Could experiencing Donald Trump through the body of a woman and Hillary Clinton through the body of a man, help people understand their own deeply ingrained gender biases?
This was the question behind “Her Opponent,” a gender-reversed, ethnographic restaging of excerpts of the 2016 presidential debates at the Provincetown Playhouse in January.
The experimental performance replicated the actual text, gestures, and movements of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump from the three 2016 presidential debates, and was conceived and created by Maria Guadalupe (INSEAD Business School) and Joe Salvatore (NYU Steinhardt) with film/video design and live stream by Andrew Freiband (Rhode Island School of Design).
“Her Opponent” featured actors Daryl Embry, Rachel Whorton, and Andy Wagner, with costumes by Marion Talan and hair design by Troy Beard.
After watching the presidential first and second debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Guadalupe, an associate professor of economics and political science at INSEAD, had the idea to explore the double standards that exist in gendered styles of communication between men and women. She enlisted an actor and actress to learn and perform sections of each of the three debates verbatim, but with the actor learning the text, gestures, and movements of Hillary Clinton and the actress learning Donald Trump.
“Many commented before and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election how gender influenced our perception of the two candidates. Would we feel the same about Donald Trump if he were a woman and about Secretary Clinton if she were a man? Is there anything in the way when they expressed themselves that make us like them more or less just because of their gender?” Guadalupe wondered.
She contacted Salvatore, a playwright, director, and clinical associate professor of educational theatre at NYU’s Steinhardt with her question. Salvatore, who specializes in ethnodrama, a method of adapting material into a script, worked with her to develop a presentation, finding actors, and then coaching them in the techniques required to create the verbatim performances.
“The theatrical restaging gave us the opportunity to try on what certain gestures and speech patterns feel like and sound like when we switch the genders. Each new person who’s come into our rehearsal process and experiences the switch for the first time has had a similar response. It’s one of surprise followed by reflection and the need to talk about what they’ve just experienced. That’s what we want to happen for our audiences,” Salvatore said
Salvatore also contacted Freiband, a filmmaker, media artist, and faculty member in the Department of Film/Animation/Video at Rhode Island School of Design to join the project. Freiband studies ways of enabling artists to work more directly in the study of complex systems and the comprehension of human decision-making.
The January performance at the Provincetown Playhouse was the first stage of a multi-phase project. In March, the show began an Off-Broadway run at the Jerry Orbach Theater at The Theater Center (more information).
The collaborators also hope to create a recorded version that will feature a shot-for-shot video reproduction of the debates, layered with multiple channels of qualitative metadata, such as vocal pitch and gestures. They intend for the video to be used as an educational tool in classrooms throughout the world to help uncover perceptual biases.
Watch Salvatore and the cast of “Her Opponent” on MSNBC: