Actors as Activists: Canvassing 101

Jul. 12, 2017

Following the plays in our 5th Annual Legislative Theatre Festival, we hosted a series of trainings called Get Activated! These trainings offered skills and tips for engaging with social issues outside of the theatre. One of these sessions was geared toward effective canvassing.

Canvassing is the act of going door-to-door or stopping people on the street to try to gain support for a cause or candidate.  The facilitators of the canvassing session, TONYC Jokers, Liz Morgan and Becca Lynch, used their skills as actors to prepare participants to talk comfortably about the problems presented in the plays and to ask people to support the ideas for solutions that came out of the process.

So what are the do’s and don’ts of canvassing and how can you, as an actor, leverage your skills to be good at it? Canvassing is all about human connection and powerful storytelling- two qualities inherent to acting. As an actor, you are well-equipped to canvass like a pro. Here are some other qualities inherent to your craft and profession that make you ready.

Stage Presence
We’ve all seen the canvassers on the street, “do you have a minute to talk about global warming?” etc. There are many reasons people will stop or continue on, but your presence is a big draw. As an actor, you’ve worked to cultivate stage presence- the ability to bring people into your orbit with your unique energy. You can put that to work to bring people into conversation with you and talk about the issues you care about most.

Bringing New Life to an Old Script
Once someone stops to talk with you, in order for them to feel the urgency of your “ask,”  it’s important to share the information with them as though you’re saying it for the very first time. Since you’re out canvassing, you obviously care about the issue, but when you’ve given the same pitch over twenty times that hour, it can be challenging to share it again with full feeling. As an actor, you’re trained for this! You know how to sit in that moment and bring life to the words every single time. Take your listener on the journey and engage them with your perspective!

Acting is Reacting
People who stop to talk will have thoughts, questions, and reactions to what you say.  It’s important to attempt to understand where they are coming from and not be rattled by an unexpected perspective or question.  You, as an actor, are experienced in thinking on your feet, and far less likely to be thrown off by a new viewpoint.  Moreover, when engaging with a scene partner, you know how to listen with both your eyes and ears, taking in the overt and subtle cues of communication from the other person, being aware of what those cues elicit in you, and responding accordingly.  People are far more willing to learn and support when they feel heard as well, so use that gift of listening and self-awareness to be present with the people who stop and talk with you! 

Experience Hearing “No”
When out canvassing, many people will tell you ‘no’ or walk right by as though you didn’t say a word. As an actor who has participated in the audition circuit, rejection is no stranger! You know that hearing ‘no’ is par for the course on the path to a yes. You know not to take it too personally and channel that ‘no’ into motivation for the next opportunity!  

Now that you know you’re well-suited to canvass, here are a few do’s and don’ts to keep in mind as you make a plan of action with your friends, community, cast, and/or organization!


Introduce Yourself!

- Once someone has agreed to stop and speak to you, make sure you share your name and why you’re out here: For example: Hi, thanks for stopping. My name is Rebecca and I’m out here with Theatre of the Oppressed NYC…
- It’s ideal if you have some kind of identifying t-shirt or large button too. If you decide to canvass with us, we’ll give you a TONYC T-shirt!

Be Persuasive Not Aggressive
- If someone doesn’t not want to talk with you, let them go without judgment or following them. People are busy. Moving on may not be a reflection of their interest in the topic.
- If someone is open to talking to you, but feels unconvinced of what you’re saying, feel free to share more information or a story to persuade!

Have Something To Share
- Be very familiar with the information you have to share, so you can answer questions or direct them to where they can find those answers.
- Bring your petition or info pamphlet, so they remember you and the issue after they leave.

Connect With Your Team
- If you decide to knock on doors, make sure you and your fellow canvassers know who is going where so you don’t knock on the same door more than once. No one wants to feel pestered in their own home.
- For safety, door canvassing is best done in pairs.
- If you are in the street with a partner, face one another and stand a good distance apart, so you each can talk to the people walking toward you. That way, you know the person approaching you hasn’t already spoken to your partner.

Keep It Concise
- Since canvassing is by nature an interruption, be sure to keep it quick and clear so people can have an informative and interesting interaction with you and continue on with their day.



Get Too Familiar
- Unless this is someone you know well and have an established relationship with, stay away from using nicknames or other overly familiar terms, like sweetheart, honey, sir, or madam.
- Do not guess or assume people’s gender/ gender pronouns.

Touch Anyone Without Getting Consent
- Be especially aware of this with door canvassing since you’re arriving unannounced at someone’s home.
- If someone wants to shake your hand etc. and you would like to reciprocate, feel free!

Knock On The Same Door Twice


- Unless someone asks you to come back!

Share Incorrect Information

- If you don’t know the answer to something, it’s ok to say so! Just be sure to tell them where they can find the answer or offer to look it up and get back to them.

Put the Job Before Yourself


- Be as committed to yourself as you are to the issue. If the person you are engaging with is posing a danger to you or making you feel uncomfortable, feel free to end the conversation in a way that works for you.

If you’re interested in staying connected and canvassing with TONYC or have questions or thoughts about this article click here. We’d love to hear from you!

This article was written by TONYC Creative Advocacy Coordinator and Joker, Rebecca Kelly-Golfman. Rebecca began canvassing with Grassroots Campaigns in NYC and went on to prepare law students and high school students in legal oral advocacy in Hartford, CT and Washington, DC as a civil rights attorney.