The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We can transform local government by treating it as a kind of theater

Messy and tedious as local government is, we can ensure that it’s a place where the democratic process still works

Participation in local government can be understood as a kind of theater in which we all can be performers, writes Aaron Landsman. (Washington Post illustration; iStock)

In 2009, while I was working on a theater project in Portland, Ore., I attended a public city council meeting on the grounds that it would be what one commissioner called a “hot one.” Skeptical, I went to watch, even though it was about the decidedly temperate topic of zoning. City and state governments are where our rights — to medical care, public education or, as in a Michigan town this month, libraries — can be protected or lost; where the community can come together to change the role of law enforcement. But the meetings are also normally pretty boring.

Or so I assumed.

As a playwright, I immediately noticed the innate theatricality of the setup in the Portland council chambers: The most important players faced the audience from their (literally) elevated positions of power at the dais. But what really stood out to me was the relationship of the stage and the audience: As the meeting went on, citizens and officials — some prepared, some not — came and faced “upstage” to speak to the council with their backs to the rest of us. The whole room served as an arrangement of power that reminded each of us where we belonged.

About 20 minutes into the meeting, the secretary called Pete Colt for testimony. A council member greeted him familiarly, making clear that he was a regular there. Colt, who was dressed in slacks and a tie, looked to be about 60 years old, White, with glasses; his demeanor said we could trust him. He brought a briefcase. Though he didn’t read from a script, his speech was clearly practiced.

As he went on, Colt unlatched his briefcase, put on a rubber glove and dumped a pile of trash on the table: drug paraphernalia, used condoms and other refuse. “Those of you who know me from the neighborhood know that I pick up this stuff every day—”

Two commissioners attempted to interrupt Colt, but he continued, unperturbed. Finally, a third commissioner announced that they were going to clear the room to disinfect it. At that point Colt turned from the council to the citizens in the room and said with a flourish: “Thank you for agreeing with me. Thank you for making my point better than I ever could.”

Another commissioner came back with a final retort: “We appreciate your passion, but this was not at all well thought out.”

But Colt’s actions were well thought out. In fact, I felt like I was watching the best theater I’d seen all year. He’d costumed himself to win trust, he knew his audience, he understood the structure and expectations of the event and the room itself, and he pierced those expectations just enough to make us all sit up and listen. He had, in short, treated his appearance as a kind of performance.

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That experience inspired me to ask what happens when we examine local government meetings, often dismissed as tedious and utilitarian, through a theatrical frame. Starting in 2010, as many Americans were increasingly caught up in the miasma of national politics, director Mallory Catlett and I began visiting council meetings across the country and meeting with officials, artists, organizers and other community members in more than a dozen cities and towns. In these quietly dramatic performances, we experienced a rare kind of political engagement, in which neighbors had to look one another in the eye as they wrestled with decisions that would impact their communities in immediate, concrete and visible ways.

While we encountered moments of expected gridlock and procedural boredom, we also saw opportunities for hope and cooperation. In Bismarck, N.D., one council member told me that his job was to “lean in and listen to what causes pain for people and really try to do something about it,” and he felt that this calling transcended his political views or party. In San Antonio, young people asked the council that their neighborhood not be left behind. In city after city, even when the meeting itself seemed designed to keep people from fully participating, they found powerful, innovative ways to advocate for their communities.

As we were touring these meetings, Mallory and I turned to the thought of contemporary French philosopher Jacques Rancière. In “The Emancipated Spectator,” he examines Plato’s foundational writings on democracy. According to Rancière, Plato holds that if democracy really is a government of equals, no one is better suited to lead than anyone else. Plato wasn’t sure this was a good thing. As Rancière says, if everyone is qualified, then no one is qualified.

This notion plays out in ways inspiring and terrifying. The same forces of repression and polarization that hound us in national politics also exist locally. The far right already uses performance to co-opt local meetings, silence hard-won coalitions and subvert common-sense legislation.

At times it’s paid off, even if indirectly, or personally: In Mount Vernon, Ind., a non-board-certified doctor spoke at a school board meeting in a convincing enough way that the board tabled a mask mandate. One article detailing the event begins, “Dr. Dan Stock looked and sounded the part” — a testament to his skill at playing a doctor even as he presented medically dubious information. And Alex Stein, most recently known for harassing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, first called attention to himself by trolling the Dallas City Council at a meeting where he donned surgical scrubs and rapped (poorly) to protest vaccine mandates. From there it was a short hop to national prominence as a guest on Tucker Carlson’s and Alex Jones’s shows.

But while many thinkers in politics and theater alike emphasize the power of shared experience or identity to build community, Rancière asserts that each of us narrates and translates our experiences of live performance in our own ways. He says it’s not necessarily a coerced unity that binds us, but more likely an equal capacity we share to comprehend the work of democracy or theater and make our own choices, regardless of background, identity or education, whether or not the system tells us we can.

Plato and Rancière’s double-edged promise — if everyone is qualified, no one is — excited me and Mallory as artists: What if we assume that no one in this room is better than anyone else at doing this? Maybe we don’t need special skills to be in charge or to make art or teach. Messy and tedious as local government is, that might mean it’s a place where the democratic process still works. It also might mean it’s one of our democracy’s most vulnerable sites.

School board meetings used to be boring. Why have they become war zones?

Perhaps one response to theatrical far-right extremism, then, is this: Instead of trying to build community or find middle ground with people who will probably always disagree with us, we can embrace the theatrical in our own ways and show up with our own creative tools. It’s what organizers do when they bring a hundred tenants dressed in matching colors to push back on a punishing rent law, or what neighborhood kids do when they dress up and prepare elegant speeches to challenge stereotypes and policy. Thinking in these terms convinced us that we could craft a theater piece that embodied that promise.

We used what we saw in meetings across the country to make a participatory performance called “City Council Meeting” in five U.S. cities. With brilliant production designer Jim Findlay, we put the dramaturgy and visual arrangements of the local meetings into a theatrical form. I assembled transcripts from six cities, and Mallory created a structure that highlighted each viewer’s choices about how to participate — as a councilor, supporter or speaker, or as a bystander who simply watches. Once they had chosen, local citizens guided them through a performance; in effect they brought to life a new, composite community by speaking the words of the transcripts. In partnership with local organizations, we also created a local ending in each city, bringing adversaries together to make an artistic response to a particular issue there. We wanted to see how art might frame a debate in a way that politics could not. The ultimate goal was to nudge everyone in the room to reflect on the structures they encountered and the choices they made — both inside the production and when they went back out into the world.

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We found that when we trusted viewers to make their own choices about how to participate, the piece offered a way to see Plato’s democratic promise in action. During a workshop in Houston, sixth-graders sat in the mayor’s chair — for some, the first time they saw themselves in a position of power. Our collaborators in two of the five cities actually decided to run for public office. Turning bureaucracy into theater freed our audience from their preconceived notions of the way local government works and made it easier for them to envision how to create effective change. We are now working with K-12 schools to adapt our approach in classrooms for broader and braver civic engagement.

Do city council meetings always work? No. And on a couple of particularly chaotic nights, neither did our show. But like Pete Colt’s simple turn to face the audience after his point was made by the Portland commissioners themselves, “City Council Meeting” did something more than call attention to a point of view; it allowed the people assembled to see their city more clearly and better understand who they could be within it.

If no one is any better suited to the work of democracy than anyone else, then maybe the boring, formal process of a city council meeting is a necessary part of it. And even if the process needs to change, grounded as it is in hierarchies and exclusions that may no longer serve progress, I think we are best off trying to change it with a critical awareness of its design flaws.

I recently checked in on Portland to see what Colt’s performance had wrought. I found not a simple answer but an ongoing series of actions: In public records of council meetings, Colt appears regularly, advocating for his neighborhood or another neglected area to be cleaned up, recognized as worthy of the same services that more gentrified areas were getting. At times he’s cooperative, at times more combative, but his approach is always playful and generous. The transcripts reveal a table of commissioners willing to listen, and that seems like the most important thing. Unlike a play, where everything has to resolve in the span of an evening, the theatrical arc of local political engagement often takes years to unfold. The work is urgent; the work is ongoing.

Mallory and I took a bureaucratic event most of us ignore or write off and made it into a form of civic theater. Along the way, we found some hope for American democracy. Understanding democratic process as, in part, a performance means we can perform better as citizens, as cities and even as society. People like Pete Colt might show us the unexpected beginnings of how.

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