by Katy Rubin
Since TONYC’s first year, we’ve been practicing what Augusto Boal called “multiplication,” and what our social justice-nonprofit colleagues call leadership development. Boal said that we should not be engaging in Theatre of the Oppressed only as ‘consumers,” that is, to liberate ourselves only; but also to get organized within our communities and share these tools with our neighbors.
In responding to the increasing demand for Forum Theatre troupes and tools around NYC since 2011, we found that we needed to train more facilitators, or “jokers.” More importantly, in acknowledging the makeup of our early team of facilitators, whose race and class privilege afforded them opportunities for academic theatre training and a safety-net that allowed them to work for cheap in a start-up setting — we knew that our work wouldn’t truly be either effective or ethical unless our leadership team was made up of folks directly impacted by the issues in our plays.
When TONYC started engaging in training actors from our troupes as facilitators, or, in our lingo, Jokers in Training, we made mistakes as well as progress. We made decisions about whom to train and how to offer training without sufficient input from the actors we were working with. Our process of developing leaders wasn’t transparent enough. At our 2017 summer “Huddle,” in which we gather annually with an external facilitator to identify growth points and goals for the coming year, TONYC jokers used our own tools of Image and Forum Theatre to identify these shortcomings and how these mistakes had created confusion and tension among our community.
In naming “Leadership Development” as one of our three strategic plan initiatives in from 2017-2020, we had to define, as a community, how TONYC would pause our practices, reflect, ask, and listen, and deepen our commitment to leadership development throughout the organization, not just in the artistic facilitation. We created a new administrative position dedicated to supporting our actors, opening up more pipelines throughout the organization and cultivating new jokers. We’ve kicked off “community commons skill shares” in our new midtown space where we share resume writing skills, how-to-read-TONYC’s-budget workshops, improv classes and more. We have added monthly actors’ social clubs which offer opportunities to learn more about how TONYC functions and meet other jokers. We launched a Joker-in-Training focus group that meets monthly to develop and evaluate the training process. We have now hired 12 jokers who originally met the organization as actors, making up more than half of our facilitation team, and 5 advocacy delegates who represent TONYC in our creative advocacy work around housing and economic justice, and the criminal justice system. (Check out this recent blog post from joker-in-training and criminal justice advocacy delegate Mike Gonzalez, about his work and learning around restorative justice.) We’ve opened up apprenticeships in admin roles including graphic design and social media, fundraising, and house management. All of this time is paid, and we offer metrocards and food too, to make sure that training and learning time are accessible and that everyone’s time is valued.
All of this is just the tip of the iceberg. Leadership development must be part of organization-wide anti-racist practices, meaning that we notice and slow down when key decisions are being made in private without full transparency, and when key roles are not held by folks who are directly impacted by the issues in our plays.
Next up: more info on what we’re doing to infuse creative advocacy into every inch of our work, so that we don’t just create forum and legislative theatre, but we truly align with and enhance the movements that exist to end structural oppression in New York City. And, stay tuned for more news on ways we are opening up our leadership to make space for our community.