Between the pandemic, economic uncertainty, and civil unrest, it might be easy to forget that this is an election year, and the New York Democratic primary takes place Tuesday. If you need to refresh your memory with some of the events that lead to Joe Biden being the party’s last remaining presidential candidate, you can count on Theater In Asylum. Well, kind of.
On Sunday, the New York City-based theater company is performing The Debates 2020, a 90-minute online show that aims to integrate theater and politics by reenacting scenes from the Democratic debates. Ten actors will impersonate all of the Democratic candidates as they entered (and eventually left) the race, with some of their most memorable lines and mannerisms.
Scenes were constructed in three different ways: by repeating what the candidate said word for word, by saying something based on what the candidate would likely say in real life, or by going full satire with something the candidate would absolutely never say. Expect musical numbers, melodrama, and even puppets.
“It’s not SNL,” Katie Palmer, the group’s co-founder, told us. “What they do is phenomenal. But we are really trying to use theater as the ‘dive in.’”
Palmer founded Theater In Asylum in 2010 along with Paul Bedard after they graduated from New York University’s Tisch School with degrees in Drama. They created the Debates during the 2016 elections with the intention of making political discourse more approachable to voters. All material from the candidates is fact-checked, and the sources are included as footnotes in the final script, which will be available on the project’s website after the show.
The group, which now has five members, had been hosting watch parties for every Democratic debate since the first one of this cycle, in June 2019. A few days after each party, they hosted a political analysis meeting, where they scoured the debate’s transcript for stand-out moments that could then be worked on during script meetings. About 20 people were involved in the production, including actors, set designers, and researchers.
The original plan was to tour The Debates 2020 across all five New York City boroughs, ahead of the New York Democratic primary, which was set to take place on April 28, and to help voters pick a candidate.
Then the coronavirus happened.
The script has now been adapted to become a sort of time capsule of the past year’s debates. “We still have a little bit of ‘Voter, what should you do?’ mainly because some of the candidates that have suspended their campaigns are still advocating people to vote for them, so that they can win delegates and have influence at the convention,” Bedard said on a recent video call.
Changes in the script directly address the Black Lives Matter movement, with moments that acknowledge the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd and a scene that discusses the current situation and some of Biden’s recent statements. Some down-ballot candidates with anti-racist platforms will also be highlighted.
The group thinks it is valuable to look back and reflect on how much the country has been through since the first Democratic candidate, John Delaney, was announced in 2017. “All of these events drove conversation and expanded in our imaginations what’s needed from our elected leaders,” Bedard said. “Voters have influence, and we believe there’s an urgent call for us all to use it.”