Can Theatre Disrupt Biases in the US?
with Elisabeth King, New York University
How might Americans respond to a white male Kamala Harris or a Black female Mike Pence? Can theatre that portrays familiar figures in unfamiliar ways disrupt expectations, biases, or political views? At a time when U.S. society has become sharply polarized and political views increasingly rigid, an interdisciplinary team of academics and theatre artists from New York University (NYU) received funding from the Centennial Center Research Grant’s Herring Fund for Political Art to investigate a ground-breaking educational theatre project that aims to impact how Americans perceive political leaders and members of other political parties. The project, entitled “Can Theatre Disrupt Biases and Political Polarization in the U.S.?”, investigates the work of NYU’s Verbatim Performance Lab (VPL).
The interdisciplinary research team combines political science methods with theatre practice and is built on collaboration among faculty, students, and artists. Leading the team is Elisabeth King, Professor of International Education and Politics and the Founding Director of NYU’s minor in Peace and Conflict Studies. Her co-researchers include Sorana Acris and Amanda Blewitt, Ph.D. students in NYU’s International Education Program, and Laura Cabochan, a Ph.D. student in NYU’s Educational Theatre Program. Representing the Verbatim Performance Lab are Joe Salvatore and Keith R. Huff, the lab’s Director and Associate Director. Supporting the team are a ten-member core acting ensemble and other professional actors who perform VPL projects in different public venues, including virtual events during the current pandemic.
VPL uses verbatim performance—the precise portrayal of an actual person using their exact speech and gestural patterns, word for word and gesture for gesture—to disrupt assumptions, biases, and intolerances across a spectrum of political, cultural, and social narratives. The lab changes one or more key identity attributes of the original speaker(s), such as gender, race, or age, and reenacts a political media clip or interview verbatim. The video clips are then used in traditional and non-traditional educational and activist settings to engage participants in dialogue about their own implicit biases. VPL was developed following the success of Her Opponent, a theatrical performance that reenacted excerpts of the 2016 debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, with Trump performed as a woman and Clinton as a man. Popular media outlets such as The New York Times and NPR have reported positively about audiences’ responses to these techniques. The archival footage of the gender-flipped Clinton-Trump debates, for instance, has over 78,000 views on YouTube.
An arts-based approach such as VPL’s may be useful for impacting prejudicial attitudes and habits. By transcending the rational and activating imagination, arts can help us to envision new possibilities. Theory suggests that arts and media may promote empathy, compassion, and a sense of shared humanity, but there is a dearth of rigorous empirical evidence assessing the usefulness of arts-based programs for changing attitudes and behaviors. The NYU research team’s use of rigorous political science methods to analyze VPL’s innovative performance techniques, therefore, creates a meaningful opportunity to improve our understanding of how to harness the arts for addressing the challenges of bias and political polarization in the U.S. today.
“In addition to the control and ‘actor effect’ arms, this study included a treatment arm where the gender of the politicians was flipped, another where the race of the politicians was flipped, and one where both were flipped. “The research team ran a first study where participants on MTurk viewed an excerpt of an exchange between Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar during the Democratic presidential primary debates held in December 2019. Control participants viewed the original clip while treatment participants viewed the original clip plus a verbatim performance reenactment with the genders of the politicians flipped. This experiment also included an ‘actor effect’ treatment arm: viewers watched the original clip and a clip with actors of the same gender. The team found that viewers who watched the gender-flipped performances reported increased awareness of their biases.
However, the team saw opportunities for improvement in their approach. With the support of the Herring Fund for Political Art, they ran a second study over the Lucid Theorem platform in November 2021. In this study, participants viewed an excerpt of an exchange between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence during the Vice-Presidential debate in October 2020. In addition to the control and ‘actor effect’ arms, this study included a treatment arm where the gender of the politicians was flipped, another where the race of the politicians was flipped, and one where both were flipped. As of writing, the team is collecting and analyzing their data. They hope their findings will suggest innovative strategies for disrupting political biases that advance the public good.
- The Pendleton Herring Fund for Political Art provides funding for projects that advance appreciation for the artistic expression of politics in general, and democratic values in particular. The fund is named after Pendleton Herring, a renowned political scientist and former president of the American Political Science Association who established the fund with a generous donation to APSA in 1999.
- Read more from Elisabeth King