City Hall Drama Takes Center Stage in New Play

An interactive show casts theatre-goers as participants in a city council meeting.

The play “City Council Meeting” has played in cities such as New York, San Francisco and Keene, N.H.
David A. Brown
Aaron Landsman figured it would be boring. After all, he was being dragged to a city council meeting.

But something unexpected happened at the session that night in Portland, Ore. A man dumped a pile of needles and vials onto a table, offering a quick illustration of how dangerous a park near his home was. He wanted it cleaned up.

That gesture gave Landsman an idea. After attending hearings in several cities, he stitched together the most dramatic moments into a play called “City Council Meeting” that has played in cities such as New York, San Francisco and Keene, N.H. “In the most dry, banal meeting,” he says, “there’d be a moment that was theatrical and moving.”

What helps amp up the drama is the fact that audience members perform the play. In some cases, local officials and activists have participated, occasionally finding themselves forced to collaborate with individuals who are their political enemies in real life. As in debate class, role-playing the part of their adversaries offered new sympathy -- or at least a flicker of understanding -- for opposing viewpoints. The play is a mix of real-life arguments heard elsewhere about, say, drainage, the homeless and tree planting, along with a local issue that Landsman picks in collaboration with the theatrical companies that have staged the work.

That mix of issues helps inform the audience about the complicated nature of politics, says Marcelino Quiñónez, a school board member who participated in the production in Tempe, Ariz. “The play proves that if you’re a single-issue candidate, you’re really going to have a hard time,” he says. “As a person aspiring to run for office, it forced me to look deeper into the issues that really resonate with our community members.”

Not only has the play helped inform politicians, it’s now being adapted to teach high school students about the ins and outs of local politics -- not just the range of issues and conflicting players, but the hoops involved in trying to get things done or even just trying to make your voice heard. “What the piece does is lay bare some of the alienating procedures and rules,” Landsman says. “We would love for this to provoke people to go to more meetings.”

Still, a standard city council meeting might seem dull by contrast. That was the impression left by Colin Dabkowski, an arts critic with The Buffalo News. Last year, he reviewed an actual school board meeting as if it were “a piece of pop-up theater,” concluding that it lacked the heft associated with Shakespeare, Beckett or Mamet. “The show included about three hours of audience participation, in which members of the audience gave eloquent and often extremely moving speeches to the assembled troupe, who gave no substantive responses,” he wrote.

Alan Greenblatt is a Governing senior staff writer. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.