The Theater of Democracy

Aaron Landsman
September 9, 2013

Arts Policy Nexus

(To read other articles in our Arts-Policy Nexus series click here.)

When people say, “theater is a collaborative art form,” they usually mean that what happens onstage is created collaboratively, among artists. With my current project City Council Meeting, co-created with director Mallory Catlett and designer Jim Findlay in three cities this past year, I want to talk about the collaboration between artists and audiences. If we can invite viewers into the room in a truly democratizing way, and if we can stage the form of a democratic process, can we understand better the way power is performed in America?

When you get to the show, you’ll see an orientation video that talks about Plato’s idea of democracy – the idea that it’s a government of equals. Then you’re asked to make a choice: be a Councilor and read the meeting; be a Speaker and get a piece of testimony you may be asked to say; be a Supporter, and get a physical instruction like stand, leave the room, raise your hand or take a call; or be a Bystander and simply watch like it’s any other performance. Our hope is that even having to make this simple decision, you’ll consider your own relationship to political participation.

As it plays out, City Council Meeting  mostly looks like a real local government meeting. It’s made up of transcripts from actual government meetings in half a dozen cities, some original writing, found and live video, and a set of instructions. The audience performs the piece with the help of a local group of staffers, with whom we build the piece over the course of a few visits to town. We’ve so far worked in theaters, meeting rooms, courtrooms and a gallery. With a five-camera live video shoot, a couple of tables and some chairs, we can make almost anywhere look like CSPAN.

The project was inspired by a meeting I saw in Portland, Oregon in 2009. An older, genteel man in a suit dumped a bag of drug paraphernalia and other refuse in front of the council and said, “I found this in the city’s Kids’ Zone; what are we going to do to clean up the city?” When a councilor told him he’d created a public health hazard, the man didn’t miss a beat, saying, “You just made my point better than I ever could.” It was the best theater I’d seen all year. The man’s actions pointed up the gap between the council’s rhetoric and reality, between the behavioral protocols in that setting and the kind of small transgression it took to be noticed.

A recreation of this interaction ends the first part of City Council Meeting. For part 2, usually about 20 minutes long, we flip the script. We find people on opposite sides of a local issue, and get them on stage together. They don’t have to deal with their disagreements, or even represent a political point of view – they just need to share public space in an artistic gesture we make with them.

Part 2 has yielded some magical combinations so far: in Houston a council member performed alongside church choirs and 8th graders who’d fought him on a new infrastructure bill. In Tempe, we put the head of the local downtown improvement district next to a young formerly homeless woman, as well as the woman who provides services to the homeless for the city. In New York, local high school students took over the space, offering their own versions of standardized tests to the audience, and a live interview with council members.

Depending on the day, City Council Meeting has felt like a bold step forward, a failed social experiment, or devised theater work with audience participation. Just like actual democracy, the performance can feel dull or tedious, the point can be elusive, and sometimes the performers (meaning you, the viewer) make mistakes. But when it works it tends to become a community celebration, a recognition that we often get our best work done under the biggest challenges. One of our favorite outcomes of the project has been to watch one of our staffers, an amazing Houston activist named Assata Richards, recently take up a campaign to become a (real) city council member. She credited us as part of what helped her jump in.

On a good day, our hope is that the piece turns politics into art, because we think that has a liberating power. At the very least, taking on the real words of another citizen, perhaps someone much different from yourself, allows you some empathy with other people in the room.


Aaron Landsman is an independent playwright and performer based in Brooklyn, NY and Urbana, IL. He is the current artist-in-residence at ASU Gammage in Tempe.

Aaron Landsman

Aaron Landsman is a New York City theater artist. He is Playwright in Residence at Abrons Arts Center and a Visiting Associate Professor and Humanities Fellow at Princeton.

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