By Paul Bedard
Learn more about our 10 year commemoration here
The Debates has been, by far, our biggest project. It’s been through many iterations, encompassing dozens of public events, hundreds of people, and nearly a thousand footnotes in the published scripts.
The project began in Ithaca, NY, where I was serving as a Drama League Directing Fellow at the Hangar Theatre. It was Summer 2015: Obama was president, Bernie Sanders was a relative unknown, and our current clown-in-chief was still a harmless sideshow. The 2016 presidential campaign was just beginning in earnest, and I was curious to explore previous presidential debates. With an eager company of young actors, I began digging into excerpts of the infamous 1960 presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. We sought to explore what was specific to the very first televised debate, the debate that literally invented the genre. During this exploration, however, we discovered that the process—analyzing a debate transcript, having different people “try on” the candidates, and experimenting with candidates’ projected images—was more compelling and empowering than the show we initially set out to make. By the time my fellowship ended and I returned to New York, the Kennedy/Nixon idea was scrapped and we dove full steam ahead into what became The Debates 2016.
Between October 2015 and April 2016, we presented nine Watch Parties and Political Analysis Meetings; expanded our team of actors and researchers; and presented six distinct workshops, clarifying our newfound process along the way. By the time the field of candidates had dwindled to Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, we had a show we were proud of. We presented The Debates 2016: Democratic Primary Edition in New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, before each state’s primary, and the response was thrilling. NY City Lens wrote, "Not only was The Debates… about politics. It was politics." The Hartford Courant wrote, "[The Debates] was the way to spend the nervous hours before voting... Forthright, in-your-face, up-to-the-minute..."
That September, we began the process again with the general election. We watched and analyzed the debates, crafted a script and performed at the beloved Under St. Marks theater the night before Hillary Clinton’s assured victory. And… we all know how that election turned out. We learned, however, that our Debates work is strongest when it shines a light on challenging questions and complicated candidates. The problem with the 2016 general election was that, for our community, the decision was crystal clear. The notion of stepping into that particular Republican nominee’s shoes and words, with empathy, was just… not possible for us.
We believe there is an audience for a Debates show that includes our 45th president, and a company who can make it, but Theater in Asylum is not it. We do our best work when there is a diversity of political opinion in the room and when there’s something to debate. With the general election, we didn’t have those things. The choice was clear for our community, and this led to a production that didn’t expose choices or the debate we assumed was needed.
In the last four years, the country has changed in ways we never thought imaginable. The urgency around the 2020 election couldn’t be higher, and when the Democratic primary debates started in June 2019, it was clear that we needed to mount another Debates show. The Debates 2020 roared with excitement, following over 20 candidates with 12 Watch Parties, 10 Political Analysis Meetings, 5 Cabarets, and a much-needed debate about the candidates and issues. We had political diversity in the room, with a left contingent split between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and a moderate contingent that split and shifted throughout the year. When the pandemic struck and the production was cancelled, we were again at a loss. What do we do with this work?
With the country facing both a raging virus and an urgent reckoning with race, we moved online and reframed much of the show. The Debates 2020 performed on Zoom just before New York’s rescheduled primary on June 21, 2020, and while the race for the Democratic nomination was largely already decided, the piece bloomed and provoked an incredible conversation about our country that reverberated in our community for weeks. Who were we and who are we, really, as a country? What does it mean to rally behind a candidate –– which parts of their and your own identity are you connecting to? And which parts are you disconnecting from?
I am immensely proud of The Debates and the team who followed its evolving raison d'être. I’m so grateful to these people for their bravery and curiosity. Our scripts are still online, available to all. I don’t know how they’ll age and I'll be curious to revisit them in a few months or a few years, after we’ve hopefully begun healing and growing as a nation. I know that the work we did on the 2016 and 2020 primary contests was relevant and useful to the team and our community. I look forward, with hope, to future debates and the chance to ask again: who are we, and who do we want to be?
Theater in Asylum (TIA) is a New York-based theater company founded in 2010 to challenge and empower our community. TIA joyfully pursues a rigorous research and an ensemble-driven approach to theater-making. We create performances to investigate our past, interpret our present, and imagine our future. We prize space to process, space to question—asylum—for ourselves and our community.