KATY RUBIN, Executive Director of Theatre of the Oppressed New York, is a Theatre of the Oppressed facilitator, actor, and circus artist. She has facilitated and directed forum theatre workshops and performances in partnership with various communities, including LGBT homeless teens, people living with HIV/AIDS, recent immigrants, and court-involved youth and adults. Katy studied with Theatre of the Oppressed inventor Augusto Boal at the Center for Theatre of the Oppressed in Rio de Janeiro, as well as with Jana Sanskriti in India, Mind the Gap in Yorkshire, and Cardboard Citizens in London. She has trained facilitators around the U.S. and Europe and in Nicaragua.
Odyssey Works: What is the mission of Theatre of the Oppressed NYC and how do you achieve it?
Katy Rubin: Theatre of the Oppressed NYC partners with communities facing discrimination to inspire transformative action through theatre, that’s our mission. We pursue that, I would say, rather than achieve it, by partnering with social service organizations, city agencies, and sometimes neighborhood groups to start ongoing popular theatre troupes—popular theatre meaning theatre of and by people, rather than necessarily professional artists. And those troupes build plays based on their shared experience of oppression and the questions that they want to ask their larger community about urgent human rights, civil rights, and community rights challenges they're facing. Each play focuses on one specific problem. They tour performances that they’ve built together to theatres, to other communities, to shelters, to clinics, to peers and strangers, to engage in creative problem solving together onstage. All our plays involve a forum, where the audience is invited onstage to try out alternatives to the problem, and then we have a critical analysis of those alternatives. Sometimes we involve policymakers in that forum, to try to take those ideas from the audience and the actors and turn them into concrete institutional change.
OW: In forum theatre, there are no spectators, only “spect-actors,” as you call them. So everyone in the room is in some way responsible for creating the experience. If audience members choose not to get up on stage, how do they contribute to what goes on? And in a theatrical event that is created collaboratively, where is the artwork itself located?
KR: We don’t believe that change is made by forcing anyone into anything, so we don’t force our actors to participate, and we don’t force our audience members to participate. That said, we don’t let the whole audience sit there silently; at least some people in the audience have to take action.
There are a lot of ways to engage. First of all, people engage by choosing to come, and it’s free. That’s important, because it relates to how much you can participate. If you had to participate by paying $150, maybe you don’t want to participate further, because you gave all your resources already. Second of all, we ask the audience members to raise their hands and identify if they’ve been in a similar situation or can see how the problem onstage relates to their life, so they engage by identifying that they have some relationship to the problem. Thirdly, they engage by speaking about what they see, what they saw people try, why it might or might not work, and what changes would need to be made for it to be implemented. And then, of course, they engage by getting up and trying something, which is the riskiest form of engagement. But we’ll never have an event where we allow people not to take that risk. The whole audience is on the spot to see who from their group is going to step up. If nobody steps up, then we say, “Essentially you’re saying you want these problems to continue they way they are.” They have a choice, but they saw how oppressive the situation was.
We want to move people towards choosing to be in solidarity with their neighbors, which means that we have to allow for different levels of engagement. So just as with any kind of community action, we need people to participate in all different kinds of ways.
If a play solves a problem for you, it’s not very participatory, because you don’t have to put your brain into addressing a problem. If a play leaves a problem open for you, then it's more participatory, because you have to think about what should happen to solve it. Are you going to do something about it, or are you going to wait and be complicit in not doing something about it? There are varying levels of participation, but it’s about not only what you do in the theatre, but also what the play demands of you.
In terms of where the art lies in participatory theatre, I believe that everyone is an artist, so I can’t pinpoint one place there is art and one place there isn’t art. And in our work at Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, the person onstage could have just joined that troupe that day. There’s no hierarchy of artists.
Everyone is a spect-actor. The actors are spect-actors, because they’re watching their lives and then they’re taking action. The audience members are spect-actors, because they’re watching the play, watching their lives as they relate to the play, and then taking action. Everyone is watching, observing, thinking, analyzing, and doing. Acting is taking action, in our definition, so our definition of art is the use of an aesthetic expression to evoke feelings that move people to action. And anyone can do that—by painting a picture, by making a play, by making music, by speaking beautifully, by writing poetry. So it’s available to the audience to do that too.
OW: Forum theatre keeps the spect-actors at a critical distance, allowing them to think about what they're seeing and come up with ideas to try out. To the extent that this distance also limits the audience’s ability to relate to the story, how do you prevent that from hindering their motivation to become involved in making change? How do you balance the respective powers of thought and empathy as jumping off points for fighting oppression?
KR: We believe in feelings that incite people to action. We don’t believe in feelings that just allow people a release so they can go back to their lives and not feel like they need to take action. Augusto Boal, who invented Theatre of the Oppressed, wrote about being anti-cathartic. In other words, we don’t want our audience to say “I saw a tragedy and now I feel cleansed.” We want them to say “I saw a tragedy and now I feel bothered, and now I’ll go do something about it.” Emotions are great for inspiring people to take action, and that's why we present plays and not just lectures, because plays do evoke emotions, and we want people to feel moved, upset, amused, all of those things.
OW: Do you evaluate the quality of your performances entirely by their effects, or is there some measure of craft, of aesthetics, of strength of narrative through which you decide you've created something of high quality?
KR: We do try to evaluate the narrative, the craft, the funniness, the moving-ness. We’re most concerned with if the play holds together as one story. Does it have a beginning, middle, and end? Is the problem, in all its complexity, clear? Do we understand the consequences when people can’t quite get what they need, in terms of how this affects their lives and why it’s important? Do we see the other people in the ecosystem of the story? Are there allies? Are there aesthetic elements that support the narrative? Do the props support the story, does the music support the story? As in all theatre, the most important aspect of the production is that it supports the narrative, so in terms of what specific aesthetic qualities we aim for, it depends on the specific story.
That said, we do use the distancing effect you mentioned, so we allow the audience to see the lights and the costume changes, and we use cardboard props. We want to take the magic of the theatre away so that people will really think. As Boal used to say, “We want reality, not realism.” Sometimes that means we have an aesthetic element that’s not “realistic,” but actually heightens the reality, and we want that reality to hit people. And if people are alienated from their feelings by the fact that the play doesn’t look like a beautiful Broadway show, then we also want them to understand that not all art looks like a beautiful Broadway show. We want them to get over that, so that they can be present. We want to teach people that what we do is also an expression of art. It’s about access, too. Art can be what you make in half an hour, because you don’t have access to a theatre and a set and a costume designer, and we want to make our audiences aware of that.
OW: Tell us more about the relationship between the world of a forum play and the world outside. Actors devise a play from real-life problems, but how do the solutions found in a forum then get brought back to real life?
KR: That happens through legislative theatre, a type of forum theatre where we involve policymakers in the process who bring the ideas we have back to the institutions they work in. We also do follow up to every show through email and social media to encourage people to come to protests and other actions. And we try to get them to come to more shows by keeping all of them free and accessible. But I would say that we haven’t nailed all that down yet.
We’re asking people to think about a problem and take action about it as if it’s their own, but the rest of the world is supporting them in not taking action with their neighbors. The news just sensationalizes things and creates fear but also distance, and commercials just tell us how we can lose ourselves in buying new objects. It’s really hard to keep people motivated outside of the short time that they spend with us. We do our best, but we’re just a small part of the movement that’s fighting for people to “stay woke,” as they say, in a culture that’s trying to get people to stay asleep. I don’t think that we can do it by ourselves.
With our former actors, some say that now they call their council members and their state senators and their senators. They take action in ways they didn’t know they could before. They feel connected to some of the politicians who come to our annual Legislative Theatre Festival. Some start getting more involved in the arts. Sometimes they get involved in other socially engaged arts organizations after they work with us, and that’s awesome. There are so many similar organizations out there working in all kinds of mediums.
OW: Theatre of the Oppressed NYC is an unusual theatre company in that you explicitly and directly aim for sociopolitical change. It is more common for theatre to attempt to facilitate some kind of catharsis or transcendence. What is your view of the interplay between these different modes of artistic transformation?
KR: People can have personal transformations any time they want, but what we’re really looking for is personal transformation from you as a watcher into you as a doer. We want to change hearts and minds as much as anyone, but that’s just the beginning. To truly move people is to move people to go out and take action in the world. We want people to rehearse taking action in the theatre, and understand how individual action works, how collective action works, how sociopolitical action works, and why you need all three of them. We want to actually generate some potential solutions in the theatre. That doesn’t mean that people won’t have to change their behaviors outside the theatre—they will. We can’t solve things completely, but we want to use the space we have as a lab to explore what we will have to do once we leave. And we want to build a community out of the audience that will decide to take action together outside the theatre.
Interview by Ana Freeman.