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Are Elections Just Theatre?

Date: Jun 01, 2012


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The Brick Theater's summer festival may be exposing the limits of America's voting system, but that's all part of the fun.

Running through July 1 in the Brick's Williamsburg space, Democracy features seven shows that investigate our national identity. Some productions hit the topic head-on, like Confess Your Bubble, in which a senator delivers a blistering speech to a group of high school students.  Others take a sideways approach, like Dogs of Oklahoma, a "staged radio play" about how the tommy gun came to America.

But no matter what they're about, these shows are unavoidably part of Democracy's largest theme: The theatricality of elections. Most of the productions are also "candidates," and at the end of the festival, audiences will vote for their favorite. The winning company will be declared "president of the Brick," and they'll program the theatre's calendar for two weeks next January, producing anything they choose.

That's a great opportunity for an emerging company, but for Jeff Lewonczyk, the Brick's associate director, the voting process also makes a statement about the power of an audience. As he points out, people already "crowdsource"---or collectively create---things like Wikipedia. "You see crowdsourced fundraising via Kickstarter," he adds. "You see people crowdsourcing ideas for projects, and this seemed like a natural extension of that."

Lewonczyk wonders how artists will reach out to their "voters." He says, "It's going to be interesting to see how it engages them. There's a sense in which they don't need to worry about making an impression on the Brick staff while they're working at the festival. They really need to try to get their message and their show out to as broad a range of people as possible."

Artists, though, may not be excited to convince an audience to vote for them. When the Brick began looking for applicants, it was suggested that people would vote on who got the chance to perform in the festival at all, sort of like a primary. From there, the top vote getters would have presented their shows, and audiences would have voted again to elect a president of the Brick.

The idea was unpopular. "The production companies were actually very hesitant to submit to that sort of process," Lewonczyk says. "They were hesitant to do the work it would take to put in an application and then leave it up to the public." (Eventually, the Brick just allowed all six applicants into the festival.)

Asked how he felt about this resistance, Lewonczyk says, "That struck me as really fascinating, because I don't see [letting the public decide if you perform] as being any more arbitrary than curating based on the tastes of a really small group of artistic directors and gatekeepers."

Artists might argue that it's hard to please the public, or that the public will automatically choose what it already understands. A small, specialized group of gatekeepers will probably have deeper training and broader exposure to art, which means they'll be more accepting of experimental or non-traditional work. Like the judges on The Voice or American Idol---who often push an oddball talent into the final rounds---a small group of artistic directors might be the only ones willing to give unusual artists a chance to try something unexpected.

But that debate is part of what makes this festival interesting. It highlights the tension in any election between "the insiders" and "the people." And it underscores that anyone running for <i>anything</i> has to please someone else. On some level, every candidate is performing for an audience, trying to win their approval and their votes.

However, Democracy isn't just putting candidates on the spot. It's also highlighting the performance of voters. Though audiences will be able to vote online, the Brick will host a live election party at the theatre on July 1. (It's possible in-person votes will count more than online votes.) Lewonczyk says there will be a single voting booth on stage, and voters will have to enter it one at a time, in full view of the audience. "Voting is something we do in private, but it's also something we do in public," he says. "That's an interesting dichotomy to play around with."

Will that change how voters vote? Or how they feel about voting? And could that affect how the artist-candidates perform? We'll find out in July, at the end of this month-long electoral show.

Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor