There has always been an element in performance art that attempts to address the injustices heaped on the vulnerable in society. From Aeschylus’ play The Suppliant Women written over 2,500 years ago dramatising the plight of migrant Egyptian women fleeing persecution and seeking asylum in Argo, to the TV drama Cathy Come Home, directed by Ken Loach in 1966, telling the story of a young family evicted from their home, which is widely credited with raising public consciousness of homelessness, and raising the issue up the political agenda of the 60’s.
The understanding, empathy, emotion and energy aroused by these works in the public can often be dissipated before they reach a change making critical mass in our collective consciousness. A “dead cat” may be thrown on the table by a media savvy politician to divert debate, or a Russian despot may invade a neighbouring country, dominating the news cycle and people’s thoughts.
Legislative theatre is a fusion of performance art and politics that tries to close that gap, using co-production methods and innovative techniques to break down the barrier between actors and audience to harness the emotion and understanding a performance arouses. Understanding is amplified by people who have been impacted by the issues concerned performing a play based on their experiences, enabling the policy makers also taking part to really get a grip on those issues.
The concept of Legislative Theatre grew from the work of Augusto Boal, a radical drama theorist and political activist in Brazil, where he founded the Theatre of the Oppressed as a means of promoting social and political change. While serving as a city councillor in Rio De Janeiro in the mid 90’s he developed an early iteration of legislative theatre, using his time in office to try and make legislative changes, with proposals articulated and drafted by the citizens which addressed the major issue they faced.
Katy Rubin is a legislative theatre practitioner living in Manchester, who trained at the Theatre of the Oppressed in Rio in 2008. Augusto Boal passed away in 2009, and after Rubin finished her training in Rio she took Baol’s teachings and practiced them in her home town of New York, forming the Theatre of the Oppressed NYC group, which she led up till 2018, that created productions dealing with issues around housing, homelessness, healthcare, immigration and the criminal justice system.
As part of mayor Andy Burnham’s campaign to end rough sleeping, Rubin was invited by the Greater Manchester Homelessness Action Network to use legislative theatre to co-create a homelessness prevention strategy for GM, that involved people with experience of homelessness and gave them power in decisions made in formulating the strategy.
Over a Zoom call Rubin explained the legislative theatre process and its radical difference to conventional theatre. A striking aspect is the breaking down of the barrier between spectator and actor, all involved become spect-actors, having the power to discuss, rewrite and act in scenes in the performance.
Rubin explained the forum section of legislative theatre that occurs after scenes in the production have been performed, where those watching can try “out new ideas, and they might specifically be trying out new rules, new policies, new practises, amendments to the current law. So they’re analysing the play, they’re talking about what are the rules, what are the barriers around the problem, or what are the rules that are missing that would allow us to get what we need?
“Then they’re actually coming up on stage to improvise in the scenes so they’ll take on the role of the person trying to get what they need, and they’ll try out a new rule and everyone else will improvise and usually improvise by trying to make it harder, like why would this rule not work or where are the vulnerabilities in this policy idea.”
The legislative theatre process needs practitioners trained in the process, known as Jokers, as they are the unbiased cards in the pack that don’t have a suit, that act out the initial scenes portraying a common problem experienced by people in the area focussed on, and help facilitate the whole process. In the plays performed for Greater Manchester on homelessness, the GM Jokers consisted of a core team of five trained facilitators. In total 35 people with experience of homelessness took part in the three plays that took place between July 2020 and February 2021.
It’s often the case that when the public are asked to take part in civic minded activities they are expected to volunteer their time, limiting involvement to those who have the time and resources to do so. Legislative theatre bucks the trend in that regard, as Rubin explains, “This is not a charity service for you, no. If we’re all making policy, we’re all working in here, we all have to get paid.”
Rubin and the GM Jokers faced the significant pandemic-induced challenge of creating hybrid Zoom events for the productions, which covered the homelessness-connected themes of multiple disadvantage, Housing First in GM, and funding and commissioning. Nadia Purcell, one of the GM Jokers, described the training as “tricky because of Covid”, and that alongside online training the group also got some real-life practice in the wide-open space of Manchester City’s Etihad complex.
Purcell and her three children became homeless in 2018 and applied for help from Manchestester city council – an experience she found “very traumatic” due to the systems involved and the criteria laid down for providing help. With a degree in media performance and production, Purcell had previous experience in theatre but described the training as a steep learning curve, as “the theatre that I did is nothing like this theatre.” Purcell says she likes putting legislative theatre in people’s faces, because:
“It is just so unconventionally powerful. People think of theatre as sort of leisure and entertainment, like this is political theatre you know, this is democracy, this isn’t your normal theatre.
“This is where people who are suited and booted have to take their suit away, they have to get rid of their title, they have to listen to the real raw truth of what’s happening. But they’re not being told it, they’re being shown it… What the legislative theatre play is basically showing you is the effect of this broken system.”
Democratic theatre creating policy
Once scenes have been rescripted and replayed, all the spect-actors then get a chance to propose policy ideas, to counter the problems raised in the play. This longlist of proposals is then narrowed down, in an open and transparent process where everyone can hear the reasons underpinning decisions, to a shortlist of proposals which contain the most practical and responsive ideas. Finally the performance ends with a vote, so the proposals can be prioritised, and policy makers taking part are asked to make commitments on how they are going to move the ideas forward.
Rubin describes the process as “fun for participants” and the humour did come across in the YouTube video of the funding and commissioning play, which I was pleasantly surprised to find myself laughing out loud at during some scenes. The spect-actors all perform heroically given the hybrid event technical challenges they had to overcome, and I suspect there were many more smiles for the policy makers in this production, than in their usual formal meetings discussing commissioning of services. Rubin went on to say:
“This is about radical community action, and it’s about flipping power dynamics.
“But it’s also about kind of practising a different way of engaging in democracy. Voting is a form of power, and you know writing policy ideas is a form of power. Trying them on stage is definitely a form of power. Articulating the problems, from the beginning, from the experience of the people who are impacted by the problem is a form of power, but also voting at the end. So it’s all about actions that can rearrange the way that we have power in policy making spaces.”
The three legislative theatre plays on homelessness produced a total of 21 proposals. These have been included in the GM Homelessness Prevention Strategy 2021-2026 as recommendations for action to all local authorities across GM in their work to combat homelessness.
Previous legislative theatre productions in New York have also led to policy changes. A play created by LGBTQ youths in 2014 explored their negative experiences with the police due to problems with ID cards not accurately representing their chosen gender. The production, attended by councillor Carlos Menchaca who was processing a Municipal ID bill, led to the bill being voted in by the city council which created greater flexibility in the IDNYC card to reflect the person’s chosen gender, improving interactions between the police and transgender New Yorkers.
In a 2017 production involving New Yorkers with experience of homelessness, which covered discrimination against the homeless and their exclusion from the traditional cultural sector and difficulty in gaining vendor licences from the city. New York City council member Stephen Levin’s participation in the production was followed by him introducing new legislation to increase the city’s low cap on street vendor licences.
Spect-actor policy makers
A key component to making this theatre legislative was the involvement of policy makers from the GMCA, borough councils, the DWP and the NHS. Commissioners of services across GM and service providers were also included in the mix to represent the whole network of organisations working to combat homelessness across the region.
Molly Bishop is the GMCA’s strategic lead for homelessness, whose tricky task was to make progress on the mayoral commitment to prevent homelessness occurring, through the challenging conditions created by the pandemic. There was also a commitment to creatively co-produce the prevention strategy, which is why previous work carried out by Rubin sprung to Bishop’s mind.
“I’d seen some work done by Cardboard Citizens on legislative theatre… and then in follow up conversations we said, ‘Well, wouldn’t it be good if we could just run a series of different creative theatre projects that allow people to really put their experience forward in a way that brings up quite clear challenges to the existing system and helps develop policy’.”
“This is where people who are suited and booted have to take their suit away, they have to get rid of their title, they have to listen to the real raw truth of what’s happening.”Nadia Purcell
Playing her part in two of the productions, including the one on funding and commissioning, Bishop said taking part had been “challenging” and expanded on that to say:
“In the sense, I guess you’re sitting there viewing a representation of somebody’s experience of homelessness and how that experience has played out, and everybody in the room has a stake in that. Everybody is kind of both sort of responsible or culpable to a certain degree for that experience and how it played out for that individual. So that element of it is challenging.
“But I think what was really good about the work is that it’s about kind of just accepting that, and sort of sitting with it instead of getting into this dialogue about, well, ‘we don’t do things like that here’, or you know ‘that’s actually changed’ or kind of discrediting things.
“It’s like just seeing it, just hearing it, and sitting with it and thinking, OK well what could we do differently and kind of accepting your role in that. The experience being told through those creative ways, means you get the opportunity to really understand people’s experiences in a way that a case study or a testimony, or maybe something that’s been written, doesn’t quite connect in that way. So I guess that’s the emotional element of it. It’s quite visceral, it hits you because of the way in which it’s being performed.”
The fusion of performance art and politics is not as big a leap as it first might seem. Rubin describes politics as already being theatrical, with the set being parliament, the MP’s reading out there scripted speeches, and us the audience watching on TV or over the internet. We only get to interact directly with decision makers come general elections where we can collectively have a significant effect on the cast and who plays the leading role in the UK’s political drama, but for the rest of the five years it is MP-actors who dominate the show and direct the script. Rubin said:
“To say we’re going to use theatre to participate in democracy and make policy is not such a strange proposal as it sounds. I think it sounds strange to us because we we’ve come to a place in our engagement with theatre and art that it’s kind of again for passive entertainment, like ‘I’m going to go see the play…and either I’m going to like it or I’m not going to like it’, that’s my interaction with it.
“But politics is already drama, and then relatedly I think our lives are drama, especially when we’re having a problem. Like if we’re having a problem in a job centre or in a council office, or in emergency accommodation, it’s a conflict, in a place with characters…
“We start with the play that’s written, and then we’re going to invite other people in to change the narrative. So many elements of this are sort of already existing, in the fact that the conflicts and the challenges that we’re having are dramatic and real.
“The politics [of government] that were currently passive spectators too, are absolutely theatricalised and scripted, just not by us.”
Origins of democracy and drama
It has not always been this way. In Athens, the birthplace of democracy and drama, there was a closer relationship between politics and theatre. In the BBC documentary Ancient Greece: The Greater Show on Earth, Michael Scott says the rationale for the program was:
“To explore how drama first began. From the very start it was about more than just entertainment, it was a reaction to real events, it was a driving force in history and it was deeply connected to Athenian democracy.”
The documentary describes how the cultural revolution of dramatic theatre in Athens directly fed into political decisions made by the people of Athens, who would watch a dramatization covering the pressing issues of the day and then debate the issues there and later vote on proposals related to those issues in the Assembly on Pnyx Hill.
This was perhaps easier to achieve due to the smaller scale of Athens and the direct democracy that developed there. We of course have a representative democracy, with our elected officials granted the power to vote and make decisions on our behalf, with the expectation that they will make decisions that are in the best interest of the majority. Unfortunately, our government’s decisions repeatedly represent the interests of vested interests and the status quo, rather than the best interests of the people.
Legislative theatre is in some ways trying to reach back to utilise the positive aspects of direct democracy, to enhance how our representative democracy works by ensuring there is a greater diversity of voices heard and acknowledged, leading up to decisions and votes. It has similarities to the calls for citizens assemblies or citizens observatories, to augment the function of our democratic system. There is a cost in time and resources to enhancing democracy in this way but if we really value democracy, it is a price worth paying. We need government of an adequate size to govern well, at local and national level.
Evidence is growing that legislative theatre can lead to tangible change. It’s early days for the proposals in the GM Homelessness Prevention Strategy, how well the recommendations for action are put into practice by local authorities remains to be seen. For them to be put into practice these proposals need to be in place to point the way, and that first step has been taken.
The GM Jokers are still together and with Purcell are working to produce a trauma training programme to help service users and service providers across GM deal with traumatic events that life can throw at any of us unexpectedly. Rubin is also working with them and believes training more facilitators is key to progressing work in legislative theatre and is continuing to hone the technique to make it more effective, recently undertaking projects in Harringay and Coventry aimed at tackling rough sleeping. I asked Rubin what her hopes were for legislative theatre.
“I hope that councils and big institutions that are realising that they have power problems, power inequities, representation problems, kind of realise all the ways in which they need to democratise and become more transparent and more participatory, and turn to tools like legislative theatre too make change in a different way.”
To find more information on legislative theatre in GM – click here
The trauma training programme the GM Jokers are working on is partly funded by Lankelly Chase.
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Featured image: GM Jokers.