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Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity

Legislative Theatre: A Creative Way to Redesign Democratic Spaces and Rebuild Trust

Jan 24, 2024

Katy Rubin AFSEE

Katy Rubin

Legislative Theatre Practitioner & Creative Civic Strategist

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In a school gym in New York City in 2014, a group of LGBTQ youth performed a play they had devised based on their daily realities. In the opening scene, a transgender woman experienced a domestic dispute; neighbours overheard and called the police. Upon arriving, police accused the woman of holding fake identification because the gender on her ID didn’t match her name and presentation; searched her apartment; and arrested her after finding hormones, which they mistook for drugs.

In the audience was a member of the NYC Council who was sponsoring a new Municipal ID bill, originally intended to support undocumented immigrants in accessing public services. At the end of the play, through improvisations and debate, the audience developed an amendment to allow applicants to state their gender without requiring proof of medical procedures and to have the option to leave the gender box blank entirely (alongside other proposals to challenge discriminatory police interactions). The proposed amendment became part of the legislation voted in by the NYC Council, positively impacting the civil rights of New Yorkers.

This story is an example of a Legislative Theatre (LT) process organised by Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, a non-profit I led from 2011-2018. LT is a participatory democracy methodology in which residents directly impacted by inequitable policy use theatrical tools to frame a policy problem and invite peers and neighbours to improvise and test solutions onstage, with the goal of co-creating new rules and laws. In the story above, community members and policymakers entered the process with little trust in one another; the young people regularly experienced harm not only in daily interactions with police and other authorities but also in past attempts to participate in decision-making that affected their lives. However, through the process of LT, young people and policymakers were able to come together to rebuild trust and redesign policy.

Three boys performing a play on stage.
Three youth performing a play at the Manchester youth mental health project. Photo by Ingrid Turner.
Rebuilding trust between policymakers and communities

As a practitioner and designer of Legislative Theatre (LT) now working with local governments and community groups around the UK on issues such as housing, immigration, and climate justice, I regularly see breakdowns of trust stemming from vastly unequal power relations in democratic spaces. The majority of ‘consultation,’ when it exists, happens after decisions have been made in closed rooms, and long after problems have been articulated by ‘experts.’ Communities experiencing poverty, institutional racism, and other inequities are then invited into spaces designed and populated by policymakers, often primarily white and/or middle class, thus exacerbating harmful power dynamics. Simply increasing the frequency of this kind of (false) participation will not help to build trust between governments and affected communities.

In fact, UN Secretary-General António Guterres identified trust as a key challenge in the 2023 Common Agenda: ‘Building trust and countering mistrust, between people and institutions, …is our defining challenge. There has been an overall breakdown in trust in major institutions worldwide due to both their real and perceived failures to deliver, be fair, transparent, and inclusive.’ Similarly, United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) notes that the ‘distrust loop, or “trust deficit,” is a barrier to economic growth, digital innovation and social cohesion’. UCLG's partner, International Observatory for Participatory Democracy, pinpoints LT as one strategy to address this barrier.

After centuries of harm and inequality, rebuilding trust will be difficult and slow; new forms of active democracy are necessary. LT can be a useful tool for activists working to repair democracy, via three key ingredients: a shared understanding of the problem; a shared experience of collective problem-solving; and shared vulnerability or risk. In LT, the policymaking process is designed by community advocates, not politicians or researchers, and the problem is framed through the lenses of power, equity, and human rights. LT doesn’t start with a white paper or news article: it’s a play, which communicates both the human and institutional contexts and the feeling of the problem, leading to a shared understanding on intellectual and emotional levels. In the story from New York City, the whole audience, including policymakers, gained a new, nuanced understanding of the barriers and risks when a person can’t access identification that accurately represents their identity. Trust begins to take seed when we see that others actively and deeply understand something of our experiences.

Two women discussing and writing policy ideas while wearing face masks
Writing policy ideas at the Glasgow youth climate project. Photo by Stephen Hosey.
Policymakers and citizens re-shape inequitable policies together

In Legislative Theatre (LT), after watching the play, audience members join the community actors onstage to improvise and test new policy ideas. This live testing leads to recognition of the limitations of an idea, while iteration and dialogue often spark more radical interventions, and can generate increased buy-in for policies that are ultimately implemented. Trust grows through shared problem-solving, as policymakers and citizens engage collaboratively and publicly in the messy work of democracy.

At the end of the LT process, actors and audiences propose new policies, and the aim is that policymakers and advocates will also commit to immediate actions. To negotiate on-stage instead of behind the scenes; to try new ideas, fail, and try again, in solidarity with your neighbours; to acknowledge the harm caused by historical oppression; and to do all that in the unorthodox context of theatre – these require vulnerability, for policymakers and citizens alike. People experiencing inequities take risks every day to survive but don’t see those risks acknowledged or addressed by governments. Policymakers, meanwhile, often try to push boundaries within rigid bureaucracies, but that risk-taking is hidden from the public eye. Therefore, through shared vulnerability and risk, they can begin to transform power dynamics, and only then will they be able to seek and offer trust.

Undoubtedly, it’s a big ask for governments and institutions to take such risks: to use theatre to frame policy problems and develop solutions, and to transform the formal realm of governance into spaces of creativity and participation. Bureaucracies are by their very nature entangled in antiquated rules and procedures that protect the status quo. However, through the joyful nature of Legislative Theatre and other participatory and fun practices, communities can disrupt exclusive policymaking processes and overturn entrenched hierarchies. Only then can we create real change that responds to the needs of affected communities and moves towards a more equitable society.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme, the International Inequalities Institute, or the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

Katy Rubin AFSEE

Katy Rubin

Legislative Theatre Practitioner & Creative Civic Strategist

Katy Rubin is an Atlantic Fellow and a practitioner and designer of Legislative Theatre, an innovative, inclusive, and joyful participatory democracy methodology that directly challenges injustices in governments and institutions, bringing residents, policymakers, and advocates together into creative dialogue and offering a rigorous testing space for equitable, human-centred policy and practice.

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Banner Image: Photo by Theatre of the Oppressed NYC 


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