With the clock winding down to little more than 30 days until the presidential election, theatres across the country are joining a nationwide call to action urging American citizens to take part in the political process. These theatres join the ranks of Facebook, the nonpartisan nonprofit Rock the Vote, and more than 4,000 other organizations in starting voter registration drives or becoming polling places in order to promote civic engagement.
At least 10 of TCG’s member have joined the movement, including Cleveland Playhouse; Chicago’s Victory Gardens; the Public Theater, Playwrights Horizons, and New York Theater Workshop in New York City; Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C.; Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore.; Actors Theatre of Louisville; Cornerstone Theater Company of Los Angeles; and PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, N.C. Some of the participating theatres have even modified their theatre’s mission statements to emphasize the role that the theatre can have in civic engagement.
Of the U.S. citizens who were eligible to vote in 2012, at least 35 percent were not registered, according to U.S. Census data. Voter apathy is more common than one might think. While tax-exempt nonprofits cannot endorse specific political candidates, they can advocate for specific ballot measures or propositions, and there’s certainly nothing preventing them from advocating greater voter participation as a good in itself, and they’re doing by installing voter registration desks in and around theatres. And the location itself may make a difference.
“The experience of seeing theatre can get through to you via your heart and your head,” said Vivienne Benesch, producing artistic director of PlayMakers Rep. “I’m really interested in not dictating how someone should vote, but there is a way to voice and to extend what you see and how you experience something—you have a form of expression, and sometimes that form of expression is artistic, but what we all have is the power to vote and to have our voices heard. So taking advantage of that journey from heart to head to action.”
Some theatres have even gone so far becoming polling places, though this step isn’t for everyone—there are specific qualifications that a space must meet. For example, California’s Orange County Registrar of Voters lists these minimum requirements for a space to become a polling place, including:
- 600 square feet of useable floor space
- Restroom availability for poll workers
- Adequate lighting both inside and outside until the end of Election Day
- At least two 3-prong electrical outlets
- Space enough to accommodate 6 to 12 eSlates (electric voting booths), cardboard voting booths, table(s) and chairs
- A secured area to store equipment caddy which houses the voting booths
There are no such physical requirements, though, for a theatre to offer voter registration desks, though each state has rules about the process. Some states allow residents to register on the day of the election, while others require them to register 30 days prior. For some states the voter registration deadline is as early as Oct. 8.
Playwrights Horizons is spearheading the national nonpartisan organization #PlayOurPart with the mission to increase voter participation and “make sure our audiences are ready to vote,” as it says on their website. Though the company did start the campaign, literary director Sarah Lunnie said that they don’t claim it as their own—it is for everyone to share and be proud of.
“The goal was always to create something that could belong to the community,” Lunnie said. “We kicked it off at Playwrights Horizons, but it doesn’t belong to us. We wanted to make something that could be a rallying point for a large community of theatres participating in different ways.”
A physical manifestation of this “rallying point” can be seen through the many theatres that have taken to Twitter to stand alongside them in their decision to help get the vote out. Replacing the days of going door-to-door making sure people register to vote, social media has been a very useful instrument in getting the message to citizens to take advantage of their franchise. Searching the hashtag #PlayOurPart, one finds theatres participating in the movement encouraging people to register. Lunnie said she hopes her theatre’s efforts will spread to more states across the country in the weeks before the election.
“At its best, the theatre can be a gathering place,” Lunnie said. “A public forum for the exchange of ideas. So it feels like an extension of the values of the organization to encourage and empower the audience to make their voices heard.”
Making the decision to make one’s theatre a polling place or voter registration hub accomplishes two things: It doesn’t just encourages citizens to vote, it also promotes the arts in local communities. These are two things that Ilia Lopez, director of strategic relations for Cornerstone Theatre Company, said that her theatre has achieved since becoming a polling place.
“We want to show how important art is in our communities and demonstrate how the arts are invested and deeply embedded within our neighborhoods,” said Lopez. “We are invested and we care about our neighborhood. We want our neighbors to know how important we feel it is for them to take advantage of their right to vote. In doing this, we want to make it as accessible to our community as possible—no better way than opening our doors.”
Having served as a polling place for presidential primaries on June 7, Cornerstone will once again welcome their community into their space to voters during the upcoming presidential election on Nov. 8.
Moving beyond the lobby to the stage, theatres such as Shakespeare Theatre Company, Signature Theatre, and Studio Theatre are producing a “politically charged play reading series” in anticipation of the upcoming election. The slew of politically themed productions expands far beyond the boundaries of those who have made the commitment to “play their part.” PlayMakers’s Benesch explains that one of their season productions, The Crucible (Oct. 19-Nov. 6), was chosen out of careful deliberation, working to pose the question: What responsibilities do we have as citizens?
“I kept on thinking, what I’m really interested in with The Crucible is affecting the way we think of ourselves as citizens,” said Benesch. “What is our responsibility as citizens?” She said she sees Arthur Miller’s classic as a cautionary tale about “what fearmongering can do to a community, and how people negotiate for power within that. My idea is to sell T-shirts that say ‘Make Salem Great Again.’”
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