In the wake of the botched Iowa caucuses, and in advance of the Super Tuesday primaries on March 3, there’s something emotionally satisfying about raising your hand and having it counted, even in the theatre.
The action formed part of Where We Stand, the new play by Donnetta Lavinia Grays, now at Off-Broadway’s WP Theatre. The plebiscite is not promoted as part of the show, although signs that greet ticket holders upon entering the venue inform patrons that they’re headed to a town hall meeting. Some manner of civic engagement should perhaps be anticipated.
Voting at the theatre is hardly new. Ayn Rand’s The Night of January 16 limited it to audience members chosen to sit in a jury box, but the musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood surveyed the entire audience at every performance to determine who committed a murder. Stage versions of Clue (the board game known as Cluedo in the UK) have done the same.
Where We Stand has more than gimmickry and diversion on its mind, though it would be unfair to say exactly what, since the work is so new. But the audience is asked to give serious consideration to a question at the root of this monodrama. It’s more akin to the vote taken at the end of What the Constitution Means to Me, in which playwright and star Heidi Schreck asks patrons to choose the winner of a semi-improvised debate over an aspect of the US Constitution.
At a certain level, we all vote at the end of every show: was it good or bad? Did we like it or not? Of course, we are a voting body of one, or perhaps of a very limited few. However, our adjudication of the event is largely private and has no effect on the outcome, since the show has ended.
For those who work in theatre, many of us observe some variant of the ‘three-block rule’ – that our verdicts shouldn’t be audibly rendered until we are at least three blocks from the auditorium, lest our vote be inadvertently or upsettingly overheard by someone involved.
There is something about raising our hands in public that recalls school days, when we might be eager to answer a question, but it is a voting form that remains in use in town halls and city council meetings. It is the staking of a visible position and, in this era of modern voting booths, unhackable.
As absurd, unrepresentative, and now apparently unreliable as the Iowa caucuses have shown themselves to be, there is something to be said for having to use one’s entire body, not simply a raised hand, to register one’s position.
Next week, Tracy Letts’ The Minutes will begin previews on Broadway, following its prior run at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. It’s set at a town council meeting and there doesn’t appear to be any opportunity for the audience to make its voice heard.
Early word on The Minutes suggests it uses a hyperlocal form of government in service of a larger narrative. But it may still invoke the democratic impulse, and perhaps its flaws, that drives shows that ultimately force us to stake out a position from our seat.
Voting at the theatre may not become a trend, but its presence in the dramatist’s toolbox is evidence that the participatory act, the democratic act, holds a particular power when deployed for something more than our amusement. After all, voting asks us to join with others, to make a decision, and render our opinion of people whose actions may have a direct impact on our lives.
Just going to the theatre requires us to cast a ballot based on the best information available to us, taking the risk of buying a ticket in hope of a favourable outcome. More importantly it commits us to a collective activity that demands a public response. Perhaps that’s why voter registration drives can increasingly be found in theatre lobbies – most recently, and perhaps aspirationally, at the uplifting American Utopia.
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/