by Flora Newbigin, Programme Delivery Manager at Cardboard Citizens
‘The Runaround’, a Forum Theatre performance exploring injustices in the health care system, was my first taste of the fantastic work of TONYC. I am visiting New York from London, where I work with Cardboard Citizens, a theatre company and charity working with homeless and ex-homeless individuals. Like TONYC, Cardboard Citizens work is rooted in Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed methodology and so I was keen to see familiar methods of Forum Theatre in action in a different context.
My visit to New York is thanks to the Transatlantic Practice Exchange 2018. Coordinated by UK based Homeless Link and National Alliance to End Homelessness in the US, the exchange funds 10 people working in homeless services, 5 from each side of the Atlantic, to spend 2 weeks in their respective counter nation to research innovative best practice to share learning back home. Lucky enough to have made the cut, I am excited to be here in NYC learning about how TONYC uses Forum and Legislative Theatre methods to engage people with lived experience of homelessness in decision making to co-produce services and policies that have an impact on their lives.
I was delighted to kick off my visit with ‘The Runaround’. The Housing Works Bookstore offered a great location for the performance. The walls of books oozed knowledge and invited reflection and innovation, essential qualities for a good Forum!
With a mighty cast of 16 Actors, Housing Works’ Troupe cooked up a rich tapestry of vignettes presenting lived experiences of oppression as a result of healthcare injustice and public perceptions of HIV/AIDS. In true TONYC style, the audience didn’t just watch the characters’ struggle but were invited to find strategies to challenge the oppression witnessed in the play and then test these out in real time on stage. We were there to SPECT-ACT not just SPECTATE!
And SPECT-ACT we did! The audience offered four interventions, through which we discussed the options and resources available to the characters in the play. For example, with the help of a SPECT-ACTOR, Ms Santiago, a patient with a history of drug use, battling to manage her own sobriety and mental health, requested a Harm Reduction based treatment plan to challenge the doctor’s demand that she give up smoking, one of her coping mechanisms, in order to before she could have a vital operation. Harm Reduction is an evidence based person centred treatment approach for people with a history of drug use, which offers practical, sustainable and realistic strategies to reduce negative behaviours.
Furthermore, the audience helped Ms Washington who was denied urgent dental treatment under her insurance on the grounds of being too old. SPECT-ACTOR intervention enabled her seek advice from her son and insurance company to pursue legal aid support to make a case for ageist discrimination. We discussed that the urgency of her health need meant that she would not be able to wait for the slow moving cogs of the legal aid machine to give her an outcome on her case. However, the audience suggested she herself could take on the cost of treatment with the view that this would be repaid through successfully suing the healthcare providers.
The audience interventions also tackled sexual harassment and stereotypes of HIV/AIDS. A SPECT-ACTOR’s replay of a female subway passenger, with an AIDS/ HIV diagnosis, challenged a man’s unwanted advances and subsequent discriminatory comments on learning of her diagnosis. Whilst the SPECT-ACTOR in this scene, did an excellent job of assertively confronting his small-mindedness, the audience discussion that followed highlighted the fact that not everyone would feel safe enough or able to do this.
Theatre of the Oppressed does not seek to sugar coat the injustices of the world and vanish problems away (wouldn’t that be nice?!) However, through interventions offered in Forum Theatre, such as Housing Works’ honest performance, we can collectively brainstorm our options and resources so that we are better equipped to challenge systemic injustice that bit better next time. As Boal said, this was a ‘Rehearsal for Revolution!’
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