At a time when national politics seems frayed at best, local government meetings remain sites of direct democracy and creative protest. Is Politics a Performance? looks at how we perform in these meetings, and who gets to play which roles. Drawing on the tools of sociology, philosophy, civics and theater, we will analyze meetings in Princeton and Trenton, and class member hometowns. Through a layered, practical and fun approach to decision-making, citizenship and dramaturgy, this class is ideal for students considering work in public policy, education, social sciences and performing arts.
Guiding questions for this course include:
- How do we understand the rules – both explicit and implicit – by which our democracy functions (or doesn’t)?
- What does it mean to study citizenship?
- Why are local government meetings structured the way they are?
- How do we know who is qualified to lead?
- How can the tools of theater inform our understanding of political process?
- What are the opportunities and challenges to the new era of digital democracy and online government meetings, brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, with regard to equity and access?
The course includes readings from Plato to contemporary philosophers, from influential sociologist Erving Goffman to modern-day theater artists and activists. We will visit city council meetings in Trenton, Princeton and other major cities; we’ll also hear from local elected officials, staffers and activists. As a final class project, we will pull together the most interesting and illustrative moments from the meetings we see into a short script and invite classmates and colleagues to perform that script with us, in a virtual embodiment of democratic process. Our goal is that at the end of the course we have a sense of how to activate civic engagement through collaboration and participation.
Is Politics a Performance? is drawn from a participatory theatrical project called City Council Meeting, which was presented in five US cities, and a forthcoming book based on the project. In that work, we saw that young people who had a chance to try out different roles and texts within the familiar, uncomfortable and often boring structure of a local government meeting were able to empathize more easily with people very different from them. The course offers a chance to learn how to ignite the fire of citizenship in young people now, and how to build a dialogue with peers about what makes democracy and liberation possible for us all.