Michael Roberts, a young graduate student at NYU, held an iPhone aloft as he faced a crowd on campus on Thursday night. Members of the new generation have a flood of information at their fingertips, he declared, and should be careful about what they choose to believe.
His speech drew laughter from a gathered crowd. Later that evening, one observer said she’d laughed because while she agrees it's important to check information found online, she didn't believe Roberts was being truthful.
"It was like I was agreeing with him," she said, "But also distrustful of what he was saying."
Her skepticism was warranted. Roberts was in character, portraying an old man from Texas in “Whatever you are, be a good one: A Portraits US Town Hall,” which just opened at NYU’s Black Box Theatre. In this new documentary theater work, the exact words and gestures of interview subjects are delivered by actors whose ages, races, and genders differ from those of the original speakers: an approach meant to help audience members get past physical attributes and associations to listen more closely and carefully. The play explores whether the current political landscape is as polarized as media — whether broadcast or social — would have us believe.
Joe Salvatore is a co-creator of the play and the director of Verbatim Performance Lab, the educational theater program behind the project. “What we do is we investigate the words and gestures of folks that we discover, either in media artifacts or in interviews that we conduct, about a particular topic,” he told Gothamist a few days before the Thursday premiere.
“Over the past year, we've been conducting interviews with folks from across the United States, to get their insights into what are the major causes of this extreme polarization that we're facing in the United States right now?” Salvatore continued. “There's a certain narrative that's presented around polarization that I'm not necessarily sure that I fully trust. This project was kind of getting underneath whether or not we're actually as polarized as lots of folks want us to believe we are.”
The project certainly is timely: A Pew Research Center survey published in August found that the way Republicans and Democrats describe one another with negative characteristics has been on the rise since 2016, when the center first began tracking the questions it posed. The study found that 72% of Republicans view members of the Democratic Party as immoral, while 83% of Democrats think Republicans are more close-minded than other Americans.
Keith Huff, the director of “Whatever you are,” said a team of 30 students recruited interviewees from around the country, in the end collecting 110 interviews conducted with people from 37 states. The team questioned volunteers about how they’d learned about U.S. history, what they thought the country's core values were, and if they ever felt like their rights had been violated.
“The one that was most passionate was when people were asked if they could ask any question to a politician that was running for office, what would that question be?” Huff remembered. “And I think that one was an interesting response for people, because it got to this idea that people's voices aren't being heard — which is fascinating when we live in the governmental structure that we're in. The whole point of our elected representatives is that they're supposed to represent us. And a lot of the responses you were getting was that they felt like that was not happening.”
The team selected 50 interviews, and then selected excerpts of about 90 seconds to two minutes to feature. Each of the 10 actors in the cast has memorized the answers, mannerisms, pitch and delivery of roughly five different interview subjects. In performance, the actors are introduced as if they were appearing on a late-night talk show. The play is designed to be interactive; monologues are randomly chosen every night by the audience, who are also asked to answer questions about each segment throughout the night.
“We wanted to put those portraits in conversation,” Huff said, “because what we heard from a lot of the people that were being interviewed was this sort of breakdown of communication that has happened, where people don't feel like they can have conversations about politics because it's very anxiety-filled.”
Salvatore established Verbatim Performance Lab in 2017 after working on a project called “Her Opponent,” based on media clips from the presidential debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton — with the genders flipped.
“A woman played Donald Trump, and a man played Hillary Clinton,” Salvatore explained. He and his team came to believe that when an audience hears someone’s words performed by a different-bodied actor, they are more likely to pay attention to how something is being said, and maybe develop a better understanding of that person.
“I don't mean that they necessarily end up agreeing with the person, or even particularly liking the person,” Salvatore said. “But they develop empathy.”
Now, with the midterm elections just weeks away, Salvatore and Huff said they hope people will leave performances of “Whatever you are” questioning not only how to better engage in discussions about politics, but also how to become more politically involved.
“One of the things that we've discovered by this work is that our civics education in this country is really poor,” Huff said. “People do not understand how our government works, they don't understand the different branches, they don't understand what different jobs are responsible for. And that's problematic, because if you don't understand the way the government works, and what different positions and people in power are supposed to be doing, it's really hard to hold them accountable.”