MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Welcome back to "Metro Connection," I'm Rebecca Sheir. And today we're going up, down and all around with a show we are calling, On The Move. Earlier in the hour, we learned the ins and outs of navigating the city as a deaf person and we met wounded soldiers who are re-learning how to move and get on with life. We've also heard from a guy on a road trip to visit the final resting places of our nations Presidents. And speaking of our nations Presidents...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1
My fellow Americans, you know who I am. I am the current president of the United States of America. America, when you've elected me as the first openly gay Asia/Hispanic American as president of this fine nation of ours, we were in a deep hole.
Okay, obviously, in the real world, this guy isn't actually our nations President, but in a black box theater in Northwest D.C., he's every bit the commander and chief.
MR. MARK CHALFANT
We're sort of creating a parallel universal for each performance. So it's not exactly our world, but it kind of rhymes with our world, if you will.
That's Mark Chalfant, the artistic and executive director of Washington Improv Theater or WIT. He's also the director of POTUS Among Us, WIT's once every four years send up of the American Presidential election cycle. I recently sat down with Chalfant at Source, WIT's home, near 14th and U to chat about the show, which began two election cycles ago in 2004.
And it was this great experience for all the artists involved and we were sad, at the time, that, you know, it's really the kind of show that's only enjoyable when we're really in the thick of the campaign. Once this is over, I think, we're all going to be grateful to go back to our regular lives. But it's a great way to participate in the process by making art about it.
So are you trying to make comments and commentary about what happens in America during the election, is it just for fun?
It's a mix of both. I mean, on the one hand, it's just a completely comedic, artistic experience that gives people, you know, an hour, hour and a half away from the real world and the grind of watching polls bounce up and down and wondering what it all means. But on the other hand, it really is an exploration of if an audience in a theater is treated like the public of America, what are the choices that they'll make and what are the ways they will guide a show forward when asked? So, for example, last night, at the top of the show, five candidates presented stump speeches, we had a governor in the mix...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, you all know me. I'm Prudence Meriwether Scold, governor of Georgia.
We had a senator in the mix...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2
As many of you know, I'm Thomas Church. I've been serving the people of Iowa in the U.S. Congress.
And neither of those two who had actual governing experience advanced into the show. The audience was much more interested in a frat boy...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3
My name is Chad Renner. You probably don't know me. I'm at the University of Texas. I won the Sobe, so you think you can be president contest.
And a Golden Corral waitress who does cos-play as a Star Trek commander...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2
Live long and prosper. These are words that you've all heard before, but they mean a lot to me.
So how do you decide which five candidates are going to be stumping every night? Because it rotates, right?
Yes, it rotates. The full cast of the show is 19 performers. And on any given night, 13 people are in. And the casting for the candidates is mostly about just creating an interesting diversity of players. So each -- each performer in improv has different go-to's, a certain style on whether you're very cerebral or very physical, verbal, emotional, are you more of an actor or are you more of a thinker, all of those things. So, just -- as the director, I'm just trying to create a fun mix.
And then in terms of the show itself, obviously, it's improv so things are being made up on the spot. But there is kind of an arc to the show. How much is scripted versus off the cuff?
So, yeah, the overall structure is scripted in terms of beginning the show at, sort of, a primary night selection process and ending the show with an actual election process and a victory speech by whoever the winning candidate is. In between those things there will usually be a debate of some sort but it could be the Presidential candidates, it could be Vice Presidents, it could be first ladies, we had a first lady debate at one of our rehearsals and it was hilarious. So it's pretty flexible. We know that we're dealing a lot with media matters in the show. So there's a lot of in the street reporting and there might be, like, a panel show of pundits but none of that is hardwired in.
I think the helpful way for us to think of it is, there's a really long ala-cart menu of things we might order each night but it's going to change with each performance. And then the other factor is, the audience, we're trying to really engage the audience at different moments in the show and things that they say might steer us in different directions. So, like, last night, an audience member suggested that some problems in America could be solved by giving everyone free beer.
And that sort of immediately found its way into one of the candidates strategies and there were keggers going on, you know, in communities across the country.
Some of the things that happened in the performance I saw, there was a scandal...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3
Breaking news, cheating allegations, the Daily Texas has broken it wide open. Did Chad Renner cheat in his Sobe submission?
UNDENTIFIED MAN #4
The American people have never looked kindly upon cheaters.
Cheater, cheater, pumpkin eater.
There was some mudslinging in commercials. Are these specific things that you thought we could do on certain nights, part of that ala-cart menu?
Sure, scandals and attacks ads are definitely things that we have talked about as a cast and thrown around in rehearsal. But the details of, like, how to execute them and who can, you know, initiate them, that's not scripted. It's all of us ordering from that menu at once and trying to play with each other and make the show happen. And so, how's the audience dealing that and who are they choosing that they think can actually lead them forward? Like, at last night's show, it was somebody who is a fictitious commander of a Star Trek space ship, like, she won, yikes, I guess. Yeah...
To be fair, her Vice President was a governor.
Okay. Yes. Yes, she was. It was a female-female ticket. So it's also clearly a progressive politics show.
Well, Mark, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.
Thank you very much, it was a pleasure.
Mark Chalfant runs Washington Improv Theater where he's directing POTUS Among Us, running it's source through November 5th. For more on the show, visit our website metroconnection.org.
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