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City Council Meeting: Political Theater

The importance of what actually transpires at a city council meeting can get hidden behind seemingly boring procedure – the shuffling of papers and the issuing of proclamations. But behind the bureaucracy there are real people fighting small but important battles; battles like what to do with six inches of sidewalk, or how to raise the minimum wage. At city council meetings everyone gets a chance to speak. During public comment, the working mother and the downtown developer have the same amount of time to make their point of view known.

I have long loved city council meetings, in part because you never know what is going to happen, but mostly because what does happen matters, in very crucial ways. I’ve watched a mayor resign, seen people cry, and I’ve heard passionate public comment that goes on late into the night.

So when I found out there was a play that staged the political theater of city council meetings as actual theater – I was intrigued.

The aptly titled City Council Meeting has been touring cities nationwide – from New York to Houston. This past August, it came to San Francisco.

Inside a hushed theater, a voice on the loudspeaker instantly lets the audience know this isn’t your typical performance.

“By joining us tonight” a soft female voice says, “you’ll be standing in for someone who was actually part of a local government meeting somewhere in the U.S. in the last three years.”

The show, for the most part, doesn’t use actors. Instead, theater goers are asked to volunteer to play the role of city council members, the mayor, and regular citizens at a city council meeting. The performance is staged just as if it were a real meeting, with real people participating in a play that reflects the good, the bad, the ugly, and the sometimes nail-biting tediousness of participatory democracy.

The script is, for the most part, a mash-up of transcripts and agendas taken from actual city council meetings in cities across the country – from Tempe, Arizona to San Antonio, Texas to Oakland, California.

Playwright Aaron Landsman says the performance seeks to stitch the individual issues of all these places together.

“We think of it as the city we make together by performing it,” he says.

Landsman accidentally ended up at his first actual city council meeting in 2009 in Portland, Oregon. He was trying to get a council member there to help out on another play when the man extended an invitation.

“He said: ‘You should stick around for the council meeting, it’s going to be really hot.’”

Hot? Landsman thought he was crazy.

“I was like that’s a contradiction in terms – hot council meeting. And he was like ‘No, no – this one is about zoning,’ and I was like case in point.”

Because what could be more boring than zoning, right? Turns out Landsman was wrong – it was hot. There was real drama, especially when one gentleman started talking about urban blight in his neighborhood. It’s a moment Landsman re-creates in the play – the only moment where someone giving public comment is actually played by an actor.

The man gave testimony about how his neighborhood was littered with unsafe debris. Then he proceeded to pour out the contents of some of that debris onto the podium. Right there, in the middle of the council chambers, he dumped out a bag filled with drug vials and little plastic baggies.

Council staff responded by telling him they would have to clear the room because he had just exposed the staff and public to hazardous material and caused a public health issue.

The man’s reply?

“Thank you for agreeing with me. Thank you for making my point better than I could ever make it.”

Landsman found the high drama so compelling that it started him on a nationwide tour of city council meetings.

“The one in Portland was pretty up there; there was a fist fight in the gallery in Chicago.”

Everywhere Landsman went, the drama of city council meetings was so obvious that the play, quite literally, wrote itself.

“I am real fascinated by the performances that we all do all the time, and city council meetings are such a good example of that,” Landsman says.

But he also realized that there are very real things are at stake. “I was there kind of for a personal reason, but everybody else goes because they are mad or because they need something,” he says. “You see this whole other world happening, you know?”

That other world is where the details of policy are hammered out by real people. It is also a world in which seemingly benign topics sometimes conceal much larger issues.  Like when speakers came to talk about ficus trees in Tempe, Arizona.

Ficus trees? Not necessarily the most dramatic issue facing humanity, Landsman says. But people were riled up. By using real life testimony from a council meeting, Landsman hopes the play gets at what was going on underneath.

“What they weren’t talking about was the homeless kids that take shade under the ficus trees,” Landsman says. “When we would go to City Hall and talk to staffers and councilmembers, we’d see people get really worked up about the ficus, but no one’s talking about the homeless kids and they would be like ‘Yeah, because we don’t know what to do about homelessness.’”

But they could do something about the ficus trees. Landsman says sometimes democracy is about fixing what you can. It’s about something else, too: the multitude of voices. Some of the most interesting moments in the play happen when a person, in one performance a white man, reads aloud from the testimony of a black woman.

Landsman says when people read lines in someone else’s voice, it can close a gap. He recalls a performance in Brooklyn it which “this German woman got up, and her accent reading the line ‘I do not want to be classified as a bad black child from the East Side,’ made everyone listen in a different way,” Landsman says. 

In many ways that is the point of the play.

“How do you take someone whose way of speaking or obvious demographic might be very different from yours and respectfully put it in the room?” Landsman asks. “How do you give voice to someone else’s language? For me it’s like walking a mile in their shoes – verbally.”

That is exactly what the audience in City Council Meeting gets to do – step into the disparate voices of the political process. Somewhere in all these transcripts from city council meetings, a picture forms. It is a picture of our messy democracy, spoken out loud.

In the interest of full disclosure, KALW’s own Jen Chien performed in that play.

Sandhya got her start as a reporting fellow at KALW, working on award winning radio documentaries about crime and justice and education in Oakland. She reported on the 2012 presidential election in Iowa, for Iowa Public Radio, where she also covered diversity and mental health issues.