Sunday, December 17, 2017

Theater directors evaluate the candidates' stagecraft

Political conventions don't happen spontaneously. Strategists plan every detail, which makes those rare unscripted moments memorable.

Sometimes that's disappointing. We want to feel moved, the way a play can transport us from everyday life. But neither the hackneyed oratory of vote-casting delegates nor most speeches can get us there.

Acceptance speeches by the nominees are a little different. They represent the kickoff in our political Super Bowl. Contestants are each undertaking a high-stakes mission, the outcome of which depends partly on their motivation and character.

If that's not theater, what is?

THE ART OF POLITICS: Read more of our special report on the colors, design, movies, books, fashion and theater connected to the 2016 presidential race.

With those dramatic elements in mind, we asked two local theater directors to give us their take on the speeches of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. How did each convention stage the rollout of its star politician? How well did the candidates do in delivering the lines?

Stephanie Gularte, the producing artistic director of American Stage Theatre Company, handled Trump. Bob Devin Jones, the founding artistic director of the [email protected], evaluated Clinton.

Donald Trump: Perils only he can fix

Gularte brought a notepad to the lobby of American Stage in St. Petersburg, where she would watch Trump's speech for the first time. She took notes as the Republican nominee stood in front of a half-dozen flags, promising to end the crime and terrorism that he says are threatening to destroy our country.

"The first thing that's immediate is the visual, how dominant those flags are," she said. "And his red tie — it's a very strong red — the feeling of power and strength."

Camera angles focused tightly on Trump as he spoke, as if he were speaking to a multitude.

"There is a storytelling effort to behave as though there is this overwhelming support and response in the room," she said. "But we don't see these big wide shots. We kind of keep heading back to him, power shots of the flag and small group shots with the signs."

Well known for ad lib remarks, Trump mostly stuck to the teleprompter. An exception came early, when he broke off to chant with the crowd, "U-S-A, U-S-A." Gularte saw that audience involvement as a missed opportunity.

"It felt a little bit anemic," she said. "He could have really just let that be a moment, and then taking charge by bringing it back just when it was reaching its peak of excitement. If I were directing him, I'd say, 'You've got to let it build before you pull out of it.' But it lacked a build."

Gularte, who has a background in business, praised Trump's branding skills, including using words like "humbly" and "warmth" — "two things that we don't typically associate with him" — high up in his speech. She compared the script with the crises posed in Tom Clancy novels, interspersed with Trump as a caring, fatherly figure.

"This is an interesting setup," Gularte said. Trump had laid the groundwork by praising the strength of America, then saying the country is in crisis. After touching on murder rates and police officers killed, Trump picked up the pace: Immigrants are crossing the borders illegally, tens of thousands streaming into our communities. No one is watching the costs of resources or safety.

"A really good build there," Gularte said. "Creating a sense of danger and recklessness. A reason to be afraid."

The crowd was feeling it, breaking off into indecipherable chants as the candidate took a few beats. A few minutes later, he mentioned Clinton's name. The crowd broke into chants of, "Lock her up."

"Let's defeat her in November," Trump said.

"That was nice and simple and direct," Gularte said. "That's all he needed to say at that point." The moment could have been even stronger, she said, had Trump spent more time on the weakness of the current government before tying Clinton to it. Adopting a more serious tone than usual lined up well with the content of Trump's speech.

"Considering the length of the speech," she said, "tonally it stays very serious and very dark. And he paints a very dire, kind of Orwellian world. Then just as he has built up the fear to a fever pitch, then he brings in Hillary Clinton's name as a direct tie-in to that, so they are inextricably linked. So looking at it from a performance standpoint, I think that the delivery and the timing of when her name keeps coming up is quite brilliant for what he's trying to achieve."

A couple of Trump mannerisms caught her eye — a tilt of the chin, an emphatic hammering motion with his right hand.

Trump did not really say how he was going to save America. But those details might not be important.

"What this is achieving is purely a visceral response, not an intellectual one. It's not about ideas."

The effect, she said, is akin to an action movie. "What you respond to is the noise and the explosion. You might not even remember later what the story was about."

Hillary Clinton: A guarded candidate opens up (sort of)

Jones pointed to a computer image of the nominee as she strode to the podium in a white pantsuit.

He loved the shade, neither nuptial nor off white, and its contrast with the flag-waving crowd in front of her.

"She pulls the room," he said. "She's the white between the red and the blue," he said, "and that's exactly where she needs to be."

Jones openly supports Clinton. The nominee reminds him of his mother, whose black-and-white portrait stands on a windowsill in the cozy clutter of his second-floor office. A house cleaner, Ola Mae Jones was not especially demonstrative, not a big hugger. But she made sure the important things got done.

Clinton is like that, he said. She had just embraced Chelsea with a short-armed hug, the kind that clasps but also controls distance. At one of the most important events of her life, she seems almost antiseptic, yet comforting.

"If you can imagine Florence Nightingale in a pantsuit, it would look like this," Jones said.

Clinton was never going to match the speaking skills of her most powerful supporters, President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, or of Bill Clinton, all of whom stood loose, letting their bodies react and their voices fly.

"I certainly want some great oratory, but she wasn't raised in the Baptist church," Jones said. He would not try to change her.

"I'm okay with her having a stilted delivery," Jones said, "because if I were directing her in a play, I would just play to her strengths."

She is famously guarded, which for many engenders even more suspicion. For Jones, Clinton's most effective lines came midway through: "I get it that some people just don't know what to make of me. So let me tell you."

"She had started to acknowledge that she is not seen as the most effusive person," Jones said. "Then when she gives her explanations, it's still done in that sort of stiff way of hers. But her rhetorical flourish — the 'let me tell you who I am' — says it's not so important what I did, but why. The fact that she posed the question is all the answer I need."

On the convention floor, Clinton was trying to present herself as an acceptable alternative to disaffected Republicans while also courting Bernie Sanders supporters. Several times, protesters tried to interrupt her speech with boos. Clinton raised her voice and plowed ahead.

"As all of us who have ever done anything in the theater know, the show must go on," Jones said.

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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