Friday, October 31, 2014

Theatre & Politics... Same thing

Contributed by Elizabeth Burke

I have always said that two things I love equally are basically the same thing, politics and theatre. Years ago, when I worked on local and national political campaigns, I used to stand in the back of a crowd of supporters and watch candidates give the same stump speech day after day, week after week, sometimes 2 or 3 times on the same day.  It occurred to me this is the same as doing eight shows a week, week in and week out, month after month.  How do you keep it fresh?  How do you keep saying the same words without sounding like you would much rather be at the bar with your audience having a noisy, slightly tipsy good time.  How do you convince your audience that this is the first time you are saying these words?

Like actors, politicians play to their audience, and in politics, they are usually speaking to people they already know so the audience is hard to fool. Pols need to connect somehow so they talk about local issues, whatever is important to this neighborhood so these voters will go and vote for them on Election Day.  Politicians also spend more face to face time with local political leaders, eating terrible meals at Veteran’s Halls, Booster Clubs, and (shudder) Holiday Inns.  The energy that it takes to engage with each person at these events, learning and speaking about their homegrown concerns all while acting like there is no place you would rather be could wear down the busiest Broadway actor, even the indefatigable Nathan Lane! Nathan only needs to be fully present for about 3 hours on show night, but a candidate needs to be fully engaged for about 12-18 hours in a given day for months on end. 

Actors are given a script which they memorize and from which they (almost) never deviate. The same goes for politicians. Yet, there are politicians who think that improve is the way to go!  Keeping their message fresh and new means that they will just speak “from the heart.”  This rarely goes well.  Have you ever been in improve class and you have to work with someone who loves improve, wants so badly to be funny but is not and never will be?  They try so hard, but being funny is not within their grasp because, humor is something one is born with, it’s inherent. Same with politics, some are just born with the politicking gene. It is physically painful to watch a candidate go off script, trying to be something they’re not just to forge some kind of connection with their audience. 

See, actors and politicians are both going for the same object, making the audience believe every word they say.  They both assume another identity and commit 100% so the audience can suspend their disbelief and not see them as the carefully crafted character that was created for them.  For if we believe, so will the audience.

Arthur Miller saw the same thing and made this observation of Al Gore and George W. Bush following the 2000 election. 

"Political leaders everywhere have come to understand that to govern they must learn how to act. No differently than any actor Gore went through several changes of costume before finding the right mix to express the personality he wished to project. Up to the campaign he seemed an essentially serious type with no great claim to humor, but the Presidential type character he had chosen to play was apparently happy, upbeat, with a kind of Bing Crosby mellowness. I daresay that if he seemed so awkward it was partly because the image was not really his, he had cast himself in a role that was wrong for him. As for Bush, now that he is President he seems to have learned not to sneer quite so much, and to cease furtively glancing left and right when leading up to a punch line, followed by a sharp nod to flash that he has successfully delivered it. This is bad acting because all this dire over-emphasis casts doubt on the text. Obviously, as the sparkly magic veil of actual power has descended upon him he has become more relaxed and confident, like an actor after he has read some hit reviews and knows the show is in for a run."


Liz Burke (bio coming shortly)

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