Not just fun and games – Theatre of the Oppressed NYC

Theatre of the Oppressed NYC is using theatre techniques to facilitate difficult conversations. Executive director Meggan Gomez explains how. 

Some subjects are easy to talk about: dinner plans, the weather, your kids.  Others – like racism, injustice, illness – are much tougher. And so, perhaps understandably, we shy away from speaking about them.

That’s where Theatre of the Oppressed comes in.

A technique developed by Augusto Boal in the 1970s, Theatre of the Oppressed (abbreviated as ‘TO’) helps people to talk freely about uncomfortable subjects. It is also a lot of fun, putting some light air into heavy issues. And, once the conversations are flowing, TO can channel them to create change.

“It’s about creating interactive experiences for transformation in communities,” says Meggan Gomez, executive director of Theatre of the Oppressed NYC (TONYC). “We use the tools of theatre to facilitate change.”

TONYC and Fortune Society, LaGuardia’s work The Nautre of the Crime  Photo: © Ali Garber
TONYC and Fortune Society, LaGuardia’s work The Nautre of the Crime Photo: © Ali Garber

Today there are TO troupes all over the world, from Bangalore to Berlin, working on a range of social justice issues. In the case of TONYC, it partners with institutions like Housing Works, Ali Forney Center, and Red Hook Initiative. Each partner has its own theatre troupe that works with TONYC facilitators (known in TO terminology as jokers) to make short, interactive plays that respond to a particular issue.

“We are led by the issues that our partners are working on,” confirms Gomez. “For example, we might be helping the Center for Court Innovation hold conversations around parole reform, or helping Riders Alliance NYC with its Fair Fares campaign, which fought for discounted transport for people with low income.”

At the heart of TONYC’s work is something called forum theatre, as Gomez explains: “The methodology for TO and forum theatre is based in games – silly games designed to make you laugh, but also to make you think.”

The jokers lead these games, which might involve making a pretend machine using every person in the room, or turning everyday actions like shaking hands into choreographed events. The show is devised from these games, using actors’ lived experience as inspiration for the plays.

“The actors on stage have personal experience of the thing they’re performing, whether that’s homelessness or the criminal justice system,” says Gomez. “But the story itself is fictionalised, and the group owns the story rather than the individual.

“Even though the plays deal with difficult topics, we always bring our own brand of playfulness and humour,” she continues. “Even though what we talk about is really heavy, we always aim for a sense of play: we don’t believe you can have a revolution without having any fun.”

As for TONYC audiences, they are made up of people dealing with the issue personally, people working on the issue legislatively, and members of the general public.

“We try to make sure at least half of the people in the audience have a related experience to the people on stage; we’re not just performing for the people who are going to think ‘wow, I didn’t even know that was a problem’ but primarily for those who think ‘that’s me up there’.

“We also want people working on the issue to attend – those who have the power to move something along. And of course the general public: our shows are free and we want to keep them that way. Accessibility is key.”

TONYC and Ali Forney Center’s work  Foster’s Home for Non-Imaginary Queers Photo: © Ali Garber
TONYC and Ali Forney Center’s work Foster’s Home for Non-Imaginary Queers Photo: © Ali Garber

As for the format, in forum theatre the plays always end in failure or compromise. The audience is then invited to step in and take the place of the actors and imagine a better final outcome together.

Recent performances include The Ali Forney Theatrical Society’s Foster’s Home For Non-Imaginary Queers, which features LGBTQ youth living within the foster care system, navigating institutional inequities as well as interpersonal prejudice; and Notcha Day,  a piece about the challenges facing residents of New York Housing Authority, performed by the Housing Works theatre troupe.

Right now, TONYC is working out how best to turn its TO techniques – which are normally reliant on physical games – into an online format so it can continue during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Explains Gomez: “Part of that is being able to make sure our actors have the technology they need – we work with people experiencing housing insecurity, for example, who might not have access to the internet. But we’ve had two successful Zoom performances now, and we’ll use what we’ve learned from those to create a fully virtual fall season with eight different troupes performing.”

One Zoom show was 3 on 1, which addressed the frustrations of calling a service line for help with housing, utilities or other issues. The performance was live streamed on Facebook.

“It’s based on the different experiences our actors have had in trying to call services that they need and just being shut down over and over again,” says Gomez. “The actors wanted to focus on this because during COVID a big issue is accessing the services you need without leaving home. Meanwhile, the people answering the calls usually have to stick to a script, so they’re not able to help and they only pass you to the next person. Our actors were trying different tactics to get a different response.

“Some people are saying this might be the most real we’ve ever gotten,” she laughs. “My husband was listening to the show and was chuckling the whole time and saying ‘I’ve been there’.”

The other Zoom performance, Can You Hear Me, was led by TONYC’s Spanish Language troupe Escucha, and dealt with things that come up in the Latino community around the patriarchy, anti-blackness and Trump.

“Both troupes chose the format of phone calls for the plays, which meant that the Zoom medium felt like a natural part of the show’s design,” notes Gomez. “It was really innovative and effective – they dealt with it directly and used the very limitations of the situation to create the work.”

TONYC and Ali Forney Center's work The Real Queer Colors of Harlem  © Ali Garber
TONYC and Ali Forney Center’s work The Real Queer Colors of Harlem © Ali Garber

This ability to adapt and work in different situations is one of the strengths of the method. TO techniques are regularly used in traditional theatre settings and as a tool to lead all kinds of workshops.

“It works alongside other processes because the emphasis is on creating a dialogue and imagining other possibilities,” Gomez affirms. “A lot of our work with other organisations is about helping them come up with alternatives to the way they’re working.

“For example, people ask us for anti-racism training. We make it clear they’re not getting anti-racism training but TO training, which inherently means we will talk about racism and systems of oppression.

“TO is also good at disrupting the inherent hierarchy that is present in a traditional rehearsal space caused by the presence of a writer, a director, a script, or an intense time schedule. Actors can often feel they don’t have a voice and just have to do what they’re told, but if you introduce TO methods the work quickly becomes more collaborative.”

Speaking of hierarchies, how does TONYC flatten them in its own organisation?

“For a start, we pay everyone for everything,” answers the executive director. “So whether you’re performing in a show or taking part in a feedback session, you’ll be paid. We’re honouring and valuing our team and their voices. It’s central to our work.

“Additionally, I try not to make decisions totally on my own. For example, we recently managed to secure some COVID-19 relief funding for our actors. But before distributing the money I put together a meeting with the actors to let them know how much money we had, our plans, and asked if they approved or whether they had different ideas of how we could spend it. We used that to guide us.

“That continues into our hiring and evaluation processes. When I applied for this job in 2018 I was interviewed four times, by people at all levels of the organisation – who were, of course, paid for their work. And we all evaluate each other’s work, so you get feedback from a variety of sources.

“Sometimes it means decisions can be slow, and some decisions go through many rounds. But it means people are more invested and engaged, and people tell us that they feel heard, which is not always the case inside many non-profits and social justice organisations.

Concludes Gomez. “TO is about people feeling represented, feeling amplified. It happens so quickly, and you can build a sense of community in a troupe in a matter of hours. You can see the transformation even after one conversation – it’s amazing.”