This week the League is starting a new segment called Profiles in Theatrical and Political Courage. These are interviews with people making an impact in both fields. Our first profile is with Robby Gonyo, the League’s Director of Election Engagement. As we get closer to the NYC primary on Sept. 12, we thought it would be good to hear how he uses his theater skills to make an impact on local politics. We hope you feel inspired to join Robby in working to get the League’s arts-friendly candidates in office. If so, please fill out this form to join LIT’s Advocacy Days.
Tell us what you do in theater, Robby.
I work in indie theatre—the better question might be, what don’t I do? (answer: costuming, makeup, and projection design…I can fake just about anything else…)
I primarily identity as a director, it’s what I feel I’m most prepared for and capable to do, but I also act, produce, and do a good amount of sound design. I co-lead a company called Co-Op Theatre East, work often with the companies End Times and Amios, produce the independent theatre podcast Go See a Show!, and work with a lot of theatre talent making radio plays with DTC Radio, and my own horror fiction podcast, Apparitions.
…and, of course, I’m LIT’s Director of Election Engagement!
How did you get in politics? What was your first campaign like and what surprised you?
I went to college for Political Science…and quickly fell in with the theatre crowd, spending most of my time there, and eventually taking enough classes that I earned a second major in Creative Arts (there was no theatre degree offered). After school, I got a job working on the “Leave No Voter Behind” campaign for MoveOn PAC in 2004, identifying and managing community volunteers in Pennsylvania. The terrible truth of working on campaigns is that come November, you’re out of a job, so from there I was doing manual labor (putting in fiber-optic cables for the set of Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang on Broadway, actually) when, through a theatre connection, I was introduced to someone in Communications for the Majority in the NYS Assembly, and began to do research there.
As part of my job, there was an understanding that during election season, we would all leave the State payroll, and go work for the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee. But my first campaign came early: a special election was called just 8 months after I started, and I was asked to go with a small team to Long Island to help on a campaign in a tough district. The other side had a strong enrollment advantage, and we only had three weeks to get the word out about our new-to-politics candidate. But we pulled it out. It was pretty exciting.
The thing that surprised me most was how normal everyone was. Which may seem weird, but when I say, ‘normal,’ I mean, everyone around me—all the campaign staff, the volunteers, the operatives in Albany, and especially the candidate—was just a regular person who wanted to get involved and do something to help their community.
How is working for a campaign like making and performing theater? Talk about a time or two when this was something you experienced first hand.
Oh man…campaigns are basically one big long performance—temporal and ephemeral, featuring all sorts of personalities working together for a short but intense period of time, and so much of the real work is done behind the scenes. But they’re also immersive performances, improvised, and the audience has a whole lot of agency in shaping the narrative!
I’ve actually seen the effect of “theatre training” first-hand from my days working in politics. A former politician I worked with, who will go un-named, was notorious for being really, really bad at talking in public. This person was sent for training on how to control their voice to convey emotions, and how to use body language to get a message across. Basically, they were sent for acting lessons!
I think the clearest connection, though, between politics & theatre, relates to connection with an audience. For my money, the most interesting and effective theatre is the kind that connects with me; I feel, even though I’m in the audience, that I’m a part of the performance, that it couldn’t happen without me.
Campaigns know this, too, and try to use it to their benefit. Effective campaigns make voters feel like they’re part of it. They use language leaning heavily on ideas of “the grassroots,” “the community,” “thanks to our many supporters," “we did it!” rather than “the candidate did it!”
Just like a good performance can have you feeling invested in what happens to the characters, a good campaign will have you feeling invested in the outcome of the race, because you identify with your candidate. It’s why campaigns will often talk not only about policy positions, but about who the candidate/character is—where they grew up, personal stories from their friends and colleagues, etc.
The difference is, in politics, once the curtain comes down on the campaign, someone’s going to be making public policy that affects the real lives of people in their district. All the more reason to feel invested in the outcome, if you ask me.
What LIT campaigns have you worked on? Got any cool, interesting, or unexpected stories from that?
I’ve gotten to go out and work with just about of all our endorsed candidates! Petitioning, phone calling, letter-writing…
This year, while petitioning for my local Councilman, the incredible and very supportive Jimmy Van Bramer, I met a ton of my neighbors and had great conversations about the ways in with JVB and his office had helped them out—and, I ran into two actor friends who I didn’t realize actually live in my neighborhood!
Four years ago, I was on a corner in Fort Greene playing guitar to help attract people to come and chat with Laurie Cumbo, which was really fun. She was grooving along to my acoustic jams as she talked with potential supporters.
I witnessed another interesting encounter that will be familiar to any theater people who have ever put out postcards for a show. A few weeks ago, as I was out petitioning with Chris Marte, he happened to notice a bodega where he knew that one of his signs had been covered by a competitor’s sign—and it just so happened, the young volunteers of the opposing candidate’s campaign were at that moment across the street, putting up more signs. Instead of getting upset, or angrily tearing down the posters, Chris calmly approached the volunteers from his competitor’s campaign, and explained to them that what they were doing wasn’t good politicking. He then talked with the bodega-owner (a friend of his, incidentally!), who didn’t want to let the volunteers leave the opposing candidate’s posters up at all, but Chris convinced him to let them leave up their candidate’s poster, so long as they move them from covering his own.
It’s such a simple thing, but I think it really speaks to Chris’s integrity as a candidate. An upstanding guy, and a friend of the arts: that’s why we support him!
How can LIT members and other artists get involved in LIT endorsed campaigns?
There are so many ways! The best way, though, is to get out and volunteer, even if just for a few hours. From now until September 12, all of our endorses candidates are going to be looking for all the help they can get! Knocking on doors and talking directly with potential voters is the absolute best way, but there are also letter-writing campaigns, phone-banks, visibility efforts (basically, just being out in the community reminding people who the candidate is, and that there’s an election!)—tons of ways!
What would you say to me if all I feel I can do is read things on Facebook and Twitter and panic? How does working on local campaigns make a difference?
I would say, “I get it. I panic too. These are terrifying times.”
But the next thing I would say is, “But, what are you going to do now?”
And while it might seem that the answer to that question should be SO PROFOUND—”how am I going to single-handedly change the world and alter the course of history?!?!?!"—it’s actually so much more simple than that.
The right thing to do is to DO SOMETHING.
We can’t all be running for office; but we can all make a few phone calls for the people we believe in who are running. We can’t all be writing policy papers and lobbying for legislation; but we can all take a few hours to go out and knock on doors to support the people are doing those things on our behalf. We can’t all be on Community Boards; but we should all be able to make one or two local meetings a year to keep up on what’s going on in our neighborhoods, and be a voice for artists.
Thankfully for all of us in the indie theatre community, LIT has done the work of identifying great candidates who are going to be our champions in city government—and we can all throw down, in some small way, to help out. Find out more by contacting me directly!!!
Share some links to things. Got any LIT-centric GSAS podcasts?
The passion of some of the community’s greatest advocates—people like Chris Harcum, Gus Schulenburg, Laura Caparrotti, Heather Woodfield, and Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer—can be heard on an episode of Go See a Show! from a couple years ago. It’s a compilation of quick interviews after the Crisis to Creation Town Hall meeting, co-curated by Brad Burgess and Frank Hentschker. Check it out at: http://goseeashowpodcast.com/2015/03/13/town-hall-crisis-to-creation/