NYU Steinhardt News

What if Donald Trump Was a Woman?

Verbatim Performance LabCould a theatre experiment help bridge the political divide and engender empathy and understanding for those who hold a different perspective? This is one of the questions being explored by Steinhardt’s newly formed Verbatim Performance Lab—an outgrowth of the Educational Theatre program—which re-creates existing media artifacts, like the Trump Access Hollywood tape or an interview between NBC’s Matt Lauer and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway. Actors replicate the exact words, gestures, and intonations of political figures but with a key difference: women are played by men, men by women, and different gender, age, and race configurations are strategically employed to examine power dynamics, disrupt implicit biases, and challenge political, cultural, and social ideas.

This experiment in gender-flip has already yielded promising results. The much-discussed Her Opponent—an Off-Broadway play cocreated by Joe Salvatore, Steinhardt clinical associate professor of Educational Theatre, and Maria Guadalupe, associate professor of economics and political science at INSEAD—restaged excerpts of the 2016 presidential debates with gender-reversed casting to explore the standards by which we unconsciously judge male and female communication styles. The lessons that emerged were surprising. For example, Clinton voters scrambling to make sense of the election loss found they better understood the precision of Trump’s abrasive techniques when delivered by a woman. This subversion of liberal expectations and insightful post-show discussions with audience members sparked something in Salvatore. He has since employed verbatim performance techniques to examine other social and political conflict, prompting audiences to pay closer attention to their unconscious beliefs and explore how our reality is often filtered through the media.

The following projects have emerged in response to a tumultuous political climate and constantly churning news cycle. “As it stands, our media consumption habits are a bit like if we didn’t chew our food properly. We’re not being careful. The lab’s work slows things down and disrupts traditional media representations, allowing us to better analyze what’s happening and helping to increase empathy for those at the other end of the political spectrum,” says Salvatore. The lab is currently exploring how to adapt the re-created artifacts into age-appropriate educational materials to help middle and high school students examine their subconscious biases and critically engage with the media.

Gender-Reversing Kellyanne Conway

Verbatim Performance LabLast year, the Verbatim Performance Lab released a series of four videos reenacting a February 14, 2017 Today show interview between NBC’s Matt Lauer and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway on the overnight resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Interviews were re-created with different gender configurations and used verbatim performance to investigate how gender inversion affected audience perceptions. For example, how does it feel when it’s a man—rather than a woman—that is consistently interrupted? The videos were shown to a high school theatre class in Lafayette, California, and some students remarked that when Lauer and Conway were both played by women, the interaction felt like a “cat fight” and that the female Lauer was more condescending and smug than the male. As part of the educational mission of the lab, instructors worked with students to explore how these perceptions were fueled by implicit social and cultural biases about gender.

Grab ’Em by the What?

The now-infamous Access Hollywood tape—showing Donald Trump and television host Billy Bush making controversial comments about women before being joined by actress Arianne Zucker—sparked a national conversation about sexual assault and power dynamics. But how do our perceptions change when we hear this same dialogue spoken by women? The Grab ’Em Tapes re-recorded the full Access Hollywood tape—including an additional two minutes frequently edited from the initial media coverage—with three different gender arrangements: Billy Bush and Donald Trump performed by women and Arianne Zucker by a man, all three performed by women, and all three performed by men. The audio recordings explore the double standards that exist in gendered styles of communication and are underpinned by research questions about how we discuss sexual attraction. The cast found that the recording process challenged their own biases; the female Trump was perceived as less threatening and less successful than the original, which ultimately caused a reexamination of how power dynamics affected the real-life situation caught on tape.

Verbatim Performance LabConfronting Ageism

The lab shifted its focus from politics to create Of a Certain Age, a documentary theatre play exploring the lives of aging performing artists through young actors. The experimental performance was created in collaboration with the Actors Fund and the Educational Theatre program and is based on transcripts, audio recordings, and field notes from interviews with 37 performing arts professionals over the age of 65—including a back-up singer for George Michael and an original cast member from West Side Story on Broadway—discussing the struggle to land roles, forced retirement, age typecasting, and more. Salvatore deliberately cast against age and race to shake up audience expectations and crafted the script so the actors’ monologues would seemingly be in dialogue. These choices cause an “alienation effect”—a Brechtian concept used to remind audiences of the ever-present “theatricality” of performance and force them to reflect on what is being presented in critical and objective ways. Audience members noted that the performance helped them to realize their complicity in ageism and change their behavior.

The Missing Election Debate in Alabama

When Republican candidate Roy Moore refused to debate Democrat Doug Jones in the lead-up to the December 2017 special election for the US Senate in Alabama, Salvatore and Keith R. Huff created a tool to assist voters. They selected media clips from both candidates speaking on hot-button issues, including gun control, abortion, and transgender issues, and arranged them into a transcribed, scored performance. Actor Ryan Conarro performed both Moore’s and Jones’s original words, speech patterns, gestures, and movements to explore whether hearing the words through a different body changes viewers’ perceptions or voting preferences.

The lab plans to further tease out the interweaving threads of our current political moment through an examination of the gun control debate and an investigation of major congressional and gubernatorial races during the 2018 midterm election cycle.

Explore these projects further.