Using Theatre to Promote Social Justice and Inspire Transformative Action

TONYC photo
Members of the Theatre of the Oppressed NYC at a performance.

By: Elizabeth Yuko, Ph.D.

The most powerful art can do more than entertain us: it can also inform, engage, and challenge our points of view. The Theatre of the Oppressed NYC aims to do all four.

The Theatre of the Oppressed NYC (TONYC) was founded in November 2010 by Katy Rubin, when, upon returning to New York City from Brazil, she discovered a lack of “popular theatre” — interactive theatre created by communities facing oppression — in the city.

Theatre of the Oppressed is an interactive, physical and playful tool used to examine situations in which people are denied basic rights, personally and collectively. Community actors, directors, playwrights, designers and producers create original, interactive plays inspired by real-life struggles for human rights, that highlight issues of social justice. This type of performance involves the audience playing the role of “spect-actors,” answering questions posed by the troupe, and engaging in large-scale brainstorming, or “forum theatre.”

Starting with the creation of its flagship popular theatre troupe, TONYC expanded its programs to include popular troupes with HIV+ homeless New Yorkers, undocumented immigrants and refugees, LGBTQ homeless youth, NYC public school students and teachers, and other communities.

“We believe that every person is an actor in his or her own life, with the desire to identify the problems facing their community and to ask their neighbors to join them in solidarity and creative problem-solving,” Rubin explained. “When we work with a community theatre troupe, the facilitators don’t enter the room with any idea of the problems that the community is facing, or have any bias towards solutions they should put in place — we just say, ‘do you want to make a play?’ From there, the community uses the medium of theatre, connecting to audiences on an emotional as well as an intellectual level, to invite peers and strangers to intervene in the action, to rehearse a new reality together onstage.”

In 2013, TONYC partnered with communities across New York City including homeless adults, LGBTQ homeless youth at the Ali Forney Center, the Door, and the Hetrick-Martin Institute; people living with HIV/AIDS at Housing Works; court-involved youth at the Center for Court Innovation; public housing residents in the New York City Housing Authority, and more. In 2014, TONYC plans to maintain these partnerships and expand to include three brand-new troupes, offering more than 50 free and low-cost forum performances at shelters, theatres, soup kitchens, bookstores and community centers.

“We want audiences to feel in their gut the ways these problems relate to them personally, and to feel that they can be part of the solution,” Rubin added.

TONYC is holding their annual fundraiser, ACTIVATE, on Tuesday, October 22nd from 6 to 9 p.m. at Judson Memorial Church at 55 Washington Square Park South in New York City. Please click here for more information. 

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