POTUS Among Us

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Editorial Review

PREVIEW: Crowd rocks vote for ‘POTUS'
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, October 12, 2012

Good luck luring a politician off-script. For every blooper, there are hours of footage of Democrats and Republicans alike making innocuous and utterly predictable statements.

If the thought of watching another rehearsed stump speech provokes an involuntary yawn, then it might be time to spend time with a new kind of candidate. Meet Prudence Merriweather Scold and Dawn Riesling, two of the impulsive contenders vying for the presidency in “POTUS Among Us,” Washington Improv Theater’s third installment of election-year shenanigans. During the show, audiences will witness a number of familiar scenarios -- debates, primaries, attack ads and stump speeches. But there won’t be a teleprompter in sight.

“We’re not going to know what a lot of the show is until we start engaging with the audience,” director Mark Chalfant says.

Theatergoers will decide which issues are most important to the five candidates and which contenders make it past the primaries. But in the fantasy world of WIT’s election cycle, the candidates’ lack of prepared talking points isn’t the only departure from reality.

“You’re there to make the other person look good,” says actress Karen Lange -- inventor of the Scold and Riesling characters -- explaining improv’s unofficial rules of supportive collaboration. This is her second time doing “POTUS,” and although she also works on scripted productions, there’s just something appealing about the on-the-fly creativity.

“There’s that give-and-take and that exchange of ideas that makes discovery a continual process, because you don’t know what the other person is going to say, and they don’t know what you’re going to say,” she says. “But you build off it, and that’s where you find that magic.”

The audience also gets to witness what happens when the cameras stop rolling.

“So you’re seeing the president fight with their kid because their kid is flunking math, and you get to see the president cry because she just saw the polling numbers and she’s polling really poorly,” says cast member Michelle Swaney. During a workshop, Swaney played an incumbent character who had taken two maternity leaves during her first term and was grappling with work-life balance. “On the night when I was the torn mom, I drank a box of wine,” she says.

The conflicted mother may make an appearance during the show’s run, or she may not. Among the cast of 19, there are various approaches to preparation. Some actors come in with predefined candidates in mind, while others choose a name and then let the spirit move them. Either way, the audience’s suggested platform generally renders prior planning useless.

“Prudence, despite her name, could be a lot of different things,” Lange says. “I might make her something completely different based on what comes out of my mouth when I walk forward.”

One of the unexpected things that came out of Lange’s mouth during the 2008 run was nominating a bear from Yosemite National Park as her running mate.

“The bear was played by one of our cast members, but he just growled,” Chalfant recalls. “And we had a V.P. debate in that show, and he just stood there. He had been chained to the podium and looked generally adorable and not threatening, and I think that’s what took [the audience] over the edge.”

Politicians, take note: Prudence and her furry running mate won the election.