Democratically Speaking

Digital performance, Fall 2020

I had originally planned to direct something else this year. Covid of course intervened and the Linfield Theatre Program had to abandon our plans for our 101 season, which were unworkable with masking and social distance restrictions. So I planned to direct a radio play instead…

But the headlines piled up and eventually I realized that we needed to do Democratically Speaking. As a community (Linfield, Oregon, the United States, a global community that ought to be invested in equity), we needed to talk about democracy — what it is, what it could be, the ways in which it fails us, the ways in which we fail it.

I had the good fortune to do an interview with Mara Youngren-Brown on the significance of doing a show like Democratically Speaking one month before the 2020 general election, and one of the topics we discussed was the notion of democracy having a soul. People idealize and anthropomorphize democracy as though it were a concept and not a system of government involving policies and laws that have profound consequences on real people’s lives.

So to understand democracy on many levels, including the abstract but also including specific features such as voting and democracy’s relation to capitalism, we’ve organized the play Democratically Speaking into seven sections, book-ended by a prologue and epilogue:

  1. Democracy as a way of life, Democracy as resistance
  2. Democracy, Slavery, and Black Liberation
  3. Voting
  4. Athens experiment
  5. The Working Class
  6. Wealth and Capitalism
  7. The Future of Democracy

These sections help break down a simplistic and monolithic understanding of democracy and also help us understand how this form of government has been used as a bludgeon as much as a lifeline, as a tool to divide as much as a methodology for achieving equity. Containing words from poets and dictators, philosophers and politicians, judges and playwrights, this play takes a 360-degree view of the theory and practice of democracy.

Democracy requires participation, and the students involved in this project had input in revising the script and crafting videos in between each section of the play in order to craft a multimedia experience. We collaborated on the extent to which actors would try to become the historic figures they embody and decided that this was not Stanislavskian realism — even while we’re sharing words said before by famous people, we’re contemplating the ways in which they impact us now, and the actors are signalling this duality.

We share this performance with you as a reminder of the stakes of elections and the importance of voting. As I said in an interview about this play, we have to imagine better futures. But we have to do more than imagine–we have to work for them.

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