The Mechanics of Political Convention Theater

By Julianne Hing Aug 28, 2008

I was in the Pepsi Center last night to hear Bill Clinton, John Kerry, Tammy Duckworth, Beau and Joe Biden speak and took this photo from my seat. Of course, from that high up they were maybe as big as fingernail clippings. Make that toenail clippings. The actual speakers are so tiny and folks higher up are forced to look at the jumbotrons to see the stage action clearly, but there is so much else happening in the audience that it’s so easy to get distracted by the real excitement on the floor. Have you noticed, while watching the convention from your homes, the placards that pop up from the audience as one organized unit, as if by magic, during the speeches? I counted no fewer than four different signs during Joe Biden’s twenty-minute speech last night, including American flags, vertical “BIDEN”’s, a red “McCain – More of the Same” placard, and a final “Obama Biden” navy blue card. From my seat in the nosebleeds, this is what I saw. At various intervals during the speech, sixty or so men and women wearing neon green traffic cop vests poured silently, simultaneously out of the section entrances down every aisle of the stadium, with placards concealed in black trash bags. They would lean down and pass signs down the rows and audience members, waiting for the cue, would raise them all at once with cheers and screams and whistles. Every time it was incredible, a real feat of supreme logistical organization. According to Shelly Loos, the floor chief who coordinates the sign distribution, signs have to be on the floor six to eight minutes before they’re supposed to be displayed. The effect is incredible. The audience appears to be responding spontaneously to the speakers in a visually, thematically unified voice. Yet the entire exercise is meticulously coordinated behind the scenes. The DNC has a lighting designer, a production designer, and audio designers, some of whom have produced Super Bowl halftime shows, the Olympics, Madonna’s live tours, even the Lion King movie premiere! The lines are blurred these days, when the actual political Convention rules and processes are mere formalities. Are we watching a weeklong infomercial? The electoral politics version of the People’s Choice Awards? More importantly, how can I get me one of those “MICHELLE” signs?