by Katy Rubin
Almost a year ago, Theatre of the Oppressed NYC’s actors, facilitators, administrative staff and board huddled in the North Star Fund office (one of our most radical funders!) in midtown to reflect on the past 6 years and strategize for the coming 3+ years together. Nonprofits call this a “strategic planning process” but at TONYC, we hold a “Huddle” every summer to bring all our stakeholders together to reflect, critique, dream and act.
We bring in an outside facilitator to make sure that everyone on the inside of our work can participate fully, and we use our tools of scenes, games and images, from the arsenal of Theatre of the Oppressed, to identify challenges and rehearse creative interventions. In 2017, our purpose was more far-reaching: we were building a road-map for the coming three years and beyond, in order to hold TONYC accountable to the vision we’d set for ourselves in New York City:
Over the next 3 years, TONYC will inject fun into movements for social change; build audiences that believe in the power of art to spark change; and generate creative solutions to entrenched problems in New York City. TONYC will engage in rigorous leadership development to ensure that our organization is led and staffed by a majority of people directly impacted by the problems in our plays.
We’ve come to articulate our vision this way after hundreds (literally, over 250) forum performances with over 13,000 spect-actors since 2011 — we took these years to simply learn how to partner with communities; how to produce free, interactive theatrical events; and how to build a nonprofit. However, once we felt somewhat confident in our ability to popularize and grow Theatre of the Oppressed as a tool in NYC, we started to investigate how to really use this tool to support the ongoing movements for structural change here in our city.
In other words, how powerful is the impact of our work? Our experiments with Legislative Theatre proved that audience’s creative policy ideas can develop into real concrete citywide change, and that bringing diverse stakeholders into a Legislative Theatre “chambers” together can inspire deeper civic participation in the “real world.”
On the flip side, when we’ve held forum plays about institutionalized racism and classism in the housing, justice, immigration and health care systems, we’ve often found ourselves frustrated at the gap between the “interventions” by individuals or small groups of people, and the changes that actually needed to be made in those systems. This has led to our reaffirmed commitment to what we call Creative Advocacy, and our newly established Rapid Response Theatre Troupe, which you can read about here.
At the same time, while we’ve been growing into an institution ourselves we’ve also been stepping away every once in a while to reflect. Becoming an established nonprofit, with employee handbooks and audits and health insurance and so on, has definitely allowed us to support and protect our staff and our community. At the same time, we know we have copied some bad habits from other institutions around us, or made mistakes because of the “cops” in our own heads, that may replicate the kinds of oppression we are trying to undo. Because the core of TO is the belief that the people facing the problem must be front and center in trying to change it, we’ve also formalized our Joker Training program and are overhauling Leadership Development to make sure we have scaffolding in place to support leadership by directly impacted folks in every area of our organization: board, staff, artists, advocates.
As we continue to develop and grow (and stumble!) towards this vision, we will keep our community of spect-actors in the know, and ask for feedback as we go.