest her for possession of drug paraphernalia.

The audience stops it here. Rewinds to the officers’ arrival. A volunteer from the audience takes the place of the woman, and tries something different.

This time, she doesn’t let the police in. She speaks to them from the doorway. Their patience runs thin after a few minutes, and they leave. The scene in this alternate universe ends in a draw: she’s not arrested this time, but she’s not given medical attention either. She has traded in treatment to avoid incarceration.

This is Theatre of the Oppressed NYC’s second annual Legislative Theatre Festival, headed by founder Katy Rubin, and which took place May 30 in the West Village’s The Church of St. Luke in the Fields. Nonprofessional actors belonging to troupes associated with different social welfare organizations reenact actual events from their personal lives, depicting their own experiences with discrimination. The audience examines and discusses those events, tinkers with them, and then tries to come up with a way to stop them from happening again.

The transwoman’s story was performed by a troupe with The Ali Forney Center, which helps homeless LGBT youth find housing. Two other stories, depicting an incompetent public defender and racial profiling by police, were performed by the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services (CASES), and Housing Works, respectively.

The model takes some time to wrap your head around, even after seeing it. There are three parts to the evening. The first, “Watch,” involves seeing a theater performance in which actors relive their experiences with institutionalized racism. In the second, “Act,” an improvisational do-over, audience members take over the protagonist’s role and act out what they would do to avoid the same outcome. The evening concludes with a “Vote,” when city council members and other governmental representatives present at the forum come together to propose new laws to fight the injustices displayed in these real-life situations, and audience members vote on these. If passed, the government representatives commit to formally proposing them to their respective legislative bodies.

Rubin founded TONYC after studying the legislative theatre model in Brazil under Augusto Boal, the founder of the form of socially and politically engaged theater known as Theater of the Oppressed, in which audience members offer alternative courses of action to characters on stage experiencing oppression. Influenced heavily by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), Boal was a one-time city councilman in Rio de Janeiro and created legislative theatre in an attempt to foster more direct communication between the public and their government.

I spoke with Rubin over the phone and by email in the days before and after the festival. TONYC’s purpose generally, she says, is to raise awareness of specific issues faced by disadvantaged groups. (This year’s theme: racism in the criminal justice system.) But the legislative theatre model specifically – the forum that turns a story into an interactive, problem-solving catalyst – means to try to find solutions to these dilemmas by changing laws, and to bring together communities that might unwittingly share similar experiences.

That latter bit is potentially the most powerful, and speaks to the surprising depth of the second, improvisational part of the model.

Different underrepresented groups do often have a vague awareness of the similarities they share with other communities, but those similarities can be hard to see until experienced firsthand. Take the transgender woman. In describing a pattern of presumption of guilt by police, black and Latino communities have an unfortunate wealth of experiences from which to draw; so does, it turns out, the trans community. Where certain groups may have not seen specific common ground before, Rubin says, they now have an example to point to and say, “It reminds me of how I felt when I experienced” something similar.

That’s not to say the sense of “solidarity” Rubin hopes to cultivate is exclusive to disadvantaged groups. The power of the second part of the model is that it allows any audience member to get a taste of what the actors’ real-life experiences were like, and form a bond with people going through these problems on a regular basis, Rubin says.

“We aim to encourage fellow New Yorkers to be in solidarity with the actors onstage, who are portraying their own stories,” Rubin says. “This means running the same risks, or in this case, [taking a risk] to get onstage, get in the middle of the problem, try something and potentially fail.”

She and her group are quick to say there is no victim-blaming; the purpose isn’t to show that the whole thing could have been avoided had the protagonist made better choices.

“Because we ask the audiences to think about when they’ve felt the same feelings of the characters, to identify with the characters, before they can get onstage with an idea, we’re ensuring that their actions are motivated by their own desire to change their lives, and not in a position of advice-givers,” she says.

But putting aside the bit on solidarity, why not just skip from “Watch” to “Vote,” having audience members debate policies based on what they’ve seen? Wouldn’t that be just as efficient a means of enacting change? There’s a more practical reason for “Act,” Rubin responds.

“It’s a laboratory,” she says. “If we just speak our ideas, we may not catch the pitfalls or surprising effects of that intervention, and the rest of the audience and policy makers might not be understanding the same thing that the speaker is imagining. Actions and images on stage speak louder than words, to communicate a potentially revolutionary idea.”

Not that Rubin is expecting Legislative Theatre to revolutionize the city. Some of the policies that have come out of it have gone on to bigger and better things with the council, but sometimes awareness is the bigger goal in her mind.

“Sometimes it’s a really big change – concrete – and sometimes it’s a tiny thing that starts a conversation,” she says. “There are lots of ways it can really play out.”

In this year’s forum, the transgender woman’s story resulted in a few proposals. One, which would allow for municipal-level ID cards that can adjust more quickly to gender changes, was already in the works before the forum, and was originally targeted more toward the immigrant community. But two others were original and more focused: one that would cut through red tape to make gender clarifications on other government documents, and another that would increase sensitivity training for police officers toward the trans community.

The other two stories in this year’s forum, dealing with insufficient public defense and racial profiling, led to participating New York City Council Members Jimmy Van Bramer and Carlos Menchaca committing to proposals requiring identity disclosure for police officers, and publication of a bill of rights for defendants going through the criminal justice system, among other ideas.

But even if those go nowhere, Rubin hopes this year’s forum will help its audience members actively relate to one another.

The transgender woman’s story had a second alternate ending. Another audience member tried something else. She let the police in, but didn’t consent to a search. The officers persisted, but this version’s protagonist insisted they call for medical assistance and leave it at that. Eventually, reluctantly, they gave in. Paramedics arrived; the scene ended.

Afterward, the rest of the audience members – many expressing a deep-rooted and uncompromising distrust of police – asked why she risked inviting the officers inside in the first place.

“Sometimes you need the police. You should be able to trust your police,” the audience member explained. “This was a traumatic experience for me.”

“Me,” she said, referring to what was originally someone else’s experience.

 The Second Annual Festival of Forum and Legislative Theatre ran from 29th – 31st May 2014

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Rafi Mittlefehldt is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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