One Week Later: The POTUS Debate as Theatre

Ghosts of characters we already know in a tragedy. Or comedy.

Entertain me for a moment, if you will. Since last Mon., Sept. 26, the Internet has explored the first Presidential debate in all manner of ways — from analysing facts to looking at body language, facial expressions and tone of voice. Unlike any other debate in presidential history, both candidates are speaking to an anti-fact generation, one that seems to reject traditional rhyme and reason and instead focuses on extraneous factors that can’t possibly be controlled, polled, analysed or rationally discussed. Watching the debate from here in the UK, yet still fearing for my own sanity, I sat back and watched it not as a groundbreaking moment of political history, but as a piece of theatre — a terrifying one at that.

Last year I directed a fun and lighthearted American musical called Vote For Me: A Musical Debate, which, as the title suggests, used the framework of a third and final confrontation between two fictional candidates to satirize familiar tropes of musical theatre. Even in the UK audiences responded well to the format, and it was generally agreed that the work’s greatest asset was its ability to harness the innate theatricality that a debate context presents — and to vamp on that theme to highlight the entertaining nature of debate discourse.

The path to the 2016 election has spun so vastly out of control that I feel, even as a Brit looking across the Atlantic with trepidation, this is not normal practice.

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The Cast

Absent the razzle dazzle, the words and their delivery took centre stage.

In his fantastic book, The Haunted Stage: Theatre as a Memory Machine, Marvin A. Carlson explores how audiences and spectators are often unable to approach a piece of theatre in a completely fresh way. Our memory, he argues, informs the process of our theatrical reception; we conjure ghosts of previous productions which can impede our ability to see the new. Even a first-time audience member will enter a playing space with an expectation or related “ghost” that will influence their evaluation of the process of performance, be it a similar room, a similar smell or a familiarity with other audience members. One area where this raised expectation is felt most strongly regards the performers themselves, who, for an audience, may conjure up the ghosts of past expectations that override their present performance.

“Ghosts” of expectations past is a risk with the rise of celebrity-led productions. Audiences flock to the theatre because of recognisable names in the cast, but instead of watching Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcarti in Blithe Spirit, they subconsciously watch Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher as Mrs Potts as Mrs Lovett as Cora Hoover as Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit. Most dispiriting, Carlson suggests, these “ghosts” are nearly impossible to vanquish.

And so it was with the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. For all the supposedly undecided voters across the US, there can legitimately be few who don’t have expectations or “ghosts” associated with these characters. A life in the public eye, through elected office or reality TV, means that voters have years of subconscious — and in many cases very conscious — expectations for how these candidates will “perform.” The first debate was always going to be theatrical (and it was), but it was never going to be a fresh discussion.

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The Production

This is not normal practice.

This election campaign, more so than any before it, has pushed the debate firmly behind smartphones and computer screens, and whilst traditional media outlets continue their incessant coverage, average voters have a wealth and breadth of opinion firmly at their fingertips. Never have Twitter and social media played such an important part in both campaigns, from the “unhinged” 3am ramblings of Trump in 140 characters and numerous spelling mistakes to the expertly crafted use of Instagram stories, Vines, memes, gifs and other millennial obsessions of the Clinton camp. What struck me last Monday evening was how, for the first time, the digital trappings were removed and the American public were presented with a stage, a proscenium, lights, microphones (even the one that Trump complained about), and two characters in search of an author.

Choreographer-director Bob Fosse once famously stated that for theatre to be created, “all you need is a black box with shafts of light and an imagination.” The debate certainly offered the first two elements; I’ll let you decide if there was enough of the final element to write home about. But the debate provided an appropriate setting, and the nature of its physical presentation allowed for it to be seen as a work of theatre. Whilst the Republican and Democratic conventions during the summer relied on overblown smoke and mirrors to mask their respective policies, controversies and endorsements (or lack of), the debate stage stripped everything down to their bare essentials: no more Clintonian delight with giant balloons; no more Trumpian delight with dramatic music. Here, the candidates faced the most basic stage possible, thus reducing the drama to language, to words — the difference between a $30 million mega-musical and an Off-Off-Broadway show. Absent the razzle dazzle, the words and their delivery took centre stage.

So what happened? Trump, as noted, immediately began to blame the equipment (bad workman, bad tools, say no more) and, indeed, it was confirmed that something was defective with his mic within the debate hall, if not on TV. What is that but an example of live theatre where technical issues may arise, where audiences may ride it out along with the performer. Anyone who has ever worked in amateur or community theatre knows that if your mic doesn’t work correctly for your big number, chances are you pissed off the sound guy.

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The Text

The theatricality of rhetorical debate has a long history rooted in the classical world: two ideas side by side in Aristotelian symposiums and festivals; scholars entering into competitive dialectics and then the latest tragedy. If you put the text from last week’s debate in a performance context — something we do frequently with classical dialogues and plays — you’d be hard-pressed to find a better discourse between two people with differing viewpoints wishing to establish truth through argument.

Indeed, the language between the candidates couldn’t have been more different. Trump spoke like a David Mamet character, with unfinished sentences, incomplete clauses and made-up words — a crafted idiolect so unique you’d think it was scripted. By contrast, Clinton’s careful precision and preparation was criticised for coming across as haughty and self-satisfied — further ghosts of expectation that have dogged her campaign. Trump’s interruptions were like something out of a Caryl Churchill play.

The Performance

As with their language, the candidates’ “performance styles” could hardly be more varied. Trump’s erratic right hand and pursed lips created a semi-caricature of a human who shouldn’t be left alone long enough to boil an egg, let alone lead the free world. Despite a positive start, his confidence and bravado was later knocked to pieces by Clinton, at which point Trump began freewheeling into his trademark rants and raves, veering so far from any sort of coherent message that all Clinton had to do was sit back and smile to herself — and the audience — and wait for the crazy train to come back round to the station, which it never really did. Much as in Christopher Durang’s play The Actor’s Nightmare, Trump found himself grievously under-prepared and far from his prompts or lines, leaving him merely to tread water. He was like an actor dreaming that he’s onstage, naked, and forced to play Hamlet without rehearsal.

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Trump shouldn’t be left alone long enough to boil an egg, let alone lead the free world.

Much was also discussed in the press in regards to Trump’s sniffing, but it was the lack of support from the audience that really seemed to knock his confidence — and this is where the debate differed from live theatre in encouraging a muted audience response. Trump’s rallies are noisy and brutal; he relies on the noise to build his confidence and quite literally to drown out any sense. He plays to key words that he knows will generate a certain reaction, and without it his performance only faltered. It proves once again that a live audience reaction is key to the energy of a performer; even stillness and perceived concentration can help an actor remain focused. Trump was left with just his own sounds to bolster him, and without it, he floundered.

Meanwhile, Clinton’s physical poise on stage aided her Presidential stance: she managed to keep the level of her voice to a much softer tone than she’s often criticised for. Her greatest performance moment came during the equivalent of Act II — about halfway in — when she bounced off a ramble by Trump, smiled at the crowd and performed a shimmy of which the aforementioned Fosse would be proud. If she loses come November, somebody had better book her for Chicago tout suite — so we can really see her “Sheba Shimmy Shake.”

What began for me as a trivial attempt to explore the debate as theatre — mainly as a coping mechanism to comprehend what on earth I was watching — has thrown up more interesting questions about politics and performance. We know that Clinton rehearsed with a stand-in and it’s clear whether Trump did or did not do the same. What was clear, though, was that only one of them had rehearsed and done a full tech, dress and week of previews. As the scourge of UK politics Nigel Farage hops over to the US in order to “help” Trump prepare for his next debate, perhaps the nature of performance and its importance has finally dawned on the Trump campaign. Either way, someone finally bring down the curtain on this frightening show.