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Performance on the Political Stage

It is easy to forget in this age of instant images in a 24/7 news cycle that there is a difference between the candidate we see on the screen and the one we see live and in-person, not edited or framed in a particular way by the news cameraperson and producer. In this extended season of presidential campaigns what is the state of “performance art” on the political stage? How do the candidates stage an event, and how do they present themselves? What sets and props are used and how do they connect with an audience as performers? How important is a live performance to winning?

Thus I set off on Wednesday August 21, 2019 to Elizabeth Warren’s Town Hall event at the Shrine Auditorium, near USC in Los Angeles. Doors were due to open at 4 PM. I had already signed in online and had my admission ticket on my phone – a photo of Warren’s dog Bailey. It’s a lovable golden retriever and a nice personal touch! I left my house at three o’clock and took the Expo line train to the Jefferson USC stop and walked a few blocks to the Shrine. I wanted to get there early so I could get a seat with a good view, but there was already a line around the block when I arrived at three-thirty.  It would soon extend for a few more blocks behind me. Volunteers checked our phones and gave us blue dots to enter (like at a museum) while others hawked merchandise. We waited patiently in the hot sun as the crowd inched slowly forward to the security scans and bag checks at the entrance. By the time I was inside it was four-thirty.

The Shrine is an old building and kind of funky inside, dark and cool in the high-ceilinged lobby.  Once inside the auditorium I found a good seat in the rows of folding chairs that appeared to be set up for the older folks. They flanked the central area already filled with young people, perhaps students, sitting on the floor.  By five o’clock the room was filled up to standing room and people were still filing in. The auditorium is a bit shabby and worn, and appropriately there were no frills or flashy decorations, no media projections, just three huge American flags as a backdrop on the stage. We could have been in a Civic Hall in Nebraska or Indiana, not Los Angeles, the capital of entertainment spectacle.  Signs were given out to the enthusiastic audience to wave — DREAM BIG, FIGHT HARD on one side, California for WARREN on the other.

There was an hour more to show time, so I began to scan the audience to get a sense of who was there. The crowd was at least seventy-five percent women, a majority over fifty and white, aging feminists, old liberals men and women. Yes there were some brown faces, and some Asians, mostly younger, but I could only count around a dozen black faces. This troubles me. Maybe all the black people went to the Cory Booker event at the same time. I wonder if the composition of the crowd is affected by the fact that it is Wednesday afternoon and people are at work. Or if this is the core base? The young people in the center were more diverse. 

A tall elegant black woman is standing in the aisle dressed in a fitted long sleeved black dress adorned with a substantial gold necklace and heels. She looks professional and I am hoping she is perhaps part of the campaign, as everyone else looks like they’re lounging in the backyard or headed for the beach.  On stage are two groups seated on chairs and I am wondering how they were chosen. Were they the first ones in, or is this the hand picked diversity section with its full range of colors, genders and ages for the cameras? Will they be the ones who get to ask questions? Turns out that process is much more “democratic.” When we entered the hall we were all given little blue tickets with a number on them off a standard Office Depot roll. The matching half was later selected out of a bag by Warren’s adorable nine-year-old grandson Atticus (was he really named after the character in Harper Lee’s famous novel To Kill a Mockingbird?) making the selection process a chance operation in keeping with Warren’s message of a fair shot for everyone.

It is approaching six o’clock and the crowd is getting restless with anticipation. The noise is deafening. The center section is now standing and chanting. Everyone is waving signs.  A young Latina organizer comes on stage welcoming us and rousing the crowd like a cheerleader M.C. warming us up for the countdown to Warren’s entrance. She repeats everything in Spanish though I doubt there are that many Spanish speakers in the audience. Still, it is Los Angeles. Next as part of the intro, to keep it all down home and personal, Atticus picks the questioners numbers and the three winners are asked to come up front. Then fourteen-year-old granddaughter Lavinia does a little monologue about how close she and her Grammy are and how much she wants her to be the first female President.  She is articulate and charming and the crowd goes wild.

When the moment arrives Elizabeth Warren bounds out on stage right up to the edge, microphone in hand, waving like Stephen Colbert.  She is lean and fit as a dancer, brimming with energy. Dressed in slim black pants, scooped neck black T-shirt and a mint-colored cardigan with the sleeves pushed up, she moves with an easy confidence, gesturing expressively, and connecting directly with the audience. There is no script, no notes, no teleprompter. She launches into her personal story like any number of solo performance artists I can think of.  It’s the now familiar family history – the three older brothers, Dad’s heart attack, Mom getting a job at Sears, but with pauses for fresh asides, touches of humor – “I was, what they called back then, a “late life” baby.” She reminds us that what people do in hard times is “take care of the people they love.” The punch line is that “government should work for families not giant corporations.“ She knows her story well and she can play with it. Her delivery is animated, her timing perfect, with all the right pauses for the audience to take it in and respond.  She talks about her dream to become a teacher, how as a child she set up her dollies like students, and jokes about being “tough but fair.” Then she stops, turning her story around to the audience, asking how many people are teachers, and special needs teachers in particular. Arms wave, a spontaneous repartee follows, and a call for a round of applause for them. 

PHOTOS: JACKI APPLE

Warren hits the right chord for this audience when she talks about the challenges women face  — being fired from her teaching job for being pregnant, going to law school with a baby on her hip, being pregnant again at graduation, teaching law school for forty-five years.  But she was never a victim, always a fighter and now she is running for President (the ultimate glass ceiling), and ready to take on the privileged and powerful who keep everyone from equal opportunity. And of course she has a PLAN, drawing the word out, poking fun at herself. And the audience laughs with her.

When she talks about her plans she strides up and down, gesticulating like your favorite college professor with a passion for her subject. She comes right to the point: “corruption – pure and simple! The corruption of money influences every decision. Money money money.”  It comes out like the chorus of a song. She explains how we got to this climate crisis mess – how the Koch brothers came along in the early 1990s and invested in backing politicians and experts who would deny climate science. No hiding the facts behind the story. She tells it like it is, who the people and interests are who have put everyone’s future at risk and why. Like any great teacher she raises questions so that you can think about the answers.  As a “performer” she slips seamlessly from a woman you want to hang out with and share your thoughts with over a glass of wine to the one who is going to stand up and fearlessly fight for you, without missing a beat. 

The PLAN is to attack corruption head-on, go on the offensive. She is talking about major structural change. End lobbying as we know it. Block the revolving door from Wall Street to Washington.  Have the Supreme Court follow rules of ethics. Enforce antitrust laws. She works the audience who are now waving their banners and cheering as she strolls the stage explaining how the two cent tax on those who earn over fifty million works, and what it can pay for — affordable quality education for all from cradle into adulthood with real living wages for the educators. Isn’t education the backbone of a democratic society? “Opportunity for all to be their best.” And how do we get there? Protect our democracy now with a constitutional amendment ensuring voting rights, repeal voter suppression laws, end gerrymandering, and overturn Citizens United. You can feel her conviction, her determination in her voice that still carries the twang of the prairie. All that is missing is having Bailey (the dog) onstage with her (like Rachel Rosenthal with Barney Bear beseeching us to save the planet!) Maybe next time.

Like myself I suspect many who came here have heard most of it before. But that is not the point. We are here to see the person in the flesh and feel her energy and commitment and humanity close-up, to decide if she is the real thing. It is the power of live performance, of unmediated presence.  In this moment it is not the message but how she delivers it that matters; how she connects with her audience when and if she goes off script. The true test of authenticity comes when it is time for the “post-performance” Q&A. This is the point when improvisation steps in. No one knows what those three lottery-winning audience members will ask. Maybe they came with something in mind in case they got lucky. Or maybe they have been figuring it out for the past hour, with a little help from their friends.

She listens and answers each individual directly, right to the point. No ambivalence, no generalities or evasiveness.

The first person asks if she would appoint Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. That’s an easy one. Without a moment’s hesitation she replies “Yes!” She will fight for fair and independent courts. The next person wants to know how she plans to win, and her answer throws it back to the audience to join her in “ building a grassroots movement, face to face, …because our democracy is on the line. This is it.” The last question is about healthcare for the LGBTQ+ community. She is adamant that her plan will see to it that doctors won’t be able “to refuse treatment because they don’t like your lifestyle.”

In a rousing climactic finale Warren challenges everyone to stand with her. “What did they say to the Suffragettes? It’s too HARD. Quit now. What did they say to the Civil Rights workers? It’s too HARD. Quit now. Well they didn’t QUIT…and they changed the course of our lives.” Pause. A long breath. “This is IT. This is OUR moment!”  And she’s bouncing across the stage, waving, to the chants of WARREN WARREN WARREN from the crowd, and Aretha Franklin is singing Respect in the background as she goes off stage to join the line waiting to take selfies with her.

I come away feeling inspired.  She’s a terrific performer, authentic, energized and totally engaging. She exudes warmth.  And she’s got a great message, convincingly delivered. But I also want to give her a few staging pointers. More space to move around in. Maybe a runway down the center of the audience. And next time bring the dog.

 

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Jacki Apple is a Los Angeles-based visual, performance, and media artist, designer, writer, composer, curator and producer whose work has been presented internationally. Her critical writings have been featured in numerous publications including High Performance, The Drama Review, Art Journal, and Artweek since 1983. A contributing writer to Fabrik since 2011, she is Professor Emerita at Art Center College of Design.

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