The United States midterm elections are on Nov. 6, 2018. That’s the day American citizens will vote on 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and 35 seats in the Senate–well, some American citizens. The 2014 midterm election had the lowest voter turnout in 70 years, with just 36.4 percent of eligible voters showing up to the polls (the 2016 presidential election, by contrast, drew 61.4 percent).
To combat that, theatres around the country have been helping register voters and convincing audiences why they need to vote (voter registration deadlines differ in every state). Below are 4 ways theatres and theatre artists have been getting out the vote—and yours could too.
1. Register Voters
In 2016, dozens of theatres around the country had a booth in their lobby where staffers registered voters during intermission. That has continued for the 2018 elections. Playwrights Horizons in New York City, who spearheaded a national effort in 2016 under the hashtag #PlayOurPart, is registering voters from Sept. 1 to Oct. 11 during performances of I Was Most Alive With You by Craig Lucas. Playwrights Horizons also provides information about other institutions can register voters on their website.
And they’re not the only theatre leading registration efforts and offering resources; 20 other theatres around the country have been offering similar services in their lobbies. Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS has partnered with When We All Vote to launch #BelttheVote to coordinate voter registration events in theatres and schools nationwide. A video was released featuring such artists as Sarah Bareilles, Katrina Lenk, and Andrew Rannells encouraging theatre lovers to vote.
“America’s theatre community knows how to project its voice onstage, but this Nov. 6 we have to carry our voice all the way to the voting booth,” said actor Rory O’Malley in a statement. O’Malley is a #BelttheVote coordinator. “With the support of Broadway Cares, #BeltTheVote is going to make that happen by inspiring theatre fans, students and professionals to register and vote.”
2. Tour the Community
While voter registration events require audiences to go register to vote, Just Act, Go Vote takes voter registration to audiences. The event is coordinated by Just Act, a three-year-old theatre collective in Philadelphia which uses theatre as a “catalyst for healing, change, and activism,” according to cofounder Lisa Jo Epstein.
They’ve been touring around the city promoting Just Act, Go Vote, for which they partner with local area activists and grassroots organizations to one, register voters, but also to have a discussion about local and national issues, in order to promote recurring civic engagement. “One can register someone to vote—and they might not go vote,” she concedes.
The events have been popular, with around 65 showing up to the inaugural gathering last week. The program includes a community discussion, games, and original short plays co-created by Just Act teaching artists and community members. One skit that’s been touring around the city is about a black man named Nope, who doesn’t vote because he’s unable to take the time off work. The events address reasons why people might not vote and ways to keep them engaged in the political process. It also tries to educate audiences about voting facts (for instance: in Pennsylvania, unlike in some states, those with criminal records can still vote).
“It’s a far more complex issue than ‘Just voting the Democratic ticket!,’” says Epstein, quoting one of the short plays. “Because really a lot of the work happens after. If it’s local, how do you hold your local politician accountable, and how do you get informed about where they stand and not get overwhelmed?”
Just Act, Go Vote provides a forum for people to talk about local issues that are affecting them, play some games, and have some laughs in the meantime. Epstein plans on bringing the program back next year (“We got city council elections in May!”). Her reasoning: “Theatre’s a secret weapon: to bring the everyday experiences of folks into the movement.”
3. Create a Happening
St. Louis mayor Lyda Krewson has designated Oct. 6 “Dance the Vote” Voter Registration Day. What is Dance the Vote? It’s the brainchild of Joan Lipkin, the artistic director of That Uppity Theatre Company, and Ashley Tate, artistic director of Ashleyliane Dance Company.
On Oct. 6 the two companies will bring together dancers, spoken word poets, and singers at the Missouri History Museum to perform original pieces around the subject of civic responsibility, and will address issues such as voting rights and voter suppression. There will also be free ice cream and a selfie station, and a voter registration booth. The event will begin by teaching those who show up a dance routine set to “Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson.
“My biggest interest is millennials and minorities,” says Lipkin. “They have the potential to be a really large voting bloc, and they’re only voting at a fraction.” She thinks that creating “spectacle” could be a way to show audiences that civic engagement “can be fun.” Lipkin may not be wrong. Uppity Theatre and Ashleyliane co-hosted Dance the Vote in 2016, and “several hundred people” were in attendance, Lipkin recalls.
Though Lipkin identifies as a Democrat, she considers her efforts bipartisan.
“Although I personally have preferences, my biggest hope is that they vote, “ she said. “It’s the most precious right that we have. People have given their lives to it. We are still struggling for the right to vote in many communities.”
4. Write Some Plays
Tiffany Antone is a playwright, and she knows that if you want to write something topical, you may hit the obstacle that it can take years for a play to travel from page to stage. But after the 2016 election, she wanted her art to have more of an impact, and she didn’t want to wait years to get there. So she and a bunch of friends got together and created the Protest Plays Project, which presents short plays on social issues and offers them up royalty-free to any company that wants to produce them. So far those impulses have given birth to various “Theatre Action” events on gun control and immigration.
Though Antone, who lives in Ames, Iowa, considered herself a politically conscious artist before, this impulse “really kicked into hyperdrive after 2016. And it seemed much more necessary to really try and find a way to engage and to incorporate my artist self with my activist self.”
The newest Protest Play Project is about voting, and it’s called #TheatreActionVOTE. Anyone can visit ProtestPlays.org and sign up to present some or all of the 15 original plays on voting, ranging from a dialogue between John and Abigail Adams, to a monologue from a Japanese American woman whose great-grandparents were interned and couldn’t vote.
So far around seven institutions around the country, in both professional and university settings, have signed on for a #TheatreActionVOTE event at which they will present plays and register voters. Antone believes that it’s no longer possible to separate art from the world—nor should artists want to.
“If you’re a thinking, feeling, breathing artist, you’ve got to be plugged into the incredible unease that is pervasive right now,” she said emphatically. And when creating art and events, “it feels irresponsible not to take current events into consideration.”
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