Mino Lora still remembers the day when she found her life’s calling. She was 17, living in her native Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. That was when the first international theater festival came to town.
“I went to 50 plays in a week,” says Lora, now 31, and the founder of the People’s Theatre Project — a community-based non-profit based in New York City. The organization produces 10 theatrical events a year, but most importantly it brings together different generations and ethnicities in the community through distinct programs, and strives to solve its problems through acting them out on stage.
The most recent play, “What Happens Here/Lo Que Pasa Aquí,” will be performed by 13 Spanish and English speaking community members, ranging in age from 19-73, on November 16, 18, and 19.
“I just notice the incredible sense of community the theater creates,” says Lora, who has been doing just that for the past five years. “Especially when theater is created from real-life things.”
Lora came to New York from the Dominican Republic in 2000 to study at Manhattanville College. After she completed her graduate degree in peace studies, she became a struggling actor for almost two years, but she says she felt an incessant need to combine community activism with her art.
“Doing the People’s Theater Project bridged all of those elements,” says the lively co-director of the non-profit she runs with her husband, Bob.
She says it took about eight months to form the non-profit in 2009, which started off as her thesis from grad school.
“It’s still very small and grassroots, but we have a staff and payroll,” says Lora, who now serves about 1,000 people — a big leap from the original 30. “Our artists are trained to go to senior centers and schools. It takes 10-20 weeks to develop, create, produce and present a new play based on the issues important to that group.”
Lora says the People’s Theatre Project currently has after-school programs in four different NYC schools — serving 1st through 10th grades, for free.
A typical day for Lora involves half a day in the office working on grants and fundraising, and the rest of the day she spends out in spaces where they offer programs — meeting with principals and elected officials. She says partnering with volunteer organizations and schools has helped spread the word about the organization.
“One of my favorite things is people that would never have spoken to each other — neighbors of different cultures and languages — have connected in a very real way,” says Lora.
In just one upcoming play, Lora explains, a high school student, a restaurant worker, a child care attendant, a doula, a musician, a retail salesperson, an office manager, and a few retired women have been united in the need to act out community issues. This adult group is called the Uptown Action Troupe, and one of the participants travels all the way from NJ to participate.
“Some of the actors don’t speak English and some don’t speak Spanish…[but] the plays have come from their own stories of injustice,” says Lora.
Lora explains that the process they use is called “theater of the oppressed” — methodology created in Brazil in the 70s, and today, used all over the world. Through improvisation, the actors are able to devise the script. Lora says the plays don’t always have a happy ending, but end like real life. The audience is then invited on stage to help find solutions, and they become actors too.
“Through that, the group is able to recognize themselves, not as victims, but to change things in their life that needs to be changed,” says the animated founder of the People’s Theater Project, proudly. “In this play, the story came from two of the participants — one is about bullying in school, and one is about housing rights and abusive landlords.”
She remembers one of the actresses who was in her 70’s, she never acted before, but participating in the People’s Theater Project changed her life.
“She was homeless and undocumented, and she said doing this healed her,” says Lora who is now trying to expand her program to serve more people year-round, because she says the need is there. “Through this process she was able to heal and connect more to her neighbors.”