Springing Into Action for LGBT Youth
After a long winter of work and planning, Katy Rubin believes the time is right for an event which challenges artists, audiences and policy makers to use a fleeting medium as a springboard for improving the long-term trajectory of LGBT youth.
"Theatre has the power to spur positive social change," says artistic director Rubin, whose Theatre of The Oppressed NYC is organizing "Spring to Action Festival 2013: Save the Drama!"-an interactive theater festival meant to create new legislative and social initiatives inspired by the robust debate that inevitably occurs after a night of challenging on-stage drama.
That may seem ambitious, but it's certainly not unprecedented. Rubin backs up her assertion that creativity and advocacy are intertwined by noting that during his 1993-1997 term as a Rio de Janeiro city council member, writer and director Augusto Boal facilitated the passage of "Thirteen new laws that originated at Forum Theatre performances."
The marrow of the "it" she refers to, "Spring to Action," will take place May 17-19-although it will take significantly more time to know for sure if the ideas crafted during this event will translate into productive, concrete action at the local, state and federal levels.
Back to that loaded phrase, for a moment, though. American audiences can be forgiven if "Forum Theatre" doesn't ring a bell, or resonate the way it does in the dozens of countries throughout the world. An interactive element within the Theatre of the Oppressed protocol, Forum Theatre allows audience members to step outside their traditionally passive role as mere spectators, by stopping the action and influencing the dramatic arc of a story unfolding on the stage (hence the moniker, "Spect-actor").
Developed by Boal throughout the tail end of the last century, Theatre of the Oppressed provides a means with which the disenfranchised can express themselves artistically, with the goal of creating lasting social and political change. With "Spring to Action," Rubin hopes to establish this model in the U.S.
"Theatre of the Oppressed NYC magnifies that power," says Rubin of giving voice to those whose needs aren't are the forefront of legislative concerns. She hopes the event will "directly inspire actual policy change, while showcasing the work of a remarkably talented group of community-based artists. By empowering LGBTQ youth to tell their stories onstage, this festival will help them take their lives into their own hands not only theatrically, but also in real life, fostering a lasting bond of empathy and solidarity with other New Yorkers."
This is the second NYC "Spring to Action" event for Rubin, who studied with Boal in 2008 (he passed away the following year). After her time spent in Brazil, she recalls, "I realized this [Theatre of the Oppressed’] was incredibly engaging, but it wasn’t being used in the states. So I started the first homeless theater troupe [in NYC] in 2010."
Since then, programs created by Theatre of the Oppressed NYC have included popular touring troupes made up of HIV+ and homeless New Yorkers, undocumented immigrants and refugees, mothers living with AIDS, prisoners and parolees and NYC public school students and teachers.
This year’s "Spring to Action" puts the focus exclusively on LGBT youth, by working with three community-based organizations: The Ali Forney Center, The Hetrick-Martin Institute and The Door (all of which have their own in-house theater troupes).
"They were created by us," says Rubin of the troupes, noting that, "We’ve been working Ali Forney since 2011, The Door since 2012, and just started working with Hetrick Martin. We intend for those troupes to continue after this festival, and we already know they’ll perform during Pride month," with material "based on real life experiences and current challenges."
The process of creating that material is "very unlike what people would imagine in terms of a professional rehearsal," notes Rubin. Although the actors get paid stipends ("We feel they are working as professional actors and activists, so they should be compensated for that"), a typical rehearsal rarely has all members of the approximately 15-person ensemble.
"Some actors are in shelters," explains Rubin. "Some are living in the streets. Some are living at home, but in unstable situations, and some are living with friends." Homeless youth are also challenged by "the laws that target homeless people"-laws that the festival might help change, or at least bend to the unique needs of LGBT youth.
"Obstructing a park bench is illegal," says Rubin, which can lead to the arrest of a homeless person simply sitting on the bench, as any other citizen would. "Actors can be in jail," she says of the challenge to create an ensemble, recalling instances where, "their one phone call will be to us, to let us know they’re going to miss a rehearsal.
So all the actors rehearse different roles."
In addition to helping address the practical matter of who may or may not be able to show up at a particular rehearsal, Rubin says this practice "comes from the idea that each role is there to serve the question we want to address in the play. The actors aren’t getting attached to their roles, so much as finding our which member of the group can play that role in a way the audience is really going to get engaged, and want to change something."
The festival’s second day ensures that those who feel moved to action by the material will have a way to translate their activist instincts into concrete legislative action.
On Saturday, May 18, the 2pm "Forum Performance with Legislative Theatre" event first presents the work of all three troupes, which will perform their scenes. In response, the audience will "collaborate with policy-makers working on LGBTQ affairs to brainstorm ways to address the issues at a policy level. Ideas will be offered, debated, and voted on to be formed into proposals to the New York City Council, the Mayor’s Office and the state legislature."
So far, the festival has secured the participation of New York City Council Member Rosie Mendez, fellow councilmember Daniel Dromm, recently elected New York State Senator Brad Hoylman and Community Board 4 chair Corey Johnson-who is a candidate in the New York City Council race for the seat being vacated by mayoral candidate Christine Quinn. Samuel Miller, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Housing Officer (whom Rubin notes functions as a "senior analyst on homelessness") will also be there, as will several lawyers from various LGBT organizations. "They’ll be mediators between the legislators, the actors and the audience," says Rubin.
The workshops, community dialogues and panel discussion continue through Sunday, May 19-at Greenwich Village’s Church of Saint Luke in the Fields (487 Hudson Street, NYC). All events are free. For more info, visit www.theatreoftheoppressednyc.org/savethedrama.html.