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The Importance of Clarity and Experience

This post is a follow-up to fellow blogger Emily Brown’s recent post, TONYC and Audience Participation.

On Tuesday, I attended an event with some of my classmates called Art and Social Change: Experiments in Community. It was event in two parts. For more on the second part of the day– the panel with activist artists including Heidi Latsky and Taylor Mac– see the other posts by Jesse Richardson-Bull and Emily Brown.

I want to talk particularly about the first part of the day- a performance of a forum play by Theatre of the Oppressed NYC’s Concrete Justice Troupe, a troupe made up of homeless and jobless individuals who came to TONYC up to 4 years ago and created a touring group that devises and performs its own plays. A forum play, as Emily writes in her first post, is a play the group performs that seeks to involve the audience in the action. They first perform the part they’ve written that examines a problem one of the actors has faced in their real life, then invite audience members to come try their own ideas they think might have an affect on the outcome.

The idea is awesome. The execution was a little shaky. Read Emily’s post to get what I think is an accurate and detailed breakdown of the event. One thing in particular sticks out to me, though, as Emily describes what she felt when the forum play was done:

“I was then disappointed in the following actions of the TONYC moderators, who were facilitating (or trying to facilitate) audience participation and discussion about this troupe’s piece. They called us to action, to be “spectACTORS” instead of just spectators, but did not follow through in effectively allowing this to occur. As a result, all participation was borderline reluctant, with audience members halfheartedly answering to diffuse awkwardness rather than being spurred towards action.  I learned a whole lot about things that are ineffective when attempting to enlist verbal or physical audience participation.”

What Emily is describing and continues to elaborate on in her post is the inefficiencies of the event moderators in getting what they wanted from us. Immediately after leaving the event, I believed it was perhaps a result of the kind of audience combined with the kind of work or any other circumstantial reason. However, it all came into focus for me the next day when I attended a workshop with Katy Rubin, the Executive Director of Theatre of the Oppressed NYC.

Heading in I was nervous. Would it be like what we experienced on Tuesday? The moment Katy opened her mouth I understood- the reason the moderators struggled was simply lack of experience. Katy is responsible for bringing Theatre of the Oppressed to New York, she studied with Augusto Boal for a long time and has been doing this work for years. She was nimble with her language, light on her feet, and incredible at reading the room. She set up the rules of the event for us clearly and immediately, and continued to hold us to those rules throughout the event– even when she introduced the idea that the structures under which we were working was a system of oppression and sent us all into a confused tailspin.

Katy was an expert facilitator (called a Joker in the TO training) and experienced moderator. She was at ease in the room and full of knowledge that is laid so deep in her bones that there is no part of her that is thinking about “what do I do next?” or “why aren’t they answering the way I want them to?” This is what I saw in the two younger women who moderated the event on Tuesday- there was half a brain thinking about their own performance and half a brain analyzing the input from the audience. And this is typical! This is not unusual! When we’re new to something, we cannot do it with ease and grace because we don’t know how to do it yet! And so I don’t blame the girls for the event taking a silent and cringe-worthy tone sometimes. They were doing their best with the information they had. When moments came up that they clearly had more training with, they soared. It just so happened that there were a lot of places they seemed to lack training.

I hope I can attend another event facilitated by these two girls in the future. I hope I can see how they continue to grow in the training and blossom into Jokers on par with Katy.

Also, go have a look at TONYC and the work they’re doing. It’ll blow your mind.

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