Joining 'The Race'
New Play Redefines Political Theater, and The Audience's Role

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 3, 2008

The young woman in the front-row bleacher seat didn't need any coaxing. It was an audience-participation moment of Georgetown University's new interactive play, "The Race," in which spectators volunteer to enter an arena and read aloud a candidate's words from a pair of video prompters. The segment is called "Presidential Speech Karaoke."

She bounded, practically self-selected, onto the stage and -- mulling over a menu of speeches by the likes of Mike Huckabee, Hillary Clinton and those two fellows who eventually landed the major-party nods -- chose the words of another also-ran, Rudolph Giuliani. With mike in hand, she followed the scrolling sentences -- which, to the knowing laughs of other audience members, included the mandatory reference to Sept. 11, 2001.

The karaoke in "The Race" is more than a gimmick. It's one of many theatrical devices that this up-to-the-minute exercise in civic theater uses to encourage audiences to open up about a topic that the show's creators believe gets short shrift, even in an election year, and even in the nation's capital: Americans' notions of what a leader should be.

Over the course of 90 minutes, the technically sophisticated, world-premiere production -- which runs through Saturday at the university's Gonda Theatre -- asks us to speak from our seats to the question of authenticity in public life, to what we hear these days from those seeking our votes. And, more crucially, what we don't.

"It is a very conscious attempt to make a space for some of the conversations that we do not feel have been part of the public discourse," says Michael Rohd, the director who conceived of the evening, with the help of members of his Portland, Ore.-based Sojourn Theatre, as well as an ensemble of Georgetown student actors.

"The Race" could easily have been yet another winking political satire, in the "Weekend Update" vein. "I love watching 'SNL' as much as anyone else," says Rohd, who is spending the semester teaching at Georgetown. His actors are enrolled in his performance-studies course, also titled "The Race." "And I did write a bunch of satirical sketches," he adds, "but it became clear early on that it was just not that interesting."

The niche that the piece seeks to fill now would still put a smile on the faces of good-government types. It's designed to inflame one's desire to improve the political process rather than provoke a laugh at its expense. Although there are lighter moments, "The Race" has in mind the sober idea that we all have challenging questions to ask of the men and women who want to run our government. The implicit critique is that somehow, through all the endless months of the campaign, these vital questions -- the ones that might offer true measures of a candidate's character and beliefs -- are swept aside, in favor of cosmetics. Perhaps, "The Race" seems to suggest, it takes a night at the theater to point out how theatrically empty the system has become.

"There's no dialogue that's quite like this, that's able to get at discussing leadership, in terms of spontaneity, in terms of engagement," says Clark Young, a senior performance studies and English major from Portland, Maine, who is one of the 10 actors in the show. A goal of "The Race," he says, is to expand this dialogue to include the audience so that "an ensemble of 10 becomes in the Gonda an ensemble of 210."

The production, on a bare stage outfitted with computers and flat-screen TVs, is divided roughly into three parts: The first is a scripted interlude, in which the actors -- virtually all of whom, the show notes, will be voting for the first time -- present a collage of impressions about the campaign. In one particularly astute interlude, a spotlight isolates an actress, Liz McAuliffe, in a fetal crouch, confiding her political insecurity and hostility into a microphone: "If we lose, I'm going to kill myself," she mutters. "Do you know how much I hate the other guy?"

As the evening unfolds, the audience is drawn ever more intentionally into the proceedings. The second section prepares us to be participants: The actors ask one another a wide variety of questions culled from among 1,100 solicited from across the country, partly via e-mail. The students have no idea what they are to be asked each night and have to think on their feet. In front of hundreds.

Through live Internet hookups, questions also are posed to prearranged subjects at the other end of the line; one night, they included young people in Taiwan and Milwaukee. The questions can range from "Is it okay to use fear to achieve a goal?" to "What does 'maverick' mean?"

"You are put on the spot," says Kari Fox, a junior from San Francisco who also is in the cast. "It can be difficult, but I'm sort of used to doing it, every day in class."

Then, with the encouragement of the actors, it becomes our turn. Although audience members are not required to participate, suffice to say that people at "The Race" do not end the evening in the same seat in which they began. By the conclusion, Rohd's hope is that the mere act of passing a microphone from playgoer to playgoer will plant the seeds of an intimate, pertinent discussion about where we are as a political culture.

Rohd's company often develops participatory plays on topics of social concern; his next, "Eats, or On the Table," about ethics and the food industry, is to be staged, site-specific-style, in restaurants in Portland. The action of "The Race," he says, is all geared toward reinforcing the essentially democratic idea of community.

"Every piece of it is trying to get to that moment, to get people to the microphone," he says. "The whole show is to build toward that point where those mikes will be passed around to a sea of strangers and those strangers will speak to each other. The audience finishes the script."

It's that sense of a handover that allows students such as Young to feel that "The Race" is provocative in a constructive way. After the first performance, he said: "People stayed longer, to talk politics. If, at the end of the day, people are discussing politics in a different way, then that to me is everything."

The Race. Tuesday through Nov. 8 at Gonda Theatre, Davis Performing Arts Center, Georgetown University. Call 202-687-ARTS, or visit http://performingarts.georgetown.edu/boxoffice.

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