The Theatrics of Debates: A Conversation with Professor of Dramatic Arts Anthony Haigh
Professor of Dramatic Arts Anthony Haigh is one of several faculty experts who can speak to issues and subjects related to the upcoming Vice Presidential Debate at Centre College on Oct. 11. To see other faculty experts, click here.
Q: What is the importance of theatrics in politics, particularly during a general election year?
Haigh: When we watch conventions and debates, it’s all theatre, it’s all staged and stage-managed. Everything the candidates say and do, every minute gesture, is seen and interpreted by the audience. At conventions and, to some extent, the debates, the situation is tricky because candidates are dealing with two audiences: electronic and personal.
Conventions are very much about the audience in the room, while the debates are about the audience behind the screen. The two require different techniques, and there are two kinds of audience response: a hysterical mob response and the thoughtful support of ideas. You can see the difference in the crowds. At a debate, it isn’t necessary to rouse up the audience to hysteria. It is necessary at the convention, however, because they’re all about energizing the faithful to mobilize and vote.
The thing that has struck me, however, while listening to the current sequence of convention speeches—although I haven’t heard them all—is how easy it is to rouse a crowd to hysteria by the use of certain key phrases.
Q: Do politicians understand the importance of theatricality to what they do and how they are perceived?
Haigh: They certainly have someone who coaches them on how they walk, how they present themselves, how they gesture.
Q: What are some theatrical techniques and effects that are present and important at political events?
Haigh: One of the things we teach in acting is to observe body language and understand physicality and what it communicates. Many people don’t know that their body is doing things—tapping a foot or leading with one shoulder, whatever it might be. When a politician is on stage, every gesture and every movement is nuanced. Their gestures are read by the viewer in person and on television as meaning something. They have to be absolutely in control of their entire physicality, and it’s a hard thing to learn.
Another aspect of gesturing that is significant is whether a person is remaining open or closed. Open gestures keep the body open to another person, while closed gestures signify tension—such as crossing a leg or holding your hands in front of you. Notice, when a woman walks in, she’ll often touch her purse with the hand across the body, which is a gesture of being defensive. Guys will often rearrange their watches. These are subtle gestures, but we read them subconsciously and are analyzing them intuitively. Looking at gesture, you’ll notice that politicians, when walking into a room, will put a hand in a jacket pocket so that they don’t cross themselves—putting a hand in their trouser pocket is too casual, but a hand in a jacket pocket or putting both hands behind the back keeps them open. Keeping the body open signals honesty and sincerity. People who manage politicians are very aware of all the meanings contained in gestures.
Podiums are great—they can hide a lot, but if you put your hands on the podium, it keeps you open.
One of the other things that is important, even in a vast arena, is making eye contact. This is a problem as technology is improving, because you have to choose between making eye contact with the camera or with the crowd. It’s a good idea to try to focus beat by beat on someone specific in the crowd. If even one person is looked at directly, the whole crowd feels looked at and communicated to. When you look at the camera, however, it becomes something else. If you are working with a camera, you want to look with one eye—the dominant eye. Learn which is your dominant eye and lead with that – you will appear more sincere to the viewer. It also moves the face slightly out of square and we admire symmetry in the human face—but most people don’t have symmetrical faces, so if you angle the face slightly, you avoid having that symmetrical decision made by the viewer.
Eye contact and status exchange are very important. As I said, making eye contact is a good thing. But if someone holds your gaze for a very long time it can be interpreted as aggression—as taking status away from you. But if they look away briefly, they allow you your moment of status. This process of turn taking is called status exchange. If someone never makes eye contact, we subconsciously find them shifty and untrustworthy. When a candidate is speaking directly into the camera it is important that they obey the rules of exchange and not appear either domineering or untrustworthy.
Q: How is being physically in control as important for politicians onstage as it is for actors?
Haigh: You can control the sincerity of what you say by where your gestures come from. We normally separate the body into three areas: intellectual gestures happen near our heads, heartfelt gestures happen around the chest, and something more visceral and intense comes from lower in the body. There is a way of controlling these gestures. A lot of candidates flap their arms around rather than letting their gestures come from the core of the body, which is more sincere and shows intentionality.
Q: How did political figures of the past use theatricality to their advantage, and how would they fare in today’s political atmosphere?
Haigh: Physical good looks have certainly become more important since the television age. We certainly wouldn’t elect a Taft, and might not even elect a Lincoln—he wasn’t a very attractive man, by today’s standards.
One of the greatest political speechmakers in history was Winston Churchill, and what’s interesting about him is that he dictated his speeches orally—his secretary wrote them down and typed them in poetic form. He actually had them structured in iambic pentameter, a rhythm that works very well for the English language. When I’m preparing speeches or readings for people, I often break them down in a similar way and present the piece broken down by clause.
The teleprompter has made a huge difference in how people speak—it breaks down the number of words per line into about five words, because that’s what the eye can take in without scanning. A person looks shifty reading back and forwards, whereas if you can look straight at the audience with a steady, purposeful, nonthreatening gaze, you appear trustworthy. So you want each line to only be as many words as the eye can scan without moving. The trick in speechwriting is to write those five words as beats of thought. It’s not just that you’re breaking the line down into five words at a time, but five words in one thought at a time, so that each line is a series of well-punctuated formal ideas. The trick in a sense is to write for the medium, and the medium now is the teleprompter.
Q: How has the importance of theatricality and rhetoric in politics changed the political process and political discourse in the modern day?
Haigh: One of the most disconcerting things about political rhetoric in the last few years is that if you tell a lie often enough, it becomes a truth to some people. Honesty has become lost in the process. The level of discourse has changed in American politics almost to the point that it has become something along the lines of, if you don’t like my ideas, you can’t like me. One’s political position becomes so established that it can build a friendship group or a peer group. The opportunity for real debate and a real exchange of ideas has gone away.
It’s analogous to me with the death of broadcasting. There used to be four networks and they broadcast an array of different programs. Gathering around the water cooler on Monday to talk about what was on 60 Minutes was a big deal. Now, if you like fishing there’s a channel for it; if your political views are of a political stripe, there’s a channel that will solely enforce your views and perhaps even distort them. We’ve somehow lost, in the proliferation of media, the homogeneous nature of political conversation. Across the board, we’ve become polarized and isolated in our churches, our individual social groups, our politics and our entertainment choices. The media should be an educative tool in broadening minds and conversations. This is why the liberal arts are important—so students can be exposed to a wide array of ideas, which they aren’t getting from the media and entertainment.
To read more about the upcoming Vice Presidential Debate at Centre College on Oct. 11, visit Centre’s debate website here.