Washington Improv Theater's quadrennial send-up of the American presidential election cycle, POTUS Among Us, began in 2004. And WIT's artistic and executive director Mark Chalfant says everyone was sad to see that production draw to a close.
"It's really the kind of show that's only enjoyable when we're really in the thick of the campaign," he says. "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."
Now WIT is back with its 2012 edition of POTUS Among Us, playing at Source (1835 14th Street NW) through Nov. 5. Chalfant says on one hand, the show is plain old lighthearted fun.
"It's just a completely comedic artistic experience that gives people an hour or 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," he says. "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'll guide a show forward when asked?"
The audience plays an integral role in POTUS, whether they're being cast as donors at a fundraiser, attendees at a debate, or, as they were in a recent performance, drummers in a Central Park drum circle. But every performance begins with the audience selecting two of five candidates to advance into the election, and ends with the audience picking the winner from that pair.
Chalfant says the show's overall structure is scripted in terms of this beginning and end, with some sort of debate in between, along with various news reports.
"But none of that is hard-wired in," he adds. "I think the helpful way for us to think of it is there's a really long a la carte 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."
Some performances may involve the usual electoral fare of scandals and attack ads as well. But Chalfant emphasizes that "the details of how to execute them and who can 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."
But the most fun each night, he says, comes from the audience, and "who are they choosing that they think can actually lead them forward?" At a recent performance, the audience elected a Golden Corral waitress from Youngstown, Ohio, who moonlights as the commodore of a Star Trek spaceship through cos-play. So, says Chalfant, when it comes to elections — real or improvised — sometimes nothing is predictable.
[Music: "Vote For Mr. Rhythm" by Ella Fitzgerald from Golden Voices (Remastered) ]
Photos: POTUS Among Us