May 30, 2012
Facilitators of Theater of the Oppressed NYC, under the guidance of Recreational Coordinator, Candace Rivela -- have been working with West Village ADHC clients for the past few months, and are currently producing their second play, "Stigma and the City," a parody and social critique of the infamous HBO show "Sex and The City." A dedicated ensemble of about 8 clients, who call themselves the 13th St. Theater Troupe, have devoted hours of rehearsal time beyond the normal ADHC program day to develop the play, which is about their experiences living in the city as folks of color, living with HIV/AIDS. "Stigma and the City" is a counternarrative to the glamorous, elite, and all white cast seen in "Sex and the City."
For West Village Health Center clients who attend the ADHC program, Theater of the Oppressed (TOTO) is a welcome addition to their repertoire of therapeutic program options. It is so effective, that clients volunteer their time to participate, even though they don't receive program credit.
"Role playing problems and acting out solutions is often a more effective way of confronting hard hitting issues. Depending on the client, talk therapy can sometimes be overwhelming, uncomfortable, and it may take an extended period of time before the individual can tolerate the therapy and open up emotionally," Ms. Rivela -- said.
For most of the participants, what began for them as a fun new activity, soon became a classroom for profound social tools and life skills, and a platform to become agents of change. Theater of the Oppressed allows participants to address issues they've experienced, and actually bring those issues to life in real time role plays, and eventually in front of a live audience.
60 year-old, Eli Burgos, who identifies as a straight man in real life, but plays a transgendered character in the play (that he himself developed), explained that putting on a new character helped him get over some of his presuppositions, and judgments of other people, by "stepping inside of their shoes."
"Stigma and the City" follows a transgender woman as she tries to navigate her way through the judging eyes of the city. Along the way she encounters individuals who are rude or even hostile towards her because of her identity. This echoes the reality of many Housing Works clients, and is an especially potent message in the wake of GENDA.
After The Troupe's first performance back in February, ensemble members found that audience members were shocked by how close some of the issues in their play hit home, and clients were shocked by how universal their problems were felt by the audience. TOTO has helped clients feel like they are not alone, and that their burdens are not unique to only them.
New troupe member, Zachary Wilson stated, "You think your life is bad, and you meet someone who is dealing with similar stuff, and it makes you feel less bad about what you're going through Doing theater, it's teaching me to be more open minded and flexible to things."
What marks TOTO as different from a conventional theater method is that the actor role is not resigned to only those on stage. The audience member (or spectator) becomes a spect-actor and also become absorbed into the performance.
For the 13th St. Theater Troupe members, who have spent the past several months deconstructing their own issues as they relate to a bigger social structure in the form of this comedic play, they are also providing audiences with a space on stage to address their issues. The therapy doesn't just stop inside of the program facility with other clients. It grows with each added audience member.
Ms. Rivela stated, "Through our plays, we are advocating for the larger Housing Works community by presenting viewers with clients' struggles of homelessness, HIV/AIDS, and discrimination and then asking them to consider possible solutions to problems. Hopefully other clients feel supported by our troupe's effort and are inspired to advocate for themselves in ways they see fit."
Check out 13th St. Theater Troupe's debut of "Stigma and the City":
Wed June 6 @ 7pm -- LGBT Center -- 208 West 13th Street -- $10 suggested donation
Tues July 24 @7pm -- Housing Works bookstore/café -- 126 Crosby Street.