Is Politics a Performance?

In this transformative time, when national politics seems frayed at best, local government meetings remain sites of direct democracy, effective leadership and creative action. 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, as well as other US cities both in-person and online, as health guidelines permit. 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 the political process?
  • As we transition out of quarantine, how might digital democratic processes allow more people to participate, and what are the challenges and limitations of this new form?

The course includes readings from Plato to contemporary philosophers, from influential sociologist Erving Goffman to modern-day theater artists and organizers. We will visit city council meetings in Trenton, Princeton and virtually in other cities; we’ll also have a chance to interview 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 it 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 creating 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.


Application required. The application process for fall-term Freshman Seminars opens Wednesday, July 7 at 10:00 a.m. (EDT) and closes on Monday, July 19 at 12:00 noon (EDT). Apply for a Freshman Seminar




Wednesdays, 1:30-4:20 PM


Aaron Landsman