All the World’s a Campaign by Michele Volansky

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The room is upstairs in a town hall that was built in 1924.

The room is a converted metal factory from 1891.

The room is a theatre that used to house a market, then the Masons, then the Shriners, and then the movies.

The room is an arena that hosts ice hockey and indoor football.

The room is in a former railroad station that was converted into a hotel in 1983.

The room is the lobby of a sports arena at a Division I university.

In a time when historic characters sing about being in “the room where it happens” onstage, the common perception is still that politicians are making policies in back rooms somewhere, far away from the nosy public eye. That may be the case, but the road to the Oval Office is very public, paved in arenas in towns and venues across the U.S. Campaigns choose towns for demographics, or in the belief that an impressive crowd can be drawn, and venues are selected because decades of advance teams have shared contact information or because of one staff member’s familiarity with the area.

What is less clear are the other choices made on the campaign trail: Who picks the music? Why does one candidate use a chandelier while another uses house lighting? Is there meaning to be deciphered in the decision to place a bottle, glass, or pitcher of water on the podium/stool/dais? What about those homemade signs? And finally, what does this level of theatricality say about our political process in 2016?

Despite the (often incorrect) overuse of words like “kabuki drama” and “political theatre” by pundits, the message conveyed to what Aristotle called “the polis” relies on the medium of theatre. If the selection of a candidate comes down to who makes the better argument to the American voters—the script, if you will—there are also decisions to be made about everything that goes into presenting the script: lights, sets, costumes, sound, text, directing, and, perhaps most of all, acting.

It’s not “just” theatre, of course. As I followed six candidates on the campaign trail through the primaries this spring and summer—John Kasich, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton—what I found most compelling was the tension between what was presented live on the stage at events and what was designed exclusively for audiences elsewhere: social media, radio and television, print, and other outlets. It became apparent that the latter was of primary concern to the campaigns, though those audiences/voters who were actually in the room (myself included) certainly found ways to connect with the candidates.

As anyone working in live theatre is aware, the audience is part of the performance. Staged events, from “town halls” to “public conversations” to “rallies” to large-scale arena events (there is no clear definition or delineation among them), rely on a candidate connecting emotionally and commanding the room. In a political season in which authenticity and straight talk have seemed to be unusually determinative forces, in-person audiences allow a narrative about “approachability” to emerge. Voters in 2016 no longer want to have a beer with the candidate; they want to take a selfie with them. Spending time live and in person with a candidate certainly appears to sway voters; Iowans and New Hampshirites have proven this since 1972 and 1920, respectively.

What follows are my reports from the trail on how candidates used that quality time with audiences—both the ones in the room and the ones on the other end of the cameras.

Republican presidential hopeful Gov. John Kasich addresses the crowd at a town hall campaign event at Plymouth, Mass.’s Memorial Hall in February 2016. (Photo by Bobbi Clark/95.9 FM WATD)
Republican presidential hopeful Gov. John Kasich addresses the crowd at a town hall campaign event at Plymouth, Mass.’s Memorial Hall in February 2016. (Photo by Bobbi Clark/95.9 FM WATD)

Ohio Gov. John Kasich exploited his personal style as a way of separating himself from the rest of the field, particularly Trump. Kasich was the folksy candidate who refused to join in the usual mudslinging, a point he made at the start of his remarks on Feb. 29 in Plymouth, Mass.: “I would rather lose than degrade myself…kids are watching this.” His tie loose and his shirt unbuttoned, he shed his jacket when he started engaging with the audience, which he did after speaking for 15 minutes. Kasich relied on a local vendor to provide music (a mix of male-heavy tunes from groups like Zac Brown Band, John Fogerty, and Mumford and Sons). He chose a bright and open historic town hall, set up with seating for 235—a stark contrast to the larger spaces of other campaigns. Kasich’s event, according to a seasoned advance team member, was designed to appeal to the older, potentially swing-voter audience, who’d been polled for their thoughts on the theatrics of the rest of the field. Emphasizing jobs, family, and security, Kasich said, “A president has the moral duty to create jobs because they will secure kids and build better neighborhoods,” while evoking local heroes Tom Brady and Paul Revere, plus Republican patron saint Ronald Reagan. The audience, invited to ask questions (this was the only event I attended where that was an option), brought up Common Core, veterans’ issues, gay marriage, and religious liberty.

The gathering was clearly designed to be personal; what was seen by spectators in the room was nearly identical to photos in the press. The overall impression was of a candidate wanting to be seen as a transparent, common-sense option—and, like a lot of common-sense options, not all that dynamic. His message and his style was best summed up by his peculiar conclusion: “I need your help. Please vote for me. And if you didn’t like my presentation, don’t tell anyone.” At press time, Kasich had yet to endorse his party’s more flamboyant nominee, despite suspending his own campaign the first week of May.

In contrast to Kasich’s staid audiences were the raucous and youthful supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose campaign I witnessed in Reading, Pa., on April 21. (Total man-buns observed: seven.) He was clearly on their wavelength. He led his audience in roaring “$27!” when asked how much his average campaign donation was. While other candidates appeared tailored down to their socks, Sanders didn’t attempt to tame his frizzy white hair or his slightly oversized blue suits. Sanders’s outsider status was also apparent in his music choices: songs about revolution and change by Tracy Chapman, Neil Young, and Bruce Springsteen (all appropriately licensed), played alongside, curiously, at least three songs by Diana Ross and the Supremes.

It was clear why Sanders engaged so many first-time voters: His message was direct and targeted at them, whether he was offering solutions to crippling student debt or pairing the legalization of marijuana with an income-inequality message. He was equally responsive to the other side of his support base—people who recalled the “Food Not Bombs” movement that began in the 1980s. Sanders’s 2016 version became “Jobs and education, not jails and incarceration.”

It was at the Sanders rally where the differences between what the audiences in the room saw and the public watching on the evening news, reading online, or in the paper became apparent. A member of the Sanders advance team described planning events with “the vibe and energy of a Bernie concert,” aiming to reach as many people as possible. Creating this was a delicate balance that involved deciding what the lighting in the room should be: adjusted for television—historically “hot”—or, as the candidate preferred, less bright so he could better see his audience? The Sanders campaign also wanted to make sure that all venues were signatories with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns have contracts with the union).

In other words, the Sanders campaign, like others on the trail in 2016, worked to marry the message (pro-union) with the medium (a theatre with enough light to be able to point out the members of striking Verizon workers in the audience). In addition, of the 58 individuals seated behind the candidate (in the shot for the cameras in the back row of the theatre), 14 percent were people of color—a much higher percentage than was evident in the 1,700-seat theatre. The campaign acknowledged that the selection of background faces was intentional, as the message it wanted to present to the audience outside the room was about immigration. Polling at the time suggested that it would be advantageous to court Latino voters; that’s why three of the four individuals who spoke prior to Sanders spoke in Spanish to the crowd. The campaign succeeded in conveying the message: Though only a small part of the live event, these pre-Sanders speakers were forefronted in broadcasts on national and local media outlets.

Marco Rubio and his family embrace after he suspends his campaign at a rally at Florida International University in Miami in March 2016. (Photo by Angel Valentin/Getty Images)Marco Rubio and his family embrace after he suspends his campaign at a rally at Florida International University in Miami in March 2016. (Photo by Angel Valentin/Getty Images)

When a campaign is clearly in its last throes, as was the case with U.S. Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz  of Texas in mid-March and late April, respectively, the room takes on a completely different atmosphere. All the blue suits, white shirts, and red ties become nearly interchangeable.

Rubio’s farewell took place at Florida International University in Miami on the day of the state’s primary. The polls predicted a Trump victory, and as a result, the event, originally planned to take place inside the arena where the Panthers play, was moved to the lobby instead. Two American flags were draped on either side of the podium touting MarcoRubio.com, and a banner hung behind him with “New American Century, New American Jobs, New American Leadership” printed on it. The atmosphere among the crowd felt like a mini-family reunion; there was a lot of hugging and welcoming, but with a somber air.

There were also a lot of reporters, who at times seemed to be roaming around the room looking for anyone who was a supporter and not a fellow member of the media. Two screens airing Fox News hung on the second-floor balcony, with the audience looking up frequently and expectantly. At 7:25 p.m., chants for “Rubio!” began, but they died quickly. At 8 p.m., polls closed and Trump was declared the victor.

Rubio’s appearance was received warmly, but the candidate was subdued. After noting that he had called Trump to congratulate him (which the crowd booed), he observed: “There is nothing more that you could have done…America is in the middle of a real political storm, a real tsunami, and we should have seen this coming.” He commented on the political climate, adding, “The politics of resentment against other people will not just leave us a fractured party, they are going to leave us a fractured nation,” and sounded frustrated as he talked through the rise of the Tea Party, lamenting that while it “gave Republicans a majority in the House, nothing changed.” This refrain, “Nothing changed,” was clearly his message for the evening, though he concluded on a note of optimism: “We are a hopeful people.” He ended by quoting a passage from Corinthians. It was unclear to the dramaturg in the room what the intention of this was, but it appeared to salve a deeply wounded audience. The event was over by 8:35 p.m.

Cruz would ultimately suspend his campaign on May 3, but on April 22, he was in a small ballroom at the Radisson Lackawanna Station Hotel in Scranton, Pa. Unlike the Trump, Sanders, and Clinton campaigns, security for Cruz was light. There were no visible signs of the Secret Service, no airport-style screening machines, and only a handful of state police. The line to enter was only 40 people deep, but they were adamant in their commitment to the candidate; they were not interested in the eventual Republican nominee. The room itself was generic, with a thrust stage set up in the middle and seats for roughly 300. The press pool, which took up large areas at other events, was limited to six cameras and four tables on risers.

An official from a local foundation introduced Cruz, and the presenter responded to chants of “Cruz Cruz Cruz” with the statement: “He will stand up and fight for us no matter what the Washington cartel says.” Cruz himself responded, “We are here because our country is in crisis…and I am here today with a word of hope and encouragement. All across Pennsylvania and all across this country, people are waking up and help is on the way.” This was a candidate who didn’t waver from his message of jobs, freedom, and security, even at his campaign’s twilight—and in the face of a vocal audience. To the audience member who agreed, “It’s disgusting,” when Cruz said, “Grown men should not be allowed to go into the little girls’ room,” the candidate did not respond. Similarly, he did not turn to look at the voter who shouted, “Israel is our friend,” to his observation, “For seven years, we have seen a leader alienate our allies and appease our enemies.”

He also offered the most pointed punch lines, taking shots such as, “Let’s hear it for the Democrats: a wide-eyed socialist whose ideas are dangerous to America and the world. And also Bernie Sanders,” and, “Do you know the quickest way to clear out a Sanders rally? Tell everyone there they need to go and get a job.” Those in the room cheered, but Cruz’s campaign was effectively over.

A Hillary Clinton event is orchestrated in much the same way as a well-made play: There is a clear beginning, middle, and end. There is anticipation that something will happen, and there is defi­nitely the sense that an audience member is in experienced hands, as with Ibsen. Or Tracy Letts.

In Philadelphia in late April, Clinton was close to securing the nomination, and the crowd assembled was certainly enthusiastic about this fact. Though the event was scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. (and the candidate herself didn’t come on until 7:46 p.m.), lines started forming at 3:30 p.m., and campaign workers took advantage of a captive audience, moving among the crowd to secure volunteers and approval for other candidates, and to talk about issues ranging from Social Security to gender equality. Hillary’s Spotify list is highlighted by songs from female artists about joy, happiness, and celebration, feelings that were enhanced by a live band called the Sermon.

As was the case with Sanders, the frame behind the candidate was heavily curated. “Homemade” signs were handed to audience members (“Clinton Country,” “I’m With Her,” and “Rise Together”) along with small American flags, and staffers were seen teaching proper clapping techniques. At 7:33 p.m., another staff member poured water into a glass and placed a cough drop next to it.

Clinton’s appearance, from her suit to her message, was refined and specific. Though she was losing her voice, she appeared relaxed in the wake of a successful debate appearance six days earlier and a well-received speech in New York City the day before. In Philadelphia, her message, “I have a plan,” and her assertion, “It’s not enough to diagnose the problem, you’ve got to know how to solve the problem,” were cheered each time she said them, proving that repetition can be as effective a campaign tool as a well-worded tweet.

Clinton, who has faced criticism for a purportedly inauthentic tone and style—even the way she smiles has been scrutinized—was rumored to have been coached by an actor to improve her breath control. Coaching or not, it’s apparent that she is a seasoned performer; she moves through the world as though it were her own proscenium stage.

And while Donald Trump has been able to command attention via social media and television, in the eyes of this dramaturg he was less successful on the trail because of his choice of venues, such as the Crown Coliseum in Fayetteville, N.C., on March 9. Unlike in ancient Greece, where the architecture and acoustics were designed to focus the audience’s attention on the actors, Trump routinely scheduled events that took place in arenas made for sports and crowds of more than 10,000 people. Such choices made for a yuge (sorry) challenge in connecting with the individual voter. While Trump certainly captivated many with his provocative rhetoric (“I am 100 percent committed to waterboarding,” “The border is letting in Syrians; we don’t know if they are ISIS,” and, “In the good old days, this didn’t used to happen, because they used to treat them very rough”), at times his audiences appeared to be more interested in their phones. None of the large video screens familiar to fans of hockey or basketball were used, leaving many unable to actually see his facial expressions and gestures. Bright fluorescent lighting provided little nuance, and his self-curated playlist—ranging from the Alan Parsons Project to Luciano Pavarotti—provided little context or point of view.

Of course, both campaigns climaxed with televised conventions that were stage-managed within an inch of their lives for viewers at home, and while there was the usual range of speeches from brilliant to dull, also as usual the real drama emerged from the unexpected, like Ted Cruz’s pointed non-endorsement of Trump at the RNC or the passionate, often tearful protests of Sanders supporters at the DNC.

After looking at several months of campaign events, I got a genuine sense that politics are being performed for the electorate rather than with us. There was never a dull moment. But perhaps there should be. Our republic, if we can keep it, is predicated on the notion that we be well informed. But are we? Do we want to actually engage with poli­cy or are we content with a two-dimensional democracy?

Alexis de Tocqueville, observing both our theatre and our politics in 1840 while touring America, noted:

The democratic audience listens in the theatre but does not read plays. Most of the spectators are not looking for pleasures of the mind, but for lively emotions of the heart. They want to see a play, not discover a fine work of literature and, provided the author writes his native tongue well enough to be understood, and his characters excite curiosity and arouse sympathy, the audience is satisfied. They ask no more of fiction, and go back immediately to real life.

If this dramaturg could implore readers, voters, citizens to do one thing based on what was experienced in 2016, it is this: Get in the rooms. All it takes is an RSVP of “yes.” You’ll inevitably grow tired of the song “Roar,” and perhaps not be able to unsee John Boehner dancing. But the real election is taking place live on stages around the county, not just on your screens.

Michele Volansky is chair and associate professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Maryland’s Washington College, and associate artist/conference dramaturg for PlayPenn. This originally appeared in American Theatre magazine, Vol. 33, No. 7. Used by permission from Theatre Communications Group.

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