Patriotism, according to Merriam-Webster, is defined as “love for or devotion to one’s country.” People interpret this notion in many different ways, but in his new traveling show, “Patriot Act,” writer and performer Mike Schlitt approaches the concept as an exploration of what a person is in this country—their rights of citizenship and what they as patriots can do in response. “The main theme floats around the idea that all men are created equal and we, the people, rule this country,” Schlitt says.
The third stop on his inaugural tour will be at Ironclad Brewery on February 25 at 6 p.m. His goal is to get people active in politics, on any level, through thoughtful and smart comedy. Much like politics these days, Mike Schlitt says Patriot Act is like a game: There are sides on which people tend to play, and he’s operating as if there’s a shot-clock. He has 47 minutes to make people laugh, think and engage.
“I feel like there’s something inherently dramatic with someone telling a story and you see their time running out, and I like the game metaphor,” he says. “There’s a lot of back forth and that will change from night to night . . . it’s more than me talk and they listen; it’s me listen, too. What they say will change the scope of what I say and how I say it.”
As the campaign manager and UNCW Department of Theatre alum Ashley Sparks thought bringing Patriot Act to Wilmington was a good excuse to re-connect and collaborate with local arts. She still has ties to the arts community at large.
“I am always looking for reasons to create and bring good art to the South,” Sparks tells. “Wilmington is the smallest town on our tour, and for me it was important to share this work in a range of Southern cities. I’m curious how the conversations sparked would be different in a smaller town than in Atlanta or Richmond.”
Local performance artist Nicole Garneau will play hostess at the ILM show, while locals actor Adrian Monte and musician Matt Malloy will perform in Democracy Salon—a combination of songs, improv comedy and storytelling that will vary throughout the tour with each stop. Monte and company are planning to use Patriot Act’s informal conversation about the state of modern democracy to create improvised comedic scenes.
“The result will be kind of like your dreams after spending all day watching cable news coverage of a primary election!” Monte excites.
Contrary to the show’s name, it has nothing to do with the actual Patriot Act. The word “patriot” is meant to incite and make people think about what it means to them. The second half of the show is particularly audience-centered, with hands-on activities and interaction. Schlitt calls it a “Raucous Caucus.”
“It’s true participatory democracy, where we’re playing a game and getting the audience on their feet to do stuff, and think about what issues are important and how to galvanize people and incite people to take action on the issues,” he explains. “They should be simulated, maybe irritated, incited a little bit, so the next day they go out and go to a city council meeting, or voter registration drive . . . or whatever political engagement looks like to you—it’s different for everybody.”
It’s important to Schlitt and his team to remain unbiased with the show and campaign. There are no endorsements for candidates, but it does ask audiences to consider how the constitution and the “American Dream” have been interpreted.
“Patriot Act is asking us each to believe in the dream of democracy,” Sparks says. “No matter what side you are on these days, I think people aren’t extremely satisfied with the options.”
One question posed to audiences during the play is if they feel the country is moving in the wrong direction. “Ashley and I did a little test-run with about 25 people and every single one of them raised their hand,” Schlitt chuckles.
Schlitt asks questions about how individuals can make a difference and encourages others to chime on how they feel about the democratic process. Corporate personhood is one issue he’s particularly concerned with, and how it has impacted and even skewed American politics. The 14th Amendment, for example, inadvertently opened the door for corporate personhood and groups like Citizens United.
“There are probably 100 cases in the late 19th century and all through the 20th century where they go back, open that door about the 14th Amendment that didn’t say specifically ‘natural’ right to citizenship to a ‘natural’ person,” he explains. “Essentially, what I’m saying is that nine old white men, which is usually what the courts are made of, can really wreak havoc on the democratic process.”
While Schlitt and his team are planning to take the program to places that aren’t so receptive to his brand of comedy or political tendencies, right now he is a little concerned about “preaching to the choir.” He wants audiences who already are engaged and well-versed, as well as audiences who wish to learn from the forum. He will remain agnostic about issues and politics discussed.
“I have a specific point of view about racial injustice and wealth inequity in this country, and my politics tend to be progressive,” he tells. “I think pretty much everyone who walks through the door, if left to their own devices, are more or less on the same political page.”
Regardless of where audiences stand politically, they almost always express frustration with the system. In his work so far, Schlitt has found most people don’t vote in local elections.
“We all feel more or less to a certain degree that maybe our vote isn’t counting, maybe we have more important things to do in our lives, like getting your kids to daycare or just trying to pay the mortgage,” he says. “if someone is just somewhat engaged, in a way, they’re the perfect audience because they’re already kind of looking in the right direction.”
The goal isn’t for the show to be about the presidential campaign, but rather how our country’s political history relates to today. Current campaigns and new developments in politics may inspire points of conversation; the play itself is part of a larger project. The Patriot Act hopes to build a network of advocacy who can keep the interest and engagement going throughout communities.
Oh, and there are puppets, too.
Not unlike the dynamic of Muppets Statler and Waldorf criticizing from their balcony seats, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams are being incorporated into the mix. “John Adams is really both of those old men,” Schlitt quips. “They’re like the Yin and Yang of the American ideal . . . I like the idea of puppets because it keeps it fun. It’s really important when you’re talking about this stuff to laugh.”
Eventually, Schlitt would like to incorporate more research on local politics into each show, and local issues need to be a part of the discussion. This first leg of the tour, however, is a starting point and there hasn’t been time to pre-emptively add material before each show.
“There’s a lot of work ramping up just getting there,” he says of preparing for his first show in Atlanta. “What I’m hoping to do at every show is at least ask people what’s going on there—that’s part of the audience engagement, to talk about local things.”
Schlitt assesses how going into the show with less knowledge on local politics helps audience guide the conversation. “I’m literally a Carpetbagger, so I wouldn’t presume to go into any city that I don’t know very well and pretend I have any fucking idea of what’s going on,” he says with a laugh. “I’m curious, and I will ask questions, but I also know enough to know that a little knowledge is sometimes worse than none at all.”
During each election cycle there’s a push to get out the vote with young voters, and a lot of families try to get their kids familiar with politics early on, too. While this show’s great for high-school aged students and older, it may be inappropriate for younger audiences. “I would say the show is PG and does contain some explicit language,” Sparks adds.
Patriot Act is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a nonprofit arts service organization. Its ILM show is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 25, at Ironclad Brewery, with a suggested donation of $5 to $15.