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Gary Younge
Silence please for the real election drama

The introductory call of Roanoke's No Shame Theatre is that it's a place where "anything can happen." To which the crowd responds: "And it usually does."

The idea is simple. You pay $5, you get five minutes and the stage is yours. There are only a few rules, the most intriguing being that you have to keep your clothes on - apparently the state of Virginia has decreed that nudity and alcohol should not cohabit the same social space. No Shame Theatre went for the booze. Otherwise people do their own thing -poetry, stand-up, soliloquies, songs, you name it. It's like Amateur night at the Apollo in Harlem without the Tree of Hope and the Sandman.

Some of the performances are bizarre. One woman had a puppet monkey she called George - as in George Bush - and a bag full of different hats. Her entire skit consisted of putting a different hat on the Monkey every 15 seconds and matching it with a one-liner about Bush.
"George is clutching at straws," she'd say and on would go the straw hat. "George has been smoking something," and on goes a rasta hat. Much more cringe than fringe.

But most are good and some have a political edge. Todd Ristau, the founder of No Shame and director of the graduate programme in playwriting at Hollins University, near Roanoke, came up with the idea when he was in Iowa City and launched it on the back of a pick-up truck.

The night I went, Ristau performed a parody of the vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. It ended with Biden telling the audience: "Look I'm just going to lay in on the line, if you vote those people into the White House, you deserve whatever the fuck happens to you."

For a town of this size (96,000) Roanoke has an impressive cultural life. It boasts a symphony, an opera, an arthouse cinema (currently showing both Bill Maher's Religulous and Oliver Stone's W), several art galleries and museums of transport, science, transportation and history as well as one dedicated to the photography of Winston Link and another to African-American life in the town.

There are at least two decent independent book shops and Ristau is in the process of building another theatre. Moreover it is just about to see the opening of a huge new art museum - the Taubman , downtown. While I have been here, the local Jefferson centre has staged a production of Falstaff and played host to Wynton Marsalis.

"I'm passionately in love with this town, partially because of the way that this very admittedly blue collar community embraces a cultural life," Ristau says. "And there isn't that kind of antagonism between people in the community and the so-called artist or intellectual elites. There isn't that division. Everyone takes part in the cultural life kind of equally. And I think it's a testimony to the city in some ways that they had the vision to place the centre in the square in the middle of the town and say 'no - our cultural life is going to be in the heart of this community'."

And like the the No Shame Theatre , some culture has been geared towards the election. In 2004, culture was at the crux of the polarisation between Democrats and Republicans, with Michael Moore's Faranheit 9/11 and Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ, laying out the battle lines.

Nationally, this year it has played a far less prominent role, despite Sarah Palin's attempt to introduce hockey moms and Joe sixpack as the John and Jane Doe of American cultural life. But in Roanoke, thev ibrant cultural life has been quite politically engaged - albeit almost exclusively among liberals. Three weeks ago, Ann Trinkle, an artist who was the local delegate to the Democratic convention, put on an art auction called Fine Art To Elect A Fine man which raised $4,100.

"When I heard [Obama] speak four years ago at the Democratic convention in Boston, I was sold right then. He has touched something in a lot of us... not since John F Kennedy, it's all about the hope, it really is. It's about the best in each of us. He's really awoken that."

Meanwhile, another local artist, Katherine Devine, is dedicating herself to painting yard signs and handing them out.

Back at the No Shame Theatre, Ben Williams gives a minute-by-minute breakdown of his viewing the vice-presidential debate.

"9pm - My television is tuned to CNBC. Let's do this thing!

9.02pm - It has become clear that if I'm going to sit through another hour and 28 minutes of this horseshit, I'm going to need a drink.

9.03pm - The only remaining alcohol I have is a half-bottle of terrible legalised absinthe. Perhaps I'll just have to abstain tonight.

9.05pm - I pour myself a tall glass of absinthe. It clouds nicely upon the addition of sugar and cold water. It certainly looks the part, but inside it's pure poison. I have accidentally made the perfect drink for watching this debate.

9.10pm - Sarah Palin explains her views to the American people in the same way that you'd explain the basics of mathematics to a small child. Joe Biden, on the other hand, explains his views to America in the way that you'd try to talk a suicidal retarded man down from a ledge. They are both right."

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