This week with a few of my peers, I attended an Art and Social Change event. The event opened with 90 minutes of a Theatre of the Oppressed NYC Forum Play.
According to the TONYC website, these Forum Plays are designed by TONYC’s troupes “all over New York City in collaboration with a range of local communities, including homeless adults and youth, people living with HIV/AIDS, immigrants, veterans, formerly incarcerated people, and court-involved youth. These troupes devise and tour original, interactive plays inspired by real-life struggles – the problems they face everyday – with the intention of engaging peers in theatrical problem-solving which can help inspire concrete, social action.”
This mission aligns with the title, “forum” play –
– a place, meeting, or medium where ideas and views on a particular issue can be exchanged
– (in an ancient Roman city) a public square or marketplace used for judicial and other business
The devised piece we saw, “Homestead, Instead” was focused on the symptoms, actions, and results of gentrification in New York City in the present moment. The piece was simple and the message was clear – gentrification is happening and affecting many, gentrification is bad, we need to take action against gentrification.
I was enjoying myself. They had begun the whole event with some audience warm-up exercises, and I was looking forward to a discussion involving the people in the room together, inspiring concrete, social action.
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.
First: Formality of space –
We were in a fairly predictable theatre space. The stage was a flat deck, with a steeply raked, one sided audience facing it. The house lights were dim, and the stage lights were on. In my opinion, all of these choices proved to be an obstacle to audience involvement. It would have greatly lowered the stakes and aided the attempts at casual, communal participation if TONYC had made different choices within the space they were given. For example, bringing the entire audience together to sit on the (big enough) stage, or at least asking the audience to come together without empty seats between them, shuffling the audience so people were not sitting with their friends, turning off the stage lights and turning up the fluorescents in the entire room to bring everyone into the same space, etc. The Roman Forum was a market place! Not the Colosseum!
Introduction of pronouns –
I learned that we cannot assume that everyone in an audience understands why or how to introduce one’s preferred gender pronouns. We can first lead by example – which, at first, the troupe did. They went down the line and introduced what they prefer. (This was a moment where the troupe could have taken a bit more responsibility for the moment, as one member introduced himself jokingly as “him, yo, son”) Then, in what I perceive as an attempt to keep things casual, the moderators asking audience participants for their pronouns turned into crunchy, bumpy, unclear moments. “What do I do?” was met with shrugs and high voices “no big deal, like, what…should we call you?” which resulted in “uh… guy ones” “uh.. bro, dude, him” etc. I do not have experience with being misgendered, but I am certain that joking or making jokes about introduction of preferred gender pronouns is damaging on the whole and more clarity surrounding the moment would have prevented these uncomfortable jokes.
Calls to action –
To be brutally honest, I can only describe this part of the event as one weird shrug. We were asked questions about what we saw in the scenes, and getting answers was like pulling teeth – this was a moment where a moderator could have allowed more silence, or encouraged people to just say the simple answer! Then, when audience members finally did answer, it was often met with only a nod and then a search for another participant. If I’ve learned anything in class this year about facilitating post-show discussions, it’s that it would be far more effective and encouraging if, when a member participated, their participation was acknowledged/thanked and their point discussed – even if just with one sentence.
Later, physical participation was requested, where audience members who had a potential solution to a problem introduced could enter the scene wherever they wanted as whatever character, and the company would improvise around their solution. This was another moment where more success could have been reached by the moderators listening and responding to what was happening in the room. A group of three young men stood up to participate. Some weird stuff happened. The young white female moderator warned the three young black men not to resort to violence in their improvisation – confused, they assured her that they wouldn’t. She also referred to their friend group as a “gang”, which was certainly just intended as a way to refer to a group of friends, but a startling sensitivity oversight nonetheless. Then, the participants got halfway through the scene, (their solution was to film the example of police injustice) and were cut off by the moderators before they were finished – one of the guys literally said “wait, what? we’re not done yet” which went unheard.
Know your audience/tactic –
After this, we received some more questions.
The final question was something like,”Raise your hand if you have ever experienced this?“(in reference to the gentrification/racism discussed) a few hands in the audience were raised, but not a lot, and certainly not the hands of myself and the six other white classmates I attended the event with.
“… Okay keep them raised …. Raise your hand if you have ever dealt with something… like this?” Again, a few more hands, but not ours, or a whole bunch of the remaining audience’s.
In a strikingly lame and transparent attempt at getting every hand in the audience raised “… okay keep them raised, now … uh… if you’ve ever felt any of the emotions that these people felt when dealing with these problems, raise your hand” Finally, the remainder of hands went up. “Great! See? This is everyone’s problem, and therefore everyone should take action against it!”
Okay. I get that the point was to unite us as an audience, racism and gentrification affects humanity and we are all part of it and should all be moved to action against it – but the truth is, not everyone in that audience has felt the effects of gentrification or racism!!! That should not be the unifying goal! The point is to acknowledge that this is happening to a very specific group of people – very specifically not people like myself and my white suburban-raised friends – and to recognize and push that it is our job, as people who sit in a position of privilege, to do what we can to act against these forces!!
I was generally feeling pretty bummed and disappointed in an experience that I thought was going to be more provocative and demanding of it’s audience. I believe that we can hold the bar high for our audiences! Shrugging or being scared of them or forcefully attempting casual-ness will never move them to action! Do everything you can to acknowledge or diffuse unneeded tension! If that doesn’t work, acknowledge the heightened nature of the situation instead of ignoring the weirdness! Thank the audience members! Deal with what’s in the room!
Anyway, on my bus ride home last night as I thought about writing this very blog post, this popped across my timeline:
(Shhh I know it’s a quote from my professor, so I’m biased, but I felt proud!) That’s the kind of unifying statement and clear, direct question I wanted to be asked at this talk in NYC. That’s the kind of rigor I was hoping for! I felt a little better knowing that I’m not crazy – allowing audience unity and inciting action in an audience is possible and alive. We just have to face it with clarity and courage.