Looking at the Performance of Politics from a Theatre Perspective

By Elijah McGuire-Berk
Web Editor
After a year of attending political events and years of studying theatre, Associate Professor of Theatre and Chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance Michele Volansky is more than ready to present her findings to Washington College.
Coming up on Oct. 26 is the fourth part of the series “Who Chooses the President? Politics as Performance.” The event’s hosts will be Volansky and Curator of Political History at the National Museum of American History John Grinspan.
Grisnpan wrote “The Virgin Vote: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century,”which “uncovers a forgotten era when young men and women fueled American democracy,” according to the National Museum of American History’s website. He is currently researching a second book on the long struggle for control of American politics fought between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the 20th century.
Dr. Volansky was on sabbatical for a year. She traveled to various places, including Chicago, New York, Newark, State College, PA, and Philadelphia.
She attended both the Republican and Democratic conventions as well as political events for Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and John Kasich. She didn’t simply attend the events though.
According to the WC website, she “evaluated everything from the staging of the candidates’ events to the music selected to rouse the crowds, as well as each candidate’s performance” in order to examine the events as theatrical performances.  She wil talk about the different mechanisms that came from different types of performances.  She said, “There is something to be said about Donald Trump’s insistence on going to 10,000-seat arenas as opposed to a 500-seat town hall meeting. There is something really powerful about looking at one guy on a stage commanding 10,000 people. The power dynamic is very, very clear, versus Marco Rubio sitting on a stool. It’s a very different setup. Which is more theatrical, which is more robust, which is a more engaging or tantalizing picture? It depends on who the audience member is.”
Regarding the audience members, she said, “The most exciting thing I encountered was the passion of the audiences at all the events. I was really struck by the fact that this many people were engaged in the election at such an early time. Pundits say that the electorate don’t start paying attention until after Labor Day, but I met people in March and April who were excited, thoughtful, and informed.”  She paid particular attention to the Sanders and Kasich supporters, who she called, “particularly excited and informed.”
Human interaction was an important part of her research. More specifically, she wanted to get to know the candidates through personal experience rather than through social media.  She said, “That was what I was in pursuit of — who are we as a people, where are we going, and what are the things that we respond to live and in person.”
Earlier in August, she wrote an article about her research for “American Theatre” magazine.  In it, she noted the differences between various political rallies.  She took note of the tones that a campaign takes when it is on its last legs.  She said, “…the room takes on a completely different atmosphere.”  Regarding Marco Rubio’s last rally she said, “The atmosphere among the crowd felt like a mini-family reunion; there was a lot of hugging and welcoming, but with a somber air.”  She talked about how the overall event quickly went from excited at the beginning to melancholy.

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