Theatre of the Oppressed Brings Homeless Actors to the Stage Tonight

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Some of these folks have never acted on a stage before, but then again, this is most definitely not your traditional performance.

Tonight, Theatre of the Oppressed NYC is partnering with nonprofit group Housing Works to put on a show centered around the experiences of being homeless and HIV-positive in New York City.

The actors, who have been collaborating on all aspects of the performance since September, are all HIV-positive (except one staffer from Housing Works), and all have experienced homelessness themselves. The production, called The Worm in the Big Apple, aims to tell the personal stories of these New Yorkers and shed light on some of the larger challenges this population faces.

And the audience gets on stage, too.

It's certainly not a typical theatrical endeavor -- and Runnin' Scared caught up with the group's artistic director today to hear a bit about the concept behind Theatre of the Oppressed and to discuss what the audience can expect tonight (without giving too much away).

Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, now 15 months old, partners with groups throughout the city to create productions with communities and institutions that are facing some kind of oppression. The organization has worked with the homeless, undocumented immigrants, prisoners, transgender homeless youth, HIV/AIDS groups, and others. The plays are original and involve some unique forms of audience participation.

"It's reversing power roles for the actors who usually don't have a voice in New York City to be standing on the stage," said Katy Rubin, founding artistic director of Theatre of the Oppressed NYC. "The actors really start taking initiative, because that's what this is about."

Rubin, 26, explained that the troupe of around 11 actors began meeting once a week in the fall, playing games, discussing questions of human rights, improvising, and sharing stories. Eventually a single play came out of this process. Rubin said she is just a facilitator, and that the group collaboratively comes up with the final product.

"From these little stories, we wove together a play that very well could be a daily experience of any of these actors," she said.

Tonight, with a focus on HIV/AIDS, the play addresses some of the challenges these residents face in accessing social services and navigating the city's bureaucracy. The show also explores the stigma around HIV and the experience on the ground of actually living on the street. For the actors who have dealt with the city's confusing paperwork firsthand, it's not too hard to play a bureaucrat too, Rubin said. "They're actually playing HASA [HIV AIDS Services Administration] workers. It's just as easy to play the antagonist as it is to play the protagonist."

The timing of the play is interesting given some concerns last week about how the mayor's new budget impacts HIV/AIDS programs.

If you're planning on attending tonight, beware: you'll have to warm up. The performers warm up the audience before the show starts by playing a few quick games. "They'll feel very uncomfortable, which is the goal," Rubin said.

Then, when the performance ends, audience members have a chance to get up on stage and actually reenact scenes. It's a way for the audience and actors to collaborate and actively brainstorm ways that these problems can be addressed, she said.

Audience members often leave these performances feeling connected in some way to the broader issues, Rubin said. People relate to the struggles they see onstage. The idea is, "If I really want to address my problem, I can't ignore everyone else's."

The performance is tonight at 7 p.m. at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe at 126 Crosby Street.

[SamTLevin / @SamTLevin]

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