Our resident Joker and Creative Advocacy Coordinator Rebecca Kelly-Golfman breaks down the impact of our recently released Legislative Theatre Report. This report collects and chronicles the last five years of our Legislative Theatre work, and dives deep into what can happen next, with contributions from government officials, advocates, and community artists. We assess the work and its impact, and propose solutions to our own roadblocks.
Theatre has always been a means of investigating humanity, sharing stories, and examining our role in the local, political, and global community. These contributions are deeply meaningful, but sometimes leave open the question: in addition to personal transformation and social critique, can theatre also be a tool for concrete social and political change? Our Legislative Theatre report “Watch, Act, Vote: The Impact of TONYC Legislative Theatre on New York City Policy and Civic Engagement” highlights our tactic for using theatre as a means for shifting power and policy.
When we review our work at TONYC, we use a format called Style, Accuracy and Ethics.
‘Style’ refers to the unique energy and character brought by a facilitator. Examples of Style include things such as professorial, playful, musical theatre performer, etc.When applied to a program, this refers to the type of energy cultivated by an event, such as theatrical, academic, or board meeting.
‘Accuracy’ is a review of whether the goals and intention of the activity or event were communicated correctly to the participants. Put simply-did people understand what you were asking of them, and did you structure your process so they could act on that understanding?
‘Ethics’ asks the question how, if at all, was the facilitation or event structure oppressive to the participants.
Using that format, let’s look at the TONYC model for change!
Creative change through theatre is our Style. Our form is particularly rooted in the Theatre of the Oppressed methodology created by Augusto Boal. TONYC partners with community members at local organizations to form theatre troupes that devise and perform plays based on their challenges confronting economic inequality, racism, and other social, health and human rights injustices. After each performance, actors and audiences engage in theatrical brainstorming called Forum Theatre. Legislative Theatre is an extension of the this process where the Actors and Spect-Actors work together to brainstorm responses to oppression on the systemic level, engage in deep discussion with legislators on their opinions, and share responsibility for governance.
TONYC began creating Legislative Theatre in 2013 in the form of individual performances, two-day events, and the largest form the week-long 5th Annual Legislative Theatre Festival. TONYC invites community members, policy-makers, advocates, and elected officials to come together around the Forum Plays. TONYC Legislative Theatre has engaged over 1500 people in this manner since its inception.
“CLOSErikers had a great time at the The 5th Annual Legislative Theatre Festival on Saturday! Creative, concrete, community-driven solutions are the only way to transform justice in NYC.”
- Brittany Williams
Legislative Theatre is a tool that has been effectively used by the Actors, Spect-actors, and larger TONYC team to shift the perspectives of policymakers, mobilize for social change, and build civic community. The ability of the arts to impact society has been investigated by many artists and social critics with a few core themes emerging: the effectiveness of social movements does not rely solely on emotion and intention, but rather people’s access to leveraging resources, such as money, institutions, knowledge, media. These resources enable people to turn their motivation into action.
In the report, Watch, Act, Vote: The Impact of TONYC Legislative Theatre on New York City Policy and Civic Engagement, we outline the specific work of TONYC to connect the resources of institutions and knowledge.
In order to change existing power structures, TONYC engages the institutions and representatives wielding it with the aim of shifting their thinking and actions. Over the six years of Legislative Theatre, TONYC has engaged over fifteen government organizations, such as the US Department of Justice, Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and City Council Members like Carlos Menchaca and Jimmy VanBramer.
“The policy discussion in city hall can sometimes become abstract, but “it’s so important to connect what we discuss in the abstract to the real. It was an important part of that Legislative Theatre performance that there are consequences to the laws we pass, and how they affect people’s lives. People are very deferential to elected officials. The word honorable is in there. It is important for elected officials to always get back to why are we doing what we are doing and how does that impact people’s lives.” - Steve Levin
“It was most impactful for me how all boundaries dropped by way of the event, between Actors, Spect-Actors, and legislator. Everyone was equal.” - May 10, Audience Evaluation
“I was impacted through this experience by the notion that anyone can participate in politics. I often feel alienated in the process.” - May 13 Audience Evaluation
Legislative Theatre increases civic awareness and action for Actors and Spect-Actors!
Self-reflection is an essential process for protecting against replicating oppression in programming and practice. The report highlights key points of change for the Legislative Theatre process.
Inclusive Idea Selection
The report identified that the process of selecting policy ideas was largely done by advocacy partners and government representatives and then shared with the audience. This created a power center with the institutional players invited to the event. Additionally, this time-pressured process did not allow those Legislative partners to use their full issue area expertise. To make the process more transparent, move toward sharing power and accountability, TONYC restructured the idea selection process in the November Housing Works Legislative Theatre. Following the Forum, Spect-Actors,Actors, and our advocacy partners met in breakout groups to generate specific ideas for structural change. Those ideas were then discussed in open Town Hall format where the policy, organizing, and advocacy experts shared feedback and insight on what was already in motion and what was a new idea on the scene. To read more details about the changes and watch a video of the update visit http://www.tonyc.nyc/legislativetheatre.
Venue Impacts the Dialogue
After reflection on the various prior venues, TONYC sought a space that was open enough to cultivate a community gathering environment while also defined enough to support a focused discussion on the play and new ideas. In November, the Legislative Theatre process took place at Brooklyn Borough Hall. This space offered the ability to mount the play with its full set, meet in small groups comfortably, project the audience ideas in multiple spaces, and offer a large foyer providing space for an engaging Advocacy and Resource Fair.
Coalition Work and Rapid Response
The report drew out the need for TONYC to engage in coalition work in order to keep energy moving around the ideas generated from Legislative Theatre. Since the Festival and report, TONYC formed the Rapid Response Troupe. This troupe specializes in the last minute — to perform in a rally that just popped up, or a performance to enliven community engagement.
Racial Justice Training
It was recognized that in order to be a transformative multiracial organization, particularly that works primarily with people of color, TONYC needed to engage in ongoing racial justice training, dialogue, and practices. In March, TONYC engaged in training with Piper Anderson of Create Forward on Racial Equity Practices in Organization Development. Piper’s training consists of two sessions. The first started with historical foundation, deep reflection on identity, collective power, and moving from ideas to practice. The second session will occur approximately six week later and focus on designing organizational practices.
Stay tuned to TONYC for future Legislative Theatre projects and events!