We Need More Creativity in Policymaking. About Legislative Theatre with Katy Rubin

by Participation Factory

(photo: Steve Hosey)


Katy Rubin is a legislative theatre practitioner, designer and strategist of legislative theatre and other creative participatory democracy methodologies. She is the former founding executive director of Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, a nonprofit organization that partners with communities facing discrimination to spark transformative action. She helped run a number of forums and legislative theatre processes for various social change and participatory democracy purposes with communities all over New York. Today, she is mostly based in the UK and has been working with local, regional and national governments and community and advocacy groups to design, implement and amplify legislative theatre processes around the country.

As we have recently dived into the topic of theatre of the oppressed, we asked Katy a few questions about her work and experience with such participatory methods.


PF: Katy, can you explain what legislative theatre is and where it originated? 

Legislative theatre comes out of the Theatre of the Oppressed methodology, which originated in Brazil, from activist and theatremaker Augusto Boal. Communities create plays about the situations of injustice and oppression they’re experiencing. They perform those plays in front of audiences consisting of their peers, neighbours and strangers, to improvise new ideas and generate alternatives. It’s a kind of very active and creative community organizing. 

After Augusto Boal became a city councillor in Rio in the early 90s, he started to build this practice into policy-making and law-making and called it legislative theatre. In the last 10 years, there’s been a bit of a rebirth: there’s legislative theatre happening now in the UK, India,  Portugal, Brazil, and Zimbabwe, as well as many other countries. 


PF: How does legislative theatre work exactly? 

It’s a creative and joyful policy-making tool: a community that’s directly impacted by a harmful policy, practice or law creates a play to articulate their lived experience of that policy or law. We frame it in the human experience through a play, and as a part of making that play, there’s community building, there’s participatory research. We’re trying to show the full bureaucratic ecosystem of the related policies and rules, and where they come from. We invite residents, advocates and policymakers into performances where they watch the play, talk about the problems, and analyze what they saw. Then anyone in the audience is invited to come on stage and improvise a new rule, policy or strategy to address the problem. Through improvisation, we’re testing the policies and seeing how they might work. Each improvisation is an iteration of the policy proposal, in a way.  


PF: What happens next?

We continue to test, strengthen and negotiate the policy proposals through the improvisation with the community actors on stage until everybody in the audience is ready to write down concrete policy recommendations. The recommendations then go to our team of policymakers, which can include elected officials, policy analysts, as well as community organizers and other people who have influence over the issue. The policymakers sort the ideas and prioritize them, and then we have further debate, deliberation, and amendments until there are three or four very clear policy proposals that everyone then votes upon. Finally, in any legislative theatre event, the policymakers make commitments right there in the space, and they’re held accountable by the audience who’s gone through the whole process. Afterwards, we follow up with the audience to report on whether those first actions have been implemented, and what we need to do next to put pressure on policymakers.


PF: Can you give us an example of a successful project? 

In the last year, I’ve been working with young people on youth mental health policy and practice in Greater Manchester, in a collaborative participatory democracy project called Mindset Revolution. The play, based on the stories of the young people leading the project, addressed the lack of qualifications for school counselors; police responders to mental health crises; lack of support for young people and families, and more. 

So, some of the proposals that came out of this process were that young people should be able to design the mental health spaces and resources in their own schools and they should have a budget to design it, too. The audience and actors learned from this process that 80% of 999 calls in the last five years have been mental health emergencies; another proposal, therefore, was that the Greater Manchester Police should do a public audit into the number of mental health emergency calls that did in fact involve physical threat or policy presence. All policy progress is being tracked live online, for participants and all residents to hold policymakers accountable to their commitments.

Another example is the Greater Manchester Homelessness Prevention Strategy Legislative Theatre project of 2020-21, which won the International Observatory on Participatory Democracy’s 2022 Award for Best Practice in Citizen Engagement. Much more information on that initiative is available online.


PF: Who are the main pioneers of legislative theatre? 

Theatre of the Oppressed NYC continues to do legislative theatre, along with the projects I’m leading in the UK; there’s another great company called Active Inquiry doing LT in Scotland.  There are also many examples outside the UK: José Soeiro leads LT processes and is now also a member of Parliament in Portugal. An organization in India, Jana Sanskriti, has been doing LT around migrant workers’ rights for many years. And that’s just the beginning!


PF: What are the prerequisites for the legislative theatre? 

I actually think that it’s not so difficult to implement legislative theatre in relation to some other participatory strategies. The budget can vary but it’s usually cheaper than implementing a citizen assembly, at least in the UK. It starts with understanding that there’s a policy problem, and a community experiencing the problem that wants to be involved in designing the solutions. Then it needs a willingness from local government or a similar institution, to take a risk. I find that when everybody’s angry at each other and things are not going well, that’s a perfect time to encourage those stakeholders to take a risk. 

Moreover, you need someone with facilitation skills and experience in facilitating conversations with diverse groups

Finally, I always talk about the importance of fun and creativity. If we are not creative in solving the political problems we have, then we will keep coming up with the same answers and strategies that no longer work. So fun is a really, really crucial ingredient and I think we do ourselves a disservice if we don’t take it very seriously.