Anders Peterson is here to make politics fun, and funny, again. Anders, who is a BA earning his degree in English and Political Science, is directing the first show of the UTS season, Debate (an Improvised Comedy). This full-length improvised performance takes the structure of the presidental debates we know so well, and turns them on their head. Two fictionalized presidential candidates go head to head on issues, and at the end of the performance, the audience has to elect the next leader of the United States of America. As someone who follows politics closely, Anders couldn't help but draw comparisons between politics, theatre, and improv. Hence, in the thick of one of the most heated presidential elections in recent history, Anders and six undergraduate improvisers are dissecting, examining, and satirizing our modern politcal platform.
BR: Tell me a little about where you got your idea for this show.
AP: So my friend is a member of the UTS board and she encouraged me to apply because she knew I was interested in pitching a longer form improv show and I was thinking what am I connected to and plugged into and I thought ‘everyday its constantly new news about this election so I thought let’s do something with that. However I wanted to pick a specific moment or element within an election cycle because presidential election cycles at this point are about two years long. I was thinking about the moments that stick out and actually matter, because it can feel like a lot of white noise. I thought, the debates! I mean we just had 80 million people watch the first presidential debate, they are some of the few big moments. So I wanted to pick up on that and strip away a lot of the seriousness, the stress, pressure, and anxiety about [the debates] and zero in on the specific format. I also wanted to play with how candidates present themselves and why they present themselves in a certain way, and to satirize that element. I didn’t want to focus on the serious topics, but rather play with the formulaic process we sit through every four years. This year I would say it’s a little different but most other years you get the same formula, so I wanted to take that, strip it away, and satirize it.
BR: So what is your experience with improve and long form improve in the past?
AP: So I started improvising in high school because a teacher at my school is a cast member with Jet City Improv. Every year, they do a high school competition so she had started an improv group and she got a few of us together to go compete which started our high school improv group. We carried the group through the competition and actually won! Then I came to the UW and heard she was directing a long-form show at Jet City that was a satire of very special episodes, like after school specials, so I reached out and asked if she was still looking for a production manager/assistant director and if I could apply. So I worked on that show and got to watch the process come together and I took that directoral experience that I learned there and put it into this show.
A big question has continued to be, what are we satirizing? Are we satirizing the debates in the current election cycle are we satirizing the two parties themselves?
BR: What does it look like to direct a long-form improv show?
AP: That’s a question I get all the time. My process boils down to three main things which is skills, comfort, and format. And I think you develop them in that order. Skills is having your improvisers have a basic level of improv skills. Coming in with my cast some people had lots of experience, others had a tiny bit, some people had no prior improv experience, but at auditions I was like you have good instincts, you’re funny and you know what to do. So the first few weeks of our rehearsal process it was really relaxed and fun, just playing improv games and developing scenes together to create that baseline of skills. We also needed to create comfort improvising together because you really need a baseline of trust, the improvisers need to trust each other going forward especially when doing longer scene work, and long-form improv games. So you develop skills and then comfort through the process and then once I felt like people were at a good strong level, I inserted the format for the show. Which is kind of the most traditional directoral function of an improv show. It’s all improvised but you have certain [pre-determined] pieces in place. So we have it start at a debate and then we have it transition into [different] scenes. So the content of that debate and scenes are improvised but we need the actors/improvisers to know how to get from there to there and what to do to make sure it’s not just group of people running around on stage. So format is the last thing that comes in, but it also develops throughout the rehearsal process. I came in with sort of set ideas and we would try them out. Then I would get feedback from the improvisers and I would think like okay that doesn’t work at all or that doesn’t work with our skill sets. And so even with the format, it’s changed and developed as we’ve gone forward. But I think we have finally landed on what our structure will be. We have a few set roles each night. Two people will be the candidates and then we will have people who play the other characters in the scene work. Then at the end of the night, the audience elects one of the candidates.
BR: So are you using the traditional democrat and republican structure?
AP: My idea going into this show was that if it gets serious we’ve done something wrong. I kind of want to strip away the real politics of it in a sense, so I wanted to have two candidates because we are in a two party system, we only have two candidates in those debates. I also wanted them to play up the diametrically opposed views and how candidates and their parties will present themselves. They will kind of change themselves to be the opposite of the opposing party that year. So even if they don’t traditionally view something a certain way if the other party strongly takes the opposite view they’ll completely change the way they see it – and you see that happen a lot. If often happens gradually in politics, you’ll see gradual shifts of parties but this year especially everyone is kind of bending backwards to be the opposite, so I sort of wanted our candidates and our improvisers in moment to moment be listening to what the other candidate is saying and think ”okay how can I play the opposite of this? How can I take whatever is the opposing view and emphasize that?” Which I think is interesting in our first debate [in the show], because the format is one candidate talks about certain issues and their positions and then there is a scene about why that is an issue facing Americans and why this [candidate’s] solution would work and then other candidate gets a separate issue. So they’re not talking about the same thing but even in that I want my improvisers to be watching in how their solutions and their views on other topics can still come across as the opposite of each other. How to still play up that polarity and talk within separate issues – which can be a challenge but is something we see in American politics.
Even in this show where I am trying to make as a ridiculous satire, we still have that power and the ability to change perspectives.
BR: What is your personal involvement in politics?
AP: So I am an English and Political Science major, so [politics] is something I follow and study. I kind of always grew up around it, I was always interested in it. I think it’s a little genetic, my grandfather was a member of his city council in Indiana so I think I have inherited some of that. I have also been ingrained in it, with my family. I have two moms and so growing up my parents were only legally allowed to get married when I was 15, so I went to their wedding as a 16-year-old. Growing up in that, even though you’re just living your normal life, your family is oddly centered in a major political shift in America. Even though we were kind of detached, when the state of Washington passed Referendum 74, an issue directly impacting our family it was really kind of fascinating to see and be involved and grow up in the middle of those issues and see their impact being real clear.
BR: What role do you think art has in politics and social justice?
AP: So I think art is really interesting centered as a place where you can challenge certain ideas, where you can make fun of them, politically challenge them through art, or even reinforce certain ideas. We had a conversation when we were working out our format at our rehearsal about what to do as a break out [scene] – so we’re not just doing the same thing – and my initial idea was to do a vice presidential debate but as it kind of developed we were like “okay all these short form games we’re working on work better when we have six improvisers on stage. How can we get them all on stage?” The first idea someone had was for it to be a third party debate but then a cast member raised the issue and said “I don’t think that makes a good point.” She said if we do that then we have two parties having a more serious, even within our ridiculous universe, having a more serious conversation, and we’re kind of making fun of third parties, saying they are kooky and ridiculous. And I was like, that’s a really good point. Even in this show where I am trying to make as a ridiculous satire, we still have that power and the ability to change perspectives. So we’re making [our break out] a primary debate, we are cutting back to how we got [to the presidential debate]. I think that was sort of a wake-up moment, that even when you’re using this kind of comedy to satirize the basic elements of politics, there is power there and you’re showing something to an audience that impacts them and creates a point of view. And I think comedy and politics has a fascinating relationship especially in terms of television today. You see with The Daily Show or the former Colbert Report or Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, comedy being used as a medium to furiously comment on politics and there is an incredible power there and there are large audiences who use it as news sources. Or like Tina Fey as Sarah Palin on SNL, comedy has real legitimate impacts on how candidates are perceived and the results in the elections. You have to watch what you’re going to say and what you’re going to propagate through your comedic lens even when we are trying to do a show in the least political way possible. A big question has continued to be, what are we satirizing? Are we satirizing the debates in the current election cycle or are we satirizing the two parties themselves? And I decided I wanted to focus on satirizing the presentation [of debates] because I think it can get very real and very serious , and we want to present a general view of the American political system, reach a place that is open to all audiences in a sense, and offers a less contentious or personal lens on the show. And that’s a positive for me. I want it to be more escapist than a statement.