Politics has long been acknowledged as a theatrical arena in which politicians perform their roles. But with the growth of marketing, public relations and celebrity culture in the 20th and 21st centuries, and developments in mass culture and social media, the connection between politicians and performers seems more intractable, and often confusing, than ever before.
In 2016 alone we have seen these dynamics play out in both UK and US political cultures. In her first Prime Minister’s Questions in Parliament, Conservative leader Theresa May’s delivery was widely received as a strategic mimicking of Margaret Thatcher’s very striking and painstakingly rehearsed mode. In the American Presidential race, part of the appeal of Republican candidate Donald Trump is that he is a global celebrity who has made and unmade personalities on his reality television show The Apprentice, but for others his clumsy improvisation betrays too little substance. Throughout her career, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s voice has been checked for being too shrill, her behaviour too cold, or her words too scripted. Meanwhile, various commentators have attributed the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders to their refusal of spin and the artfulness of public relations. John F. Kennedy’s presidency is remembered for inaugurating a biding link between US politics and glamour, which seemed to crystallise in the election of Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan. More recently, Barack and Michelle Obama rarely shy away from acting or singing in public, and have appeared on numerous talk shows and comedy platforms, sometimes alongside stars of stage and screen, as part of their campaigns – from Zack Galifianakis’ Between Two Ferns to James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke.
It is against this backdrop that the day-long event asks: how might interpreting politicians and their work through some of the practices and concepts established in theatre and performance studies help us to better understand contemporary political life? The proceedings will consist of presentations, a public conversation and film screening (details to be confirmed).
Hosted by the Birkbeck Centre for Contemporary Theatre.