Two senators compete for their party’s presidential nomination. There’s a history there, and not just in the Senate. The media pushes the two to join forces as a “dream ticket” and, as anyone who has ever fallen asleep will tell you, a dream is just a stone’s throw from a nightmare. Over the past two months, my days have been steeped in research and rehearsal to play one such senator in playwright Ryan Bernsten’s political satire Dream Ticket, running as part of the 20th annual New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC). Having spent this summer creating a piece of political theater, my decision to interview our cast and creative team seemed a natural extension of our collaborative process.
Bernsten is no stranger to politics: he worked on the Hillary Clinton campaign up through the Iowa caucus. Dream Ticket, which is directed by Kristin Skye Hoffmann and associate directed by Marylynne (Mac) Anderson-Cooper, also features the acting talents of Chris Payseur, Toni Martin, Olivia Jampol, Erik Gullberg, Adam Hyland and Desiree Staples. We run through Aug. 25 at The Players Theatre (115 MacDougal St., 212-475-1449). For tickets (yes, it’s a shameless plug), click here.
And now, questions that the Dream Ticket cast and creative team have never been (jointly) asked.
Amy Lee Pearsall: Ryan, what about politics inspired you to write political theater?
Ryan Bernsten: There’s something about election politics that is inherently theatrical. To some extent, American presidential contests have always been more about public personalities, private lives and a sense of national identity than actual policy. Dream Ticket toys with how far politics has gone to keep us entertained. This play may be about Republicans, but it’s more of a sendup of the system than a roast about one particular party. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, and I would rather leave the audience walking away coming to their own conclusions than being force-fed mine. Hopefully the timing of the show will allow people to use the completely fictionalized election circumstances of the play to make sense of the state of our democracy. Are we getting what we deserve right now?
ALP: Desiree, your character represents constituents who are active on social media. How do you feel about political conversations online?
Desiree Staples: I find political posts often become shouting matches, or result in the posting of extreme links with buzz-worthy headlines (either far left or far right) that few will take the time to peruse past the opening sentence. I think a positive dialogue can be obtained when those posting ask their opponents to share their opinions without judgement.
I think we need to put pride aside and open the forum to explore both the flaws of the party we support and the strengths of party we disagree with so as to better understand each other and find that there may be a middle ground.
ALP: Toni, you play a character who represents a true minority within the Republican party. What has that been like?
Toni Martin: I’ve found it an exciting challenge to uncover the motivations of this black, lesbian Republican. The first interesting layer to explore for me was our — myself and my character’s — political differences. It was enlightening to consider an opposite position, and that’s one of the reasons I love being an actor. It gives me the opportunity to be radically empathetic. I’m also very proud to represent the strength, power and vulnerability of someone in the LGBTQ community.
ALP: Erik, you play a campaign manager who is a true showman. How would you say that showmanship factor is playing into our current election?
Erik Gullberg: Loathe as I am to credit him with anything, Donald Trump found a way to spread himself like a virus into a 24-hour, click-based media landscape and exploit the ceaseless motion of the news cycle. It’s a grotesque carnival with the highest possible stakes and none of us can afford to take our eyes off of it.
Despite this gaping flaw in how we process and consume news, I can’t help but note that the Fourth Estate has acquitted itself admirably and more than fulfilled its duty to the people in this election. The pitch has reached such a volume that we’ve all, as a nation, become complicit in what happens on Nov. 8.
ALP: Adam and Olivia, you represent the media in this play. How would you say the media has influenced this election cycle?
Adam Hyland: Broadcast media will never present the whole story. The moment you hire an editor, the story is incomplete. Unless you’re stuck in the waiting room of an auto-body shop with dog-eared copies of Highlights magazine and a rabbit-eared TV tuned to Wendy Williams, viewers aren’t hapless creatures. They “bookmark,” “follow” and “favorite.” Our current candidates are shrewd with the various media outlets. They both ferociously use Twitter. Social media is the great equalizer. It puts politicians at the same spitting level as their constituents. Broadcast media provides decorum. Stripped of that, it remains a face-off between candidate and electorate. It’s the responsibility of the voter to piece together the disparate messages.
Olivia Jampol: Part of the reason a candidate as ill-suited as Donald Trump is running for the highest office in America is because the media has given him enough air time and attention to allow him to surface, but it’s also because Americans love to consume that information. It’s sexier than doing research and becoming informed enough to support politicians that may not come with sound bites. We are often too lazy and too blinded by fear and anger to take part in a responsible and accurate digestion of media.
I think the fact that we call it an election “season” puts into perspective the way Americans relate to democracy and elected officials. During election years, we become incensed about issues in a polarizing way that should be considered on a more regular participatory scale. How many civilians can name any of their local representatives or ever vote on a local level? I’d wager very few.
ALP: Chris, you’re playing a moderate Republican senator. With the major shifts that have recently rocked the GOP, could someone similar to your character become president?
Chris Payseur: I think an intelligent, fact-driven, moderate conservative could bring the party back from the brink. Whether the religious right will have that happen, I’m not sure, but if the true staples of the party can be found — limited government involvement, an even distribution of taxes to all brackets, strong incentive-based programs for businesses to grow — I think the party can survive.
ALP: Mac, you worked on this show when it was first staged at Northwestern University. How has the current political climate influenced this particular production?
Marylynne (Mac) Anderson-Cooper: As far as election cycles go, our current situation has more material to pull from in terms of political satire. The current climate has also affected the play in that four years ago, the characters of the play felt particularly scandalous, and now, in comparison, they seem almost tame. Overall, this Dream Ticket has flavors of the current election, but it is timeless in its examination of the smoke and mirrors of American politics.
ALP: Kristin, as director, who is the villain in this play? What would you like to see our audiences walk away with at the end of the show?
Kristin Skye Hoffmann: No one in this play is a really great person. That said, everyone is doing what they think is best, even if for the most part it’s for their own personal gain. But does that make someone a villain? If so, then who on earth is the hero? From the first read, it seemed clear to me that American citizens — in close cahoots with the entertainment news media they have come to depend on — are absolutely the villains. When we don’t question the powers that be or demand the changes that our citizens deserve, we become compliant to the elements that are destroying us.
What I want for our audience is what I want for all Americans: to be inspired to think critically, to ask questions of their leaders and news media journalists or personalities instead of just unconsciously consuming whatever they decide to feed us. I have a feeling that most audience members who are attracted to a show like Dream Ticket are already somewhat mindful about what is going on in our country. For those individuals, I’d like to let them know that we are with them. We are frustrated, too. This has all become pretty ridiculous, so let’s laugh about it together. Nietzsche said, “We have art in order not to die of the truth.” So really, Dream Ticket is helping to save lives.