During the tumultuous 2016 presidential campaign and its aftermath, Broadway producer Fran Kirmser watched with confusion and dismay as the country grew more polarized by the day.
So, like a lot of Americans, she flipped on the television. But unlike many Americans, she stayed away from the major news outlets. Instead of MSNBC or Fox or CNN, she turned to the channel that has achieved cult status among policy geeks: C-SPAN.
“Even though sometimes it’s very slow and sometimes the audio isn’t so great . . . I found it quite riveting,” said Kirmser, whose accolades include Tony Awards for productions of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and the musical “Hair.” “It helped me understand our government.”
It was there — after watching hours of speeches and congressional hearings — that Kirmser found unexpected inspiration for her next production. Where many see unbearably dry patter, Kirmser saw human drama. Even debates on the mundane — on whether a committee chair would allow a second round of comments, for example — intrigued her.
“We often hear of politics referred to as theater,” Kirmser said. “Why not use the platform of theater . . . to get to know the issues on the table and how government works?”
Kirmser turned them into production series called “American Scorecard,” dramatic readings of transcripts of congressional hearings by actors. This month, she brings a production of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s Senate confirmation hearing to Arena Stage in Washington.
It will not be the first time DeVos has been portrayed on stage. She has been skewered on “Saturday Night Live,” where she is portrayed by Kate McKinnon. But Kirmser said her production is not a parody, nor does it seek to steer the audience toward a conclusion.
She said she hopes the productions can educate and inspire audiences of all political stripes, delivering information that is stripped of punditry and selective editing (though the hearings are edited for time). In a dark theater devoid of cellphones, she aims to nudge the audience to consider what is unfolding before them — and the views of lawmakers they might normally reject.
“When you walk into a theater, you have to turn off a cellphone. . . . You’re not isolated in front of a screen,” she said. “The beauty of that is that you’re just getting the words and the voices and the language of our leaders without a slant or an opinion or a staged interpretation.”
By confirmation-hearing standards, DeVos’s was a blockbuster. While her predecessors sailed through, DeVos’s advocacy for private-school vouchers and the expansion of charter schools made her deeply polarizing. In the hours-long hearing, the Washington newcomer struggled with answers about federal education law, giving ammunition to protesters who were assembling throughout the country and flooding congressional offices with angry phone calls.
In response to a question about whether guns belong in schools, DeVos referenced a school district in Wyoming and said it might need guns to “protect from potential grizzlies,” an answer that provided fodder for comedy writers.
Half the Senate — including two Republicans — voted against her, forcing Vice President Pence to cast the tie-breaking vote. It was the first time a vice president had to cast a tiebreaker to confirm a Cabinet secretary.
Actor Tracy Shayne knew all of this when she signed up to portray DeVos during a production several months ago in New York. A Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton, Shayne said she disagrees with DeVos’s views on education.
But in studying DeVos so she could play her, Shayne learned more about the Michigan billionaire as a human being. She sought to imitate the secretary’s Midwestern accent. When she watched tape of the confirmation hearing, she was struck by how poised and even-keeled DeVos remained even as lawmakers lobbed questions at her for hours.
“I was able to see her as a human being standing up for what she believes is right, even though I do not agree with her policies,” said Shayne, who portrayed Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in other productions. “She’s a classy woman, and that’s how I played her.”
Producer Chris Burney did not restrict himself to selecting actors who resembled the lawmakers and public officials in the productions — which would have made the casts overwhelmingly white and male. Instead, he picked a demographic with a stake in the outcome of the hearing and used that to inform casting.
In the confirmation hearing for Tom Price — President Trump’s first secretary of health and human services — many questions revolved around women’s health. So women played all the lawmakers — even the men. For the DeVos hearing, Burney selected young people still in school to portray many of the senators. That’s because young people are the ones most likely affected by DeVos’s policies.
Burney’s aim was to get the audience to think about whose concerns and needs were being represented by lawmakers. By having actors who look nothing like the senators they are portraying, Burney hopes the audience focuses more on their words and their motivations instead of their party or how they are characterized by pundits.
“What are the actual words that are being spoken, not just the sound bite, not just the quote that feeds a narrative?” Burney said.
C-SPAN spokesman Howard Mortman said the channel was flattered its broadcasts became the muse for a play and that Kirmser’s goals align with the channel’s.
“This is the first theater production I know of inspired by our coverage of congressional hearings. What a unique application of C-SPAN,” Mortman said. “That’s exactly what we’re there for — put people in the room and let them think for themselves.”
The reading of the DeVos hearing is set to take place at 6 p.m. Monday at Arena Stage, at the Mead Center for American Theater. Tickets are free. To reserve a ticket, visit americanscoreboard.com or call 212-554-3431.