INTERVIEW by TIMOTHY BROWNE | PHOTOGRAPHY by MATTHEW MURPHY
Occasionally, our BR!NKers will summarize their projects and let us in on their passion so effectively that we feel any introduction to be overkill. This is one of those times. We talked to Katy Rubin recently about her extraordinary work in both the theatre and the world of social justice in New York City, and we couldn’t be more proud to present her as this Tuesday’s BR!NKer.
Can you explain to Daily BR!NK readers what Concrete Justice is?
Absolutely. Concrete Justice is a collective of twelve homeless and formerly homeless actors and artists in New York City, and it is a program of Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, a nonprofit I started in 2010 which inspires transformative action by creating and touring theatre troupes with communities facing discrimination all over the city. In Concrete Justice, we use Theatre of the Oppressed, a methodology developed by the late Augusto Boal in Brazil, as a medium for communal problem-solving around the issues of homelessness, joblessness, and related discrimination. To explain T.O. very briefly, communities make plays about real-life situations of oppression and then audiences of peers and strangers become “spect-actors,” entering the scene to express solidarity with the actors and trying out concrete solutions to the problems, which we analyze together. It is a rehearsal for reality.
Concrete Justice is currently continuing to tour its second show, Hellter Shelter, a story of corruption, discrimination, and dehumanization in the NYC shelter system, told through documentary film footage, break dancing, and interactive theatre. We are developing a third piece, tentatively investigating the health care system’s treatment of the homeless, and we’re publishing a mixed-genre book entitled Concrete Justice: Street Poetry (due out Spring 2012). We’re keeping ourselves on our toes by exploring the integration of new media, musical theatre, documentary filmmaking, spoken word poetry, and public mural art into our process.
How did Concrete Justice come about?
Concrete Justice was the first “popular theatre troupe” I founded as part of TONYC. In 2008, I got a grant to travel to Brazil and train in Theatre of the Oppressed with its founder. For the next two years I ran workshops in high schools and with the New York City Coalition Against Hunger — which was how I got connected to Jan Hus Homeless Outreach on the Upper East Side. We held our first workshop in June 2010, and about fifteen new actors showed up. By October, we were ready to premiere It Could Happen to You, the first play created by the group, and it was standing-room only. From there things just took off! We started touring, blogging, and filming our surroundings with donated Flip cams, and premiered our second show in June 2011. So far, we’ve done eighteen performances for over 1,500 New Yorkers, and we are constantly recruiting new actors at our shows or at community meals and other outreach programs.
How does the process of creating a Concrete Justice piece come about?
Well, we start every developmental rehearsal by eating popcorn or pretzels and hummus (I’ve exported my favorite snack to our rehearsals!) and just shooting the breeze, talking about what happened to us or to people we know that week. Sometimes we can spend three hours talking, telling stories, examining why we think those things might have happened. Then we get up on our feet and start to play games and explore physical images related to themes that have emerged, leading to devising the scenes themselves. The experiences of the actors in Concrete Justice always become the basis for the plays, focusing on the problems that we don’t know how to solve: the discrimination faced by NYC’s homeless. The philosophy of the collective is that we are the only people who can accurately tell our stories and that we have a responsibility to do so — to reveal, for instance, the violence, bribery, and cronyism in the city shelters which is invisible from the non-homeless in New York. We script, stage, design, and produce the play collectively, in a style that is simultaneously casual and fun (e.g. using “clean trash” materials for set and props, working some Jay-Z song or another into every show) and also professional and rigorous.
What has been the reaction from the homeless community towards your work?
The reaction has been better than we could have imagined — both our homeless and non-homeless audiences give us energy to go forward and keep making art, often with very few resources. Every performance has had a mix of homeless and non-homeless community members in the audience, with some venues skewing more in one direction or the other. When we perform at soup kitchens, community centers, or shelters, we get strong reactions; audiences recognize the phenomena portrayed in the shows and are eager to jump up onstage and intervene in the action. We’ve inspired other outreach programs to start similar projects; we’ve also jump-started Theatre of the Oppressed troupes with Housing Works clients (HIV+ actors with experience of homelessness) and with Ali Forney Center residents (LGBT homeless youth).
You’re preparing a third theatre project; what is its theme and when can our readers expect to see it?
We’ll be ready to tour our third production in May 2012, at which point Concrete Justice: Street Poetry will also be on sale at our shows and in independent bookstores — we’re incredibly excited about that! We’re planning to work in quite a bit of spoken word and other poetry to this next show, to complement the book and also to showcase the artists. The new show is looking at the health and welfare systems from a few perspectives; futile and frustrating trips to the emergency room will figure prominently. We’ll also be looking at the traps of the welfare/Social Security programs. However, we’ll still have some encore performances of Hellter Shelter this winter!
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success?
There are quite a few ways Daily BR!NK readers can get involved and support Concrete Justice! First, you can make a tax-deductible donation any time, and this literally keeps our doors open; we’re seeking donations to help with space for rehearsals, Metrocards and meals for actors, artist stipends, materials for set-building, printing the book, and that’s just the beginning. Find the donation button on our website homepage: http://www.theatreoftheoppressednyc.org. You can come see one of our sister troupes, the Housing Works actors, perform A Worm in the Big Apple on Feb 6th at the Housing Works Bookstore in Soho, and keep an eye on Concrete Justice’s page and our Facebook page for updates on new Concrete Justice show deets. You can hire us to perform for your community as well! Also, check out photos and videos from past shows on the website. Finally, you can spread the word and invite your friends to our shows, so that our work continues to reach more New Yorkers and make an impact.