Reflection and productive conversation on the nature of leadership and state of our democracy seem all the more urgent in these times. Virginia Tech’s School of Performing Arts is tackling this head-on as one of the national hosts of “The Race 2020,” which will be presented across the nation as part of a festival of performances leading up to the presidential election.

The Virginia Tech production will stream four live performances between Oct. 30 and Nov. 2 as part of the School of Performing Arts’ Fall 2020 online season. 

The piece is an interactive performance that combines spectacle and collaborative conversation to investigate the state of our democracy. The production blends performance, call and response, question and answer, dance, and karaoke into a participatory, highly choreographed, and at times, improvised exploration. In an era of increased partisanship and division, “The Race 2020” examines how theatre can promote active conversation about leadership and campaigns — a race to discover what binds us together and what tears us apart.

“The Race 2020” is being developed and offered at Virginia Tech in collaboration with The Civility Project, a hub for inquiry, skills sharing, and experimentation in civil dialogue and community trust-building. Both projects seek to inspire social repair through communication and healthy deliberation. Drawing on social science methods for building empathy and understanding, the collaboration is exploring how storytelling and human communication function in digital environments. 

The production aims to provide a platform in which healthy dialogue and discourse happen in the room with the audience; part of that challenge, in this digital environment, is to figure out what that engagement looks like.

“This theatrical experience uses entertainment, civic dialogue, and civic inquiry to ask,Who are the leaders we need right now?’” said co-director and theatre faculty member Taylor Wood. “While we are airing the show prior to the presidential election, because it’s a strong force acting upon us all, we’ll also look at leadership on a community and local level.

“We’re taking a nonpartisan approach in an effort to cut through the nation’s increasingly polarized society,” Wood added. “We want to encourage attendance and dialogue from everybody on the political spectrum, and we want our audience members not only to be entertained, but also to think critically about the leaders they would like to represent them.” 

Michael Rohd of Sojourn Theatre originally conceived “The Race” over the course of two years between 2006 and 2008 at the invitation of Georgetown University as a way to use theatre to provide space for civic inquiry and civic dialogue on its campus and in Washington, D.C. This adaptation is created in collaboration with Wood and co-director Courtney Surmanek, in conjunction with a creative team composed of Virginia Tech students, faculty, and alumni, as well as New River Valley community members

In addition to the production’s rehearsal process, members of the creative team are actively involved in facilitating workshops around the topic of civil discourse with various Virginia Tech classes and student groups, as well as with local high schools and community organizations across Southwest Virginia.

During a recent workshop of Creativity and Artistic Experience — a course taught by Alan Weinstein, as associate professor in the School of Performing Arts — students learned and practiced active listening techniques. In a guest presentation to the class, Todd Schenk, an assistant professor of urban affairs and planning in the School of Public and International Affairs, said, “As we engage in civil discourse, we want to be engaged in asking questions. We’re generally really good at talking, but less skilled at asking questions and really listening to the answers.” 

As the election grows closer each day, noted Susie Young, a first-year master of fine arts theatre student and production assistant on the project, “The Race 2020” is actively engaging and thinking about how Virginia Tech and the surrounding New River Valley community listens and learns with one another.

“Community has the power to uplift, celebrate, heal, remember,” Young said. “But we have to find it and find ourselves inside of it.​” 

“The Race 2020” will livestream with the following schedule:

  • Oct. 30 at 7 p.m.
  • Oct. 31 at 2 p.m.
  • Nov. 1 at 2 p.m.
  • Nov. 2 at 7 p.m.

Access free ticket reservation links and more information on “The Race 2020” here.

“The Race 2020” is produced by the School of Performing Arts and supported in part by a Major SEAD Grant from the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology

If you are an individual with a disability and desire an accommodation, email Susan Sanders or call 540-231-5200 during regular business hours prior to the event. 

—Written by Corrie Besse, a graduate student in arts leadership in the School of Performing Arts