Even Elected Officials Can Participate in Democracy

May. 09, 2014

By Katy Rubin. 

In the Theatre of the Oppressed community, there’s a little saying: “Everyone can do theatre. Even actors.”

When we say that, we mean that everyone is an actor in their own lives, and sometimes the most compelling actors are the ones who perform the situations they're experiencing in their own communities, every day. If the very term “to act” also implies “to take action,” then we can’t allow a small subset of society, the highly trained actors with MFAs and glossy headshots, to take the action on behalf of the rest of us; nor would it be fair to give them all that responsibility.

Similarly, Theatre of the Oppressed NYC’s annual legislative theatre festival, which is just three weeks away, is a perfect opportunity to remind New Yorkers that even elected officials can take part in creating and passing new policies that will help this city function and thrive for all inhabitants.

This May, NYC Council Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer, Council Member Corey Johnson, and a variety of other council members and federal policymakers from HUD and USDOJ will join actors from Ali Forney Center, Housing Works and Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services (CASES), as well as hundreds of community audience members, to participate in legislative theatre. Here’s how it works:

  1. Watch: Audience members, legal experts and policymakers will see scenes performed and created by the actors base on their real-life experiences
  2. Act: Spect-actors (anyone watching), will enter the scenes to try out a creative strategy to address the problems.
  3. Vote: Policymakers, audience members and actors will hash out policy ideas addressing racism and discrimination in the criminal justice system in NYC.

It’s very exciting for us to welcome these elected officials into the theatre space. They work very hard and do many great things for our city, and they deserve our deep respect and admiration. However, in the case of both our politicians as well as the professional actors mentioned above, we believe that we cannot, and we should not, leave all the responsibility and work of creating policies that address injustice to the “experts.”

Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer put it this way, after participating in the 2013 Legislative Theatre Festival: “That day in May was really important to me…and it worked in all the ways that we talk about advocacy working, because [one actor’s] piece on that experience by trans women of color was so affecting.  We voted just a couple of months later on ending stop and frisk as we know it in the city of New York. That piece, it really helped solidify my thinking on that issue. I just want to say, thank you.”

In other words, the actors in the troupes onstage and the community members spect-acting in the audience have a whole lot to offer the elected officials. Our politicians may already know that young black men and women in Jamaica, Queens, for instance, are being stopped-and-frisked in wildly disproportionate numbers to the rest of the city, but  they don’t get many opportunities for close encounters with these constituents, in a creative and positive environment. The community actors and their families and friends are brimming with relevant and innovative ideas to address the problems they face, and the elected officials in the audience jump at the opportunity for communal and theatrical problem-solving. 

The real important players in the room, therefore, are the storytellers and the problem-solvers. The elected officials are--as intended by the very principles of democracy--the messengers! This May 29-31, with your help, we hope to send some important messages.