Politicians may be people—or may not be, depending on your level of disaffection—but candidates are definitely characters, and political rallies are performance. And city council candidate Kshama Sawant, an economics instructor at Seattle University currently running against Richard Conlin on a socialist ticket, needs a director.
Her campaign-kickoff show at the Neighbor Lady bar in the Central District last Friday night was, from a theatrical perspective, a train wreck. (Theater critics are also people and sometimes wind up at political rallies.)
As the clock ticked well past showtime—don't make your audience wait!—the crowd drifted into semi-engagement, some bailing before it began. The few speakers before her didn't exactly snap the crowd to attention. One read unsteadily from an agitprop article. Another began his rambling address with "I don't really know what I'm going to talk about..." That's deadly.
Sawant buried whatever informed economic analysis she might be able to offer under a small landslide of cliché and bogeymen. The 1 percent, the 99 percent, capitalism isn't working, blunt condemnations of "the Paul Allens" and "the Bill Gateses." The candidate/performer had some specific and powerful text—such as her pledge, should she win, to keep a maximum of $40,000 of her rightful city council salary and give the rest away. That's quality populist/Robin Hood shtick, and it perked up the audience. When she announced that city council members make $120,000 a year, someone piped up: "Does that include bribes?" Maybe that guy was a plant. If so, good work, Sawant team. If not, consider plants for the future.
But even the best text is useless in a poor performance. You only have to survey the infinite box-office boneyard where half-assed Shakespeare productions go to die. These are amateur mistakes made by many candidates. But Sawant says she wants to run a different kind of campaign—and she'd better. She's already facing an uphill battle by branding herself a socialist. "If you're not sure about socialism, we want you involved," someone said from the stage. That's like saying, "If you're unsure about improv, how about you spend some of your time and money on us and hope you're not disappointed!" It's poor salesmanship. If the audience pities the performer, the game is already lost. The best theater keeps your attention by compelling you, not pleading with you, to keep watching.
Sawant has some advantages. She's a passionate speaker, and audiences love a high-wire act—watching someone almost fall, then recover and stick the dismount. If she plays it right, her underdog status could make for great political theater.
Some of us are rooting for you Sawant, and want you to get your act together (literally). But only crappy actors think of their audience as a font of indulgence and goodwill. A performer repays our time by giving us something we didn't have when we first walked through the door. Putting on a good show isn't selling out, and it doesn't mean you're one of "them." It means you care enough—about your cause, about us—to show us that you intend to win.