Obama vs. McCain, Debate Night at the Brattle Theatre

Last night the Harvard Bookstore hosted a panel discussion and a debate party at the Brattle Theatre. Unfortunately, I missed the discussion beforehand but was fortunate enough to make it inside.

As a self-proclaimed political junkie, just the idea of a movie theatre-sized debate party was intriguing, exciting, and thrilling to me.  I’ve been watching the debates with friends and family members, but watching it in a dark theatre with a room full of strangers was going to be a different experience.

It’s October 2008, and it’s, once again, the nexus point for two events that I watch closely: A Presidential Election and October baseball.  Back in 2004 when asked, a member of the theatre community said the best theatre of 2004 was the Red Sox versus the Yankees in the American League Championship Series.  You really couldn’t get a better script than that.  If you’re a New Englander, that is.

I’ve found sports and politics to have the same type of entertainment appeal to me.  Baseball players are playing a game–the same game they did as children–for an exorbitant amount of money.  We should all be so fortunate, right?

These days, most political events are heavily scripted with carefully constructed talking points.  Occasionally, the script is interrupted with off the cuff reactions or gaffes.  We watch the debates for these moments just like a Sox fan watches for the sheer thrill of seeing David Ortiz launch one into the Boston night.

Last night, the Brattle was packed.  The audience was surprisingly diverse.  No age group appeared to dominate the crowd. The younger people weren’t necessarily students either.  No obvious, simple demographics.  I was pleasantly surprised.

The Harvard Bookstore served pizza and sodas while the transition was made from the panel to the movie setup.  You could feel the excitement in the theatre.  There was a sense of freedom and, perhaps even curious, anticipatory fun.

The Brattle Theatre is in the heart of Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Given those facts, you can imagine the political profile of the crowd.  For full disclosure, include me in that group, too.  Any candidate who has an Arts Plan (pdf) is a friend of someone who has worked for non-profit arts organizations for the past seven years.

I didn’t know what to expect. I had watched all the other debates on CNN. On HDTV there were the pundit scorecards along with what Bill Maher termed the “candidates life force.” Uncommitted Ohio voters weighed in with their instant approval or lack thereof.  Watching previous debates on CNN, many opportunities existed to instantly learn how other people were reacting.  Now that I’ve spent time on news sites like Talking Points Memo, I see that CNN had a split screen view so viewers could see how the other candidate reacted as they listened to their opponent’s responses.

To me, pre and post debate chatter is a lot about listening to what mass media experts are feeding the uncommitted voter.  At all the small debate parties I’ve been to, once the candidates stop talking my companions and I do.  Later on, I go to my favorite blogs, Twitter searches as well as their Election site, and the mainstream media sites for a roundup.  After the first debate, a friend dubbed me the “Human RSS Reader”.

My friends and I were surprised the Brattle was showing PBS’ coverage of the debate through New Hampshire Public Television rather than a mass media outlet.

Soon after the debate started, the lights were turned out just like a movie.  The candidates were announced and the crowd reacted with applause.  People were fairly active and vocal with hoots, hollers, clapping, and laughing, so much that one section started hushing others so we could all hear the answers.

Cheers broke out with relative frequency after Obama’s responses.  And, not to be a completely one-sided group, there was some scattered applause and cheers for McCain.  A friend assured me that it was just one person.

I don’t know if there’s a comparable experience I have had in a movie theatre.  The only one that comes to mind is when I saw Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911.  The audience at that one seemed more homogeneous because everybody was aware of the narrative.

During the debate I was having a collective experience with strangers in a dark room.  The audience was, of course, well informed.  Everybody knew the subjects that may come up (William Ayers and ACORN) but, of course, there were surprises, too, like John McCain introducing America to “Joe the Plumber.”

I’ve spent a good deal of my professional life contemplating audiences who gather in dark rooms for live performances.  Just like this time, I’ve watched the splitscreen shots of the carefully selected uncommitted voters from swing states on television as they watch the debate as a group.

I’ve seen great drama on stage.

I’ve been riveted by cinematic experiences.

I’ve seen heroes like Bob Dylan close in intimate venues.

I’ve seen the Red Sox come back against the Yankees at Fenway Park.

This was something completely different: A shared experience with total strangers, a moderately-scripted theatrical event with potential for sparks and spontaneity.  This event along with others had and has the potential to change the present course of our country, our economy, our world, and our lives.

Thank you to the Harvard Bookstore and the Brattle Theatre for creating such an experience.  It is a true public service.

Yes, indeed.  I am a political junkie.  And, I do love great theatre, too.

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