Last night, Amber and I went to the 15th anniversary party for Live Arts. A few dozen of us reminisced about the early days of the organization, productions gone by, and people no longer with us. It was a great reminder of the role played by the people who make the arts happen, those individuals who fill in the gaps between the art itself.
I was also reminded of what a play is. At its heart, it’s very simple: one or more people memorize a series of lines and, in a structured manner, they recite these lines in response to the cues provided them by their fellow participants. In some productions, this is highly specific; deviating by a single word is frowned upon. In others, it’s very loose; the participants have phrases and key words memorized, but the order and the specifics may change as improvisation wills it.
Once I took part in a contest version of this. I joined with several friends in putting on a pair of brief one-act plays as a part of a semi-regular competition held at Live Arts, titled “The Playoffs.” Anybody could enter a brief work, and the audience voted on which was best, over the course of several nights, until a winner was declared at the end. While there was no danger of us winning, it was the first time that I’d been exposed to competitive acting or, in our case, competitive line recitation.
Simultaneous to the participants in the Live Arts anniversary gathering reflected on this, some widely-watched line recitation was taking place in the political realm. Lt. Governor Tim Kaine and former attorney general Jerry Kilgore engaged in their first, last, and only debate to be broadcast statewide. Each had memorized a series of lines, and this only lightly improvisational appearance gave each of them an opportunity to recite them for the entertainment of viewers at home.
Adding to the element of theater, Kaine, Kilgore, and moderator Larry Sabato all stood at podiums a few feet away from each other, facing towards the camera. When addressing one another, they didn’t turn to face each other — they looked straight into the camera. It was beyond uncomfortable, had transcended rude, and occupied a territory best described as “bizarre.” The candidates rarely referred to one another by name. They were all in a box, emotionally and spatially, relating only to the camera lens in front of them.
What makes Tim Kaine such a great debater is the same thing that makes him a great speaker — he thinks quickly, is quite articulate, and clearly at ease in such situations. What makes Jerry Kilgore such a lousy debater is quite the opposite — he’s certainly not quick on his feet, he speaks awkwardly, and is clearly uncomfortable. He mangles his phrases just badly enough to wring them of meaning, but not enough that the listener can’t figure out what he was going for.
Last night, it’d be tough to know how much space separates the two in this area. I repeatedly questioned whether Kaine and Kilgore were reading off of a TelePrompTer. The only hint that they weren’t doing so was that Kilgore kept saying stupid things. Kaine led off by describing how he’d responded to natural disasters while mayor of Richmond. Kilgore led his response by declaring, without explanation, that he was the only candidate to have ever responded to a disaster. Huh?
I have to admit that I didn’t pay rapturous attention to the hour-long broadcast. I regularly found myself aware that I’d been hearing but not listening and watching but not seeing, and unable to summon the last thirty seconds of recitation. At several points I found myself extremely confused. About the third time that Kilgore said something about Soviet gulags, I wondered if I was trapped in some kind of a Groundhog Day debate hell.
Kaine used a great many familiar phrases and refrains, but he used them within a framework of a vocabulary beyond these stock phrases. (Hardly the stuff of high praise, I know.) But Kilgore seemed only to be able to spout platitudes, managing little more than the occasional preposition linking them. I believe I may be able to channel Kilgore, in fact. Let me give it a shot.
Q: Mr. Kilgore, you refused to answer this question last time. Let’s try again. Do you believe that women who have an abortion or doctors who perform abortions should be sentenced to prison?
A: I favor a culture of life. Always have, always will. I favor a culture of life because I believe that we have to get the people involved, the people of Virginia. My opponent can’t be trusted on this important issue. He’s claiming in the suburbs of Lynchburg that he’s pro-choice, but in the lowlands of the Piedmont that he’s pro-life. He can’t be trusted on this very important decision. We are very different candidates running for governor. That’s because I trust the people. Always have, always will. My campaign is a positive vision for Virginia.
I totally made that up in about forty-five seconds. That’s what Kilgore was doing. He’d listen for a keyword in the question (“abortion,” “death penalty,” “taxes”) and provide a response with moderate to little bearing on the question, stitching together one of the few dozen phrases that he’s memorized. This time around, he managed to mask the terror in his eyes that has appeared in the past, the terror of a man who has found himself on stage and improvising, only to realize that he cannot act and his zipper may or may not be down.
I cannot imagine why Kaine moved towards the Kilgore style last night. Very rarely did Kaine appear to be thinking, as opposed to reciting. This is only positive in comparison to Kilgore, who never appeared to be thinking.
Furthering the effect of theater were the two candidates’ physical tics. Tim Kaine has the remarkable ability to raise one of his caterpillar-like eyebrows damned near to the top of his scalp, a talent that he shares, incidentally, with Dave Matthews. I’m not sure whether this is a lovable quirk or something that will scare the children. But I do think it could be incorporated into a fine drinking game. Then there’s Jerry Kilgore’s even-more-bizarre habit of talking solely out of the right side of his mouth. The English language does not, to my knowledge, have a figure of speech that refers specifically to people who raise one eyebrow. But we do have one about people who talk out of one side of their mouth, and it is most often applied to politicians. Kilgore’s habit would make a less-good drinking game, if only because it would leave the viewer passed out on the floor within his first few minutes of speaking.
Naturally, I’m inclined to believe that Tim Kaine handled some questions much better than Jerry Kilgore did. Kilgore’s flubbing of the negative-advertising question, his anti-Christian beliefs, his continuing refusal to be straight with people on abortion, and his disastrous answer to the Schiavo question looked bad. He was very negative throughout the whole event, and came off as a jerk and a pessimist.
But I’m not sure whether any of that matters. I can’t see that many people who haven’t made up their minds could have done so based on those appearances. Perhaps for those who aren’t aware of each candidates’ basic positions on matters, sure, I can see where this was helpful. And for anybody casts their vote based on who they like more, I figure the sunny, optimistic Kaine fared well. But for any average voter who finds himself uncertain of their choice, I can’t see that there was a whole lot to help them make up their mind.
There can be no question that Tim Kaine won the first and second debates, with the evidence being that he jumped up in the polls after each debate. Kilgore debates like he throws, and he did no better here than he has in the past, save that he didn’t actually soil his drawers or scream obscenities. But Kaine did much more poorly than he did in the previous two debates, because he debated on Kilgore’s terms, using the Republican’s style of exchanging thought for rote memorization. Kilgore can’t think his way through a sentence any more than President Bush can. But George W. Bush is the president, after all, so clearly the inability to assemble a coherent sentence isn’t an obstacle to electoral success.
Did Kaine win, or did Kilgore win? I dunno. I don’t see where either Kilgore or Kaine moved the ball down the field so much as a yard. I’ll leave that up to the experts at the polling firms. If the polls say Kilgore won, then Kilgore won. If the polls say Kaine won, then Kaine won. I’m not inclined to argue either way.
The losers, frankly, are Virginia voters. I wish an issue — any issue — would emerge in this race. At least it would give the candidates — and us — something to talk about other than who “won.” Between the lack of a plot, the unformed characters, and the worsening quality of the improv, I’m wondering why I didn’t duck out during the intermission.