Oct 10, 2011

[INTERVIEW] Katy Rubin (Theatre Of The Opressed NYC)

Photo by: Clare Kobasa
SFCB:   Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Katy.  For those who are learning of you for the first time, please tell everyone who you are and what you do.

KATY RUBIN:  I am the founding artistic director of Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, a nonprofit arts organization in New York City.  TONYC works with various communities facing discrimination in New York City to create "popular theatre troupes," which tour the city to engage diverse audiences in theatrical brainstorming and communal problem-solving.  Currently, TONYC's popular troupes include a homeless troupe, a homeless LGBT youth troupe, an HIV/AIDS troupe, and a bilingual immigrant troupe.

We are also starting to work more with refugee populations in the city. As artistic director, I founded the organization, and I help these troupes get off the ground, and learn the Theatre of the Oppressed techniques of creating plays from our own stories and engaging physically and critically with audiences. I also run the organization administratively.

SFCB:   Talk about Augusto Boal, the "Theatre of the Opressed" , and how you got involved with this?

KATY RUBIN:  Augusto Boal created Theatre of the Oppressed in the 19070s in South America; a Brazilian, he was a political exile at the time, working in South America, and deeply inspired by Paulo Freire's work in Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  Boal realized that artists cannot give oppressed communities advice, nor speak on their behalf; the people with the problem should and could make the plays, ask the questions, and actively search for the many possible alternatives!

I studied acting at Boston University School of Theatre, but always knew about Boal (I have a circus and street-performing background before my acting training, and Boal's work was always popping up there). I met Boal twice in New York during his brief visits and workshops here, in 2001 and in 2007, and in 2008, I received a grant to travel to Rio de Janeiro for three months and train there with him and his colleagues at the Center for Theatre of the Oppressed--Rio.  Boal died at age 78 in 2009; I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to train with him.  He wasn't only a visionary but also a wonderful person.

SFCB:   I've talked on this blog in the past a little bit about my history as it pertains to being homeless, and I think that it's interesting to see how people can rise up and really dig deep to try to overcome their situation. People who have beaten drug addictions, who have gotten themselves clean and regained custody of their children. Who have slowly piece by piece rebuilt their lives from the ground up. 

And they are able to do this, in part, because of people who stand together and offer their assistance.  It seems very difficult sometimes to imagine a way out of the situation when you're knee deep in it, so to speak.  What do you tell those who are homeless when you talk to them about this? 

Photo by: Uri Noy Meir
KATY RUBIN:  I cannot convince anyone that they should want a change in their lives or that they should want to fight discrimination, nor is it my place.  The homeless that I work with know much better than I do what their lives are like, day to day. However, when I come in (and TONYC only helps start a troupe when there's been some interest from that community), I show that I have a strong faith in our ability to make a change--that I believe in the possibility of change, period.

And we start by playing games from the Theatre of the Oppressed arsenal that help us see the possibility of change in our own actions and thought. We start by blowing everything up and turning everything upside down.  So...it's always a gamble, but I find that the actors believe in change deep down as well, and when we can be colleagues, people in solidarity believing in change, it's very powerful and energizing.

SFCB:   In the immediate years after I got my own apartment, I found I was trying to help everyone.  I live above a church that does fellowship and outreach for those on the street, and at one time I helped out downstairs with them.  And I found myself clashing with those in authority, because there were people coming in who the church knew whether or not they were serious about trying to get help, or if they were just trying to get over.  And I didn't know this, and of course I was indignant and frustrated because, hey, here's these people homeless and all they're looking for is help, I'm thinking. 

And it took me awhile to be able to realize that while there are many people who need help and are wanting help, sadly there's those who do not.  There are those who simply want to get over and who want to just scam.  And telling the difference between those two groups has never been my strong point.   So how do you deal with that?  How do you make the call on whether or not someone is serious and wanting help, or if they are just trying to play you?   Is it simply a trial and error, or at this point do you just know?
KATY RUBIN:  One point is that I don't offer help. I try to be very clear that I can offer facilitation of the process of making a play (or other form of art) so that we can ask a strong question to other New Yorkers.  Sometimes people aren't sure if they want to be a part of that process, and we just try to give everyone space to figure out their role.

It goes back to your previous question: are we ready to believe in positive, forward change? And we are all at different points in that journey, and I know in myself the places where I can't quite believe change is possible yet--so I try not to blame anyone else when they need to take more time.

SFCB:   What is the shelter situation like in NYC?  I realize it's a massive city, so there's no doubt a high number of homeless men, women and children there. How many shelters are in the city, and when the weather gets cold and they fill up, what happens then?

KATY RUBIN:  The shelter system in NYC is definitely flawed. Concrete Justice (the homeless and formerly homeless troupe) made its second show about the actors' experiences in the shelters--and the show, Hellter Shelter, documents corruption, filth, discrimination, cronyism, lack of security, inability to get a job while in the shelter, and other issues. Many homeless choose to sleep outside or in the subway tunnels instead of in the shelters.

And yes, it gets cold, snowy, rainy, hurricane-y.  Sometimes those without beds sleep in the subway cars, which run 24 hours, in bad weather, although they can get ticketed or arrested for that at times. There are hundreds of shelters in the city; I know that 40,000 people are sleeping in shelters every night, with tens of thousands more on the streets. It's definitely not a good situation.

SFCB:   One of the things that I found infuriating when I was on the streets is how many shelters would discriminate against the street kids who were LGBTQ.  And this drove me crazy because these are homeless kids in need. The vast majority of shelters I've been in are affiliated with a church in some way shape or form.

Now I could go in there, and my being straight and a Christian it didn't present any problems for me.  However there are unfortunately many people who refuse to acknowledge the idea that someone can be LGBTQ and be a Christian or Catholic or a member of any other faith as well.  The thought that there could possibly be a "Gay Christian" is foreign to so many people. 

And I've seen some shelters turn people away for that very reason.  They won't come out and say that's it, but it's happened.  They'll find some reason to reject them or throw them out.  Or there's even cases like the Salvation Army that refused to help a gay couple unless they broke up, which is just outrageous to me.

Talk about your experiences helping LGBT street kids, if you would, and whether or not you've seen this type of  discrimination there, and how you combat that.

KATY RUBIN:  LGBTQ homeless youth is the fastest-growing homeless population in New York City.  You're absolutely right, they have almost nowhere to go.  Now there are new nonprofits starting programs just for this group, but they still have too few beds.  These youth and adults, too, often can't get into the men's shelters or the women's shelters, because their name on their ID card doesn't match their presenting name and gender.

And then if they can get into a shelter, they are at risk for physical and sexual abuse and harassment by the other residents, and are rarely protected by the guards in the shelters. However, the youth in the new troupe I'm working with, who are now staying at one of these relatively new shelters for LBGTQ homeless youth, are incredibly brave and resilient.

They're getting themselves educated about their rights, taking the lead with peer advocacy, and participating in political action to get more protection for themselves and their peers.  The Theatre of the Oppressed project we are creating together will highlight the challenges and well as their successes.

SFCB:   One of the aspects of homelessness that people don't really like to acknowledge is the vast number of children that are becoming homeless, either due to running away, or in many cases being kicked out of their house due to their parents not approving of their lifestyles.

According to one count, each year an estimated 1.7 million kids under the age of 18 will experience homelessness.   And to illustrate just one negative about this, they said that 79% of those kids were attending school regularly prior to entering a shelter.  Many of these kids end up unfortunately doing whatever they have to get survive and get money, because they sometimes aren't old enough to work.

In Spokane we have a faith based group called "Cup of Cool Water" which exclusively works with street kids, and helps them get off the streets.  Are there programs in NYC that are set up dealing exclusively with street kids or are the programs in place basically designed for adults?

KATY RUBIN:  Yes, there are some programs designed specifically to help homeless youth, though not enough. One shelter for homeless teens, Covenant House, has over 300 residents and is a major source of support for NYC's homeless youth.  We intend to start a troupe with Covenant House youth next summer.

SFCB:   It seems that every day we're inundated with more politicians or other high profile people disparaging the poor and the working class.  As the Occupy Wallstreet protests have gone on, you have many of these protesters being labeled as "lazy" or worse, and even Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain has actually come out and said that if you are unemployed and/or not rich, then it's your fault.

A few years back Rush Limbaugh was on the air and there was a story that essentially was that many kids only get to eat when at school with the school breakfast and lunch programs, and with no school in the summer, many of these kids would not be able to get proper sustenance. Limbaugh mocked those children and suggested that they dumpster dive for food, and intimated that they had plenty of food at home, it just wasn't junk food and so they didn't want it.

Why do you think that so many people in power thrive on kicking the less fortunate when they're down?  Do you think that it's simply that the easiest targets are the ones with the least amount of power?  That because there are not enough high profile voices speaking for them?

Photo by: Laura Turley
KATY RUBIN:  Oh, I wish I knew the answer to this question. It's the million-dollar question.  Why this power imbalance that's persisted for generations and generations? The only answer I can give is: we have to invite these people, who are so afraid of those who are different, to be in solidarity with us.

We have to teach them that we are all human beings, and that our collective survival is dependent on our individual survival.  That's what we're trying to do with TONYC, but it takes a universal effort...and who knows if it will work? We try what we can!

SFCB:   I've always found it uncomfortable how easily some find it to thumb their nose and ridicule and dismiss those who are homeless and on the street.  And I wonder whether you think that it's simply a case of them having an inability to relate, and they genuinely think that someone is in that position because of their own doing, or if it's a situation where they simply don't care whether or not there are people suffering, because it doesn't affect their own lives?

KATY RUBIN:  Again, refer to the last answer.  I want to think that there is something human and therefore, the same, in all of us. Therefore, through art, perhaps, which engages us in a new and unique way, we can tap into what is the same about all of us. This is just what I'm going on, to keep myself sane, really! I'll have to let you know what I think about this in ten years...

SFCB:   One thing, I think that is an issue, is that people tend to dehumanize those who are on the streets.   They are looked at as not on equal level with those who are not homeless, and I think they simply don't view them as people.  In a way it's like how people have used the phrases "Gay" and "Muslim" as slurs.  A few years back, actor/director Ben Affleck was on Real Time with Bill Maher, and he brought up the incident during the 2008 Presidential campaign when a woman approached John McCain and said that she was afraid of Barack Obama because "he's an Arab."

And McCain simply responded, "He's not an Arab, he's a good person." As if being an Arab was the opposite of being a good person.  As if being accused of being gay or lesbian or queer is like the worst thing in the world that someone could be.

To the extent that it's weird seeing someone have to walk that line between refuting the notion that he/she is Gay or a Muslim, and yet not give some of these people what they want, which is to basically turn an entire group of people into a slur.

What do you attribute to this sort of acceptance of these attributes of human beings being used as a slur that must be denied at all costs?   It almost seems like we're losing bits and pieces of our humanity as we go along.

KATY RUBIN:  I try to be optimistic! And I try to check myself in my own judgments and labeling; and in the troupes, we think a lot about what we want to call ourselves.  Do we want to call ourselves homeless or not? What's wrong with admitting a history of homelessness--in itself, nothing, but it carries all this stigma that you talk about. So we try to fight the stigma and at the same time be sensitive about what people do and don't want to be labeled as.

SFCB:   Finally, I want to talk about the Concrete Justice project.  Explain for those reading this what this project is, and the Kickstarter program that you have going.

KATY RUBIN:  So, our longest-running popular troupe, Concrete Justice, is made of homeless and formerly homeless artists.  We have made two original plays, toured them to 15 venues in NYC and reached over 1600 audience members--and now we are looking to expand our reach while also providing our troupe with a way to be sustainable and continue to produce new work.

We are publishing a book of our original writings and artwork, called Concrete Justice: Street Poetry.  We're so excited about it! The Kickstarter campaign will help us get this project off the ground: we have costs for printing, design, and of course for the artists and writers! We have to reach our goal of 7000 by Friday, November 4th.  We definitely need your help, and we're so grateful for every pledge! You're helping us raise awareness about homelessness in New York City, and bring the humanity back just a little bit--that's our hope!

SFCB:   How much reaction have you gotten to the program from those outside of New York?

KATY RUBIN:  Well, we just got short pieces about Concrete Justice in magazines in Brazil and Vienna--so that's pretty far outside! And a few weeks ago, we were on a blog from San Francisco about social justice issues, called Tikkun.  We also have been invited to perform in Montreal and Connecticut--and we're trying to make that happen! And one of our current interns moved here from the DC area specifically to work with Theatre of the Oppressed NYC.  Generally, we're getting the word out there. 

SFCB:   So once you put the book out, what is next in your plans? Have you thought about taking the Plays outside of New York, or is that cost prohibitive?

KATY RUBIN:  As I said, we're definitely thinking about traveling! The book may help us raise funds to start traveling and doing exchanges with other groups of homeless artists--but that's only if we reach our Kickstarter goal! To travel internationally, we'd have to get passports....but it's on our to-do list. And we are also in the development stages of a film and a new play, which will be toured in June 2012.  So, Concrete Justice is busy.

SFCB:   Katy, I want to thank you so very much for taking your time to answer these questions, and I wish your project nothing but the best.

KATY RUBIN:  Same to you! Many thanks.

NOTE: if you would like to pledge support for Concrete Justice and the "Theatre of the Opressed" click the widget below and it'll take you to the Kickstarter program.

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